Bellator featherweight title challenger Leslie Smith has applied lessons from studying labor movements in college to her approach to fighting. One of her main takeaways has been that organizing people requires more finesse than power – and conviction to see through the mission.
When Smith looks at Georges St-Pierre’s inability to take a boxing match with Oscar De La Hoya, she draws a direct line between the former UFC champ’s plight and his decision to abandon an effort to create a collective bargaining agreement for fighters.
Smith, who on Friday rematches Cris Cyborg for the title at Bellator 259, believes St-Pierre would be able to take a fight with De La Hoya if the Ali Act was applied to MMA. The UFC contract St-Pierre signed in 2016 would be prevented by the law that protects fighters from onerous long-term contracts, she said, and the promotion wouldn’t have the power to block any future fights.
UFC President Dana White has refused to entertain the idea of loaning out St-Pierre to face De La Hoya in a match promoted by Triller Fight Club, bashing the upstart promotion’s repeated efforts to get his permission.
But Smith also said St-Pierre might have prevented such an outcome before that if he’d seen things through with the MMA Athletes Association, a short-lived organizing effort in which he took a major role.
“One of the things about the Ali Act is that it prevents these long-term contracts, and that is exactly what Dana White is using in order to prevent GSP from having this fight,” Smith told MMA Fighting. “But you know what would have made an even bigger difference in all that is if GSP had stuck with his union organizing effort that he started in 2017. I believe that they had the very best setup of leaders that everyone would have followed, and that if they had had conviction and stuck with it that something would have happened.
“As we know, they abandoned that effort, and GSP got a contract to fight in the UFC for a title after several years off, immediately after making that [union] effort. That would have made the biggest difference if they hadn’t done that.”
In 2017, St-Pierre said his new contract with the UFC didn’t mean he was done with the MMAAA, but the group later fizzled as it failed to gain support from current fighters. Smith later co-founded her own group to organize fighters called Project Spearhead. The group sought to recruit 30 percent of active UFC roster to sign union authorization cards that would trigger a review to determine whether they are independent contractors – as they are currently classified – or employees with the right to form a union.
Although Project Spearhead didn’t meet that goal, Smith continues to advocate for fighters organizing to create a collective bargaining agreement that she believes would balance the scales of power between the fighters and promotions. In the meantime, she is studying labor at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations as she reboots her MMA career in Bellator after her release from the UFC triggered a labor complaint.
Since picking up the books, Smith not only sees the fight game differently, but the actual fighting in the cage, which she said will help her overcome the challenge of beating Cyborg, who stopped her inside one round when they met in the UFC five years ago.
Rather than meet force with force and power with power, Smith aims to use a bit more of that finesse to outwit Cyborg.
“Before, my fighting mentality was I don’t care if I get hit, as long as I get to hit them back,” she said. “I just had so much fun throwing punches that they weren’t even always accurate. I was just like, ‘Woo, look at me, I’m doing it!’ And it’s more important to do it well than it is just to do it.”