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Leslie Smith: Questionable title shots another way the UFC is ‘screwing the fighters over’

Leslie Smith
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Now a member of Bellator’s featherweight division, Leslie Smith finds herself in the thick of the title hunt.

She’s only 1-1 since joining the promotion last July, but given her reputation and the relatively thin contenders’ line at 145 pounds, Smith is likely one or two wins away from a rematch with champion Cris Cyborg (it was Smith who welcomed Cyborg to the UFC four years ago, losing to Cyborg by first-round TKO).

MMA Fighting spoke to Smith prior to her most recent booking at Bellator 241—an event that was postponed amid concerns about the coronavirus—where she was supposed to fight the streaking Jessy Miele, with the winner presumably moving up the rankings.

Though Smith couldn’t say for sure how close she is to a title shot, she sees her current situation as being clearer than that of other championship hopefuls in her old stomping grounds in the UFC. Smith has long been an outspoken advocate for improved fighter rights and bargaining power, and she made her feelings clear when asked what she thought about fighters like Yoel Romero and Jose Aldo receiving title shots while on losing streaks.

“I think it’s unfortunate because it makes a mockery of merit-based aspects of a fighter working their way up to reach a title shot,” Smith said. “I think [Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero is an appealing fight], however do I think that it should take precedence over everybody else that’s worked their way up for a title? No, I don’t.

“That’s kind of the whole point of, like, winning, is that you’re supposed to be working your way up and getting higher ranked and getting a title shot. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any promotion putting together an exciting fight, it’s a superfight basically, it’s a superfight with a title on the line, but I think it would be nice if there were two categories: A superfight category and then a merit-based championship category.”

Smith parted ways on the UFC on acrimonious terms in April 2018. Despite being on a two-fight win streak, the 37-year-old was essentially bought out of her contract after she declined to face Aspen Ladd at UFC Atlantic City due to Ladd missing weight. Smith proposed that the UFC extend her contract in exchange for her taking the bout, but instead she was payed her show and win money for the booking and the last fight of her contract was considered fulfilled.

That’s one example of an issue that Smith feels would be handled better if fighters had more say at the negotiating table. She founded Project Spearhead in 2018 in an effort to unionize MMA athletes and give them greater control over their contracts and the championship opportunities that can be so vital to their careers.

“Absolutely,” Smith said in regards to whether a union would lead to less controversial title shots. “It’s just another example of the promotion doing what’s best for the promotion and screwing the fighters over in the process. For a fighter, for anybody in any kind of job to have a clear path towards an objective, that’s what anybody wants in any situation. And to have that clear path totally taken away and to have a ranking change and to not get the opportunities that a person thinks that they should have earned, I mean that’s super f*cked.

“And it affects the money. It’s not just that getting a title shot is cool. There’s a lot of money involved. There’s more sponsorships involved. When you get that shot, you get a lot more eyes on you. Your current sponsorships are gonna go up because your following is gonna go up and you’re going to get opportunities outside of whatever is already happening. Maybe you get to be in some movies, maybe you get to go and make a bunch of other appearances, maybe you can be on a talk show, I don’t know. But the opportunities come when you get more publicity. So for the promotion to deny the opportunity to somebody to get the publicity of a title fight simply because the UFC doesn’t feel like putting it on or because they think that somebody else is going to sell more tickets, I mean, that’s fine but don’t call it a sport, call it entertainment. Because that’s all it is. They might as well have the ref jump in and start choking people out so they can justify or not justify or just keep that f*cking entertainment aspect going. It screws with everybody’s money and it’s unfortunate that fighters have not gotten their act together to realize that it is only gonna ever be in their best interests to stand up for themselves because the UFC will never look out for them.”

Leslie Smith battles Arlene Blencowe at Bellator 233 on Nov. 8, 2019, in Thackerville, Okla.
Bellator MMA

Having to juggle conflicts in and out of the cage hasn’t overwhelmed Smith yet, and she actually relishes the increased workload at times. She’s currently working towards her bachelor’s of science in labor and employer relations at Rutgers and is one of those students who enjoys extra reading (“It is really fun,” she said).

After that, she plans to pursue a master’s and then go to law school to study labor law and employment law. Maybe Smith can fit a world title bout in there too because even going to war on two fronts, she’s got plenty of fight left in her.

“Yes, the situation in combat sports is a major influence for why I have started studying [labor law], but I don’t think anybody looks forward to the time they’re done fighting,” Smith said. “That’s like looking forward to the party being over. Who wants the party to end? I don’t want the party to end.”

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