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Leslie Smith plans legal action against UFC after having contract bought out in wake of union efforts

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Leslie Smith might go from fighting for the UFC to battling the UFC in court.

Smith, an MMA veteran, told Ariel Helwani on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour that she is planning on taking legal action against the UFC for essentially buying out her contract last week prior to UFC Atlantic City. Smith is a leader of the fighter unionization effort and interim president of Project Spearhead, which wants the U.S. government to determine whether or not UFC fighters are employees or independent contractors.

On Friday, Smith’s scheduled opponent, Aspen Ladd, missed weight by 1.8 pounds. Smith, who was on the last fight of her contract, said she proposed to the UFC that she would still take the bout if the UFC extended her deal. Per Smith, the UFC instead paid her the show money and win bonus on the current contract and said it now considers her a free agent.

Smith was on a two-fight winning streak and a top-10 ranked fighter in the women’s bantamweight division. She called the UFC’s actions, in what she believes was basically paying her to go away, “unprecedented” and she plans on taking up claims with the federal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and a court in her home state of California.

“It’s my opinion that what the UFC did was illegal,” Smith said. “Because they have created a situation where it encourages a climate of fear where the other people in the UFC on the roster are going to be fearful of publicly organizing and standing up for their rights.

“By creating a climate of fear, that violates federal law. That’s the whole point of the National Labor Relations Board and the laws that are in there.”

Smith said she is currently consulting with New York labor attorney Lucas Middlebrook, who is an advisor for Project Spearhead and known in MMA circles for being Nick Diaz’s lawyer in front of the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) in 2015.

“I am surprised,” Smith said of the UFC parting ways with her. “I think that it opens up an examination of how they feel about my activities in organizing the fighters recently. I think by doing unusual behavior, it’s going to ask what are the unusual circumstances leading to this?”

The UFC does not always give fighters their show money and win bonus if they do not compete, especially if deciding to do so is completely in a fighter’s control. It’s also rare for the UFC to pay out that money and consider it a contract buy out.

Smith said she felt like she could not take the fight after the UFC offered her the $62,000 total sum, because it would go against everything she has preached about as a labor leader. And she feels the same way about taking legal action against the UFC.

“I feel like if I didn’t do that at this point, it wouldn’t be living up to everything I’ve been talking about,” Smith said. “That’s why I couldn’t take the fight once they offered me the $62,000, because then I would be fighting for free. And that’s been my whole point this whole time. We shouldn’t be manipulated by pride. We need to look at ourselves as a business and fight for the large sums of money that we deserve.”

If Smith succeeds, her litigation could lead to the NLRB determining that UFC fighters are indeed employees like she believes there are. Smith launched a GoFundMe campaign Monday evening for the purpose of paying for legal fees.

The surprise of being let go in the way she was partially comes from having seen UFC president Dana White and matchmaker Sean Shelby and not necessarily having negative interactions with them since Project Spearhead launched earlier this year, Smith said.

“I guess in a way I guess I was almost hoping that Project Spearhead would be significant enough for them to be a little bit worried about it,” Smith said. “And then the fact that they did this unprecedented thing where they bought out my contract, so that I wouldn’t be around anymore kind of shows that they do think Project Spearhead is pretty significant.”

Smith said she’s still “100 percent” behind the Project Spearhead push, despite no longer being eligible for a potential union because she’s not a UFC fighter anymore. She said they are on track to get the 30 percent of UFC fighters to sign cards they need in order to bring that to the NLRB, which would trigger the process of determining whether UFC fighters are misclassified as independent contractors. The deadline for the signatures, Smith said, is Feb. 12, 2019.

“The important thing now is to make it so that other fighters don’t have to take the fall,” Smith said. “They don’t have to do anything publicly in order to protect themselves right now. All they have to do is sign authorization cards. That’s it. Nobody will ever know. The National Labor Relations Board will never release their names.”