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Leslie Smith ‘super encouraged’ by fighter response to Kobe Bryant union question

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Leslie Smith asked Kobe Bryant about a union for fighters at the UFC Athlete Retreat.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Kobe Bryant wasn’t known for assists during his NBA career. But maybe when the history book on MMA is written, it’ll include a mark in that category next to his name.

Leslie Smith had no idea what Bryant would say when she asked him about athlete unions during Bryant’s talk during the UFC Athlete Retreat on Sunday in Las Vegas. She decided to ask anyway.

“I wished I had Google’d his stance on players associations,” Smith told MMA Fighting with a laugh.

Smith, a UFC women’s bantamweight, has long been an advocate for fighter rights and has been outspoken in her belief that fighters need to organize for balance between athlete and promoter. So, she asked Bryant what he thought about fighters organizing, not having any idea what his response would be.

Bryant, an all-time great basketball player speaking at the UFC Athlete Retreat in Las Vegas over the weekend, answered extremely in the affirmative for unions. Athletes in leagues like the NBA, NFL and MLB are a part of an association that is set up to look out for their interests as a whole and collectively bargain with the leagues as representatives of the players. The UFC nor MMA as a sport have anything like that right now.

“Even us as players, we have our union meetings, and we’re normally at each other’s throats competing against each other,” Bryant told Smith, in a sequence that was captured on video. “But we understand completely that a rising tide raises all boats. So when you guys have this union and you guys can operate together, on the same page together, it will 100 percent fortify the sport and make the sport better, not just for the present but for future generations that are coming. It’s extremely important.”

Fighters could be heard cheering for Smith’s question and even more for Bryant’s answer. Smith said the reaction from her peers afterward was similar. Plenty of hand shakes and fist bumps, she said. Smith said she was unsure what other fighters would say, but was pleased with the result.

“Super encouraged,” she said. “It was great how many people came up and said something, because it’s been hard to gauge. Fighters are hard to gauge. That’s kind of a sign of a successful fighter — you can’t tell what they’re thinking or feeling.”

Recent efforts to form an organization of fighters, like the Professional Fighters Association (PFA) and MMA Athletes Association (MMAAA), seem to have hit roadblocks. Smith was in the PFA until last fall, but now does not consider herself a part of any group, with the exception of the MMA Fighters Association (MMAFA), which is currently focused on getting boxing’s Ali Act extended to MMA through Congress.

That doesn’t mean Smith no longer wants to unionize fighters. She does. But she wants to go about it more quietly. Behind the scenes. From the grassroots. No big proclamations or press conferences or media calls.

“We need to ground it and we need to get everyone together,” Smith said. “I’m not gonna be making any announcements of any kind about the next steps or the plan or the timeline of any events for a union. There’s not much I'm gonna say.

“We’ve had a long winter, now we need to get ready for spring and we can’t go out right now.”

Smith, 34, said she appreciated the retreat for the most part. The Bryant speech was good, she said, but didn’t really apply to the vast majority of fighters. He was talking about investing hundreds of millions of dollars while most fighters are living fight purse to fight purse.

“We haven't even hit the $1 million mark five years into fighting — 10 years into fighting,” Smith said. “So it really wasn’t that relatable.”

The UFC Performance Institute was incredible impressive, Smith said, and she’s “excited about using it,” wanting to take advantage of it as much of possible. While she knows the UFC built the state-of-the-art facility, which has a multitude of technologies for strength and conditioning and nutrition for fighters free of charge, with its heart in the right place, Smith said she and other fighters feel like they would have gained more from just getting those millions spread out among them.

“I cannot be the only person who heard that and thought, well why didn’t you just give us money?” Smith said. ... “As far as my immediate improvement and even long-term improvement, paying me more would have made a much bigger impact than opening the institute.”

Smith, 34, is hoping communication among athletes at the retreat put the organization efforts back on track. But she conceded it’s not time to go full speed ahead right now.

“It’s not time for the next phase just yet, but hopefully when it is everyone will be ready,” Smith said.

For now, Smith returns to California from Las Vegas with a little affirmation in her cause from one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

“We just need all the fighters to know and understand that the union is a good thing,” Smith said. “There’s so much anti-union rhetoric out there that it’s hard to get past that. … The education aspect was the most important thing to me. I will admit that it was a gamble, but I was really happy about how it turned out.”