The marvel of Amanda Nunes having the pluck to take a fight against Sarah Kaufman on a dozen day’s notice is only trumped by Leslie Smith’s decision to replace the injured Nunes four days later. It’s all been a whirlwind.
Last Monday, Kaufman was still on schedule to meet Shayna Baszler at The Ultimate Fighter Nations card in Quebec City on April 16. Then began the carousel of faces. Baszler got injured and became Nunes, then Nunes fell out and became Smith, all in less than a week.
Now Smith, who last fought in the Invicta FC cage as a flyweight against Barb Honchak in December, gets to make her UFC debut on eight days' notice. That might not seem ideal (or even reasonable) by ordinary standards, but the California native is thrilled get a redo against the Canadian Kaufman, whom she fought a year ago at this time in what was one of the more memorable bouts of 2013.
And for as action-filled as that fight was, Smith concedes that she was holding herself back.
"The first time that I fought Sarah I thought that she was really going to take advantage of the fact that I come charging in," Smith told MMA Fighting. "In the heat of it, I usually get all excited, I’m like, whoa, we’re fighting, and I sort of dive in headfirst. I [anticipated] she was going to try and take advantage of that, so I really toned myself down for that entire fight.
"One of the coaches that I work with, he had said that if at the end of every round if you’re not exhausted as you can possibly be, then you’re not trying hard enough. And that’s where the training comes in, is to be able to recover in that minute in-between rounds and then come back out and go just as crazy hard as you can. I did not go as hard as I could because I was trying to be smart. So I held back the first time that I was fighting her."
Smith lost a split decision victory the first time to Kaufman. Since then their paths have gone off in different directions only to intersect again in French Canada. Kaufmann debuted against Jessica Eye at UFC 166 in Houston, a split decision loss that was overturned later when Eye failed her post-fight drug test (marijuana). Smith, meanwhile, dropped down to flyweight, beat Jennifer Maia in a title eliminator before coming up short against Honchak in the title fight itself.
As soon as Baszler had to pull out the TUF Nations Finale, Smith began campaigning for the chance to stand in against Kaufmann one more time. But not before clearing it first with Invicta FC’s president, Shannon Knapp, who has become a springboard for women in fighting.
"Shannon is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever had the pleasure to come in contract with in the fight world, and she really is 100 percent all about the fighters," Smith says. "So before I did any kind of asking or petitioning for the fight or ever took a breath in the direction, I called Shannon and I asked her, ‘can I petition for this?’ Shannon was super-supportive. She was like, ‘I know you really want this rematch, and I just want what’s best for you.’ Everyone says they want what’s best for somebody, but Shannon actually does what’s best for somebody. She made it possible."
Now Smith’s UFC bound.
Luckily, the timing worked out well for Smith to raise her hand in earnest. She has been training in Las Vegas, helping Miesha Tate prepare for her April 19 bout against Liz Carmouche in Orlando. Because the fight will happen at 135 pounds instead of the 125 she was growing accustomed to, she’s already "hovering in that range."
"My body’s doing a little happy dance," she says. "And I’m still eating."
But the thing that Smith likes better is the sort of the pressure-free situation she finds herself in -- she’s wrapping up a training camp that never had the familiar rigors of a training camp.
"There’s something about the enthusiasm and excitement," she says. "I would never choose not to have a full training camp if I had the option -- however, getting it on a week’s notice means that I only have to go through the fun parts of it. I was already training as a hard training camp, but totally stress free, which was great. Then finding out about this, and in the short notice, it was like I got a wheel to run around doing cartwheels, and then by the time the whoa I’m really fighting! sets in, I don’t have that same fatigue that comes at the end of a super-crazy training camp. So this is the best thing possible."
Since she agreed to the fight, Smith says people on Twitter and Facebook have been sending her messages of how the "MMA gods" have spoken by presenting this rematch with Kaufman. Though she laughs that the fight might have materialized under any such celestial government -- and says she’s "super-bummed" for both Baszler and Nunes having to pull out with injuries -- she doesn’t deny a certain collusion with the forces behind the curtain.
"It’s great to hear," she says. "I feel like, as part of my personal philosophy, if that when an individual tries as hard they can at everything around them to do the right thing -- like walking down the street and picking up trash, doing what you know is the right thing, getting up and making the right food, making the right choices, and not being lazy, not on just one aspect but in everything -- I feel like the universe tends to come together for that.
"I’m not saying that the universe is my bitch or anything, that’s not what I’m saying. It wasn’t like I said I want this fight and the world was like okay, but it just ended up working out. Luck favors the well-prepared, and I feel like I was well-prepared to get this fight, and I’m well-prepared once this fight starts."