After nearly two years on the sidelines, Leslie Smith will step back into the cage on July 12 when she takes on Sinead Kavanagh at Bellator 224 in Thackerville, Oklahoma.
The bout, which takes place in Bellator’s burgeoning featherweight division, will be Smith’s second time fighting at 145 pounds, with her last matchup in the weight class coming back in October of 2011. Following such a long time out of competition, the California native couldn’t be more ready to get back in the ring.
“[I’m] super excited,” Smith told The Body Lock.
“I feel like I’m right back… right back where I like to be. It’s been a mission getting back in there, and I’m really excited to have the chance to go fight and do what I love again.”
Bellator 224 will be the second time that “The Peacemaker” has fought under the Bellator banner, having been a part of Bellator 7 back in 2009 during the early days of the promotion. During her time away from the cage. Smith has been working towards a Labor and Employee Relations Bachelor of Science degree, something she believes goes hand-in-hand with her profession.
“I feel like my schooling and Bellator are on a big wheel together… This is my second return to school, and it’s go, go, go! I’m having fun, I like doing online classes and I like that I’m learning.” Smith said, “I find it actually really interesting, so I’m glad that I’m having a pleasant time with [it] and I’m excited about learning.”
Leslie Smith’s return to fighting
It will also be the first fight for “The Peacemaker” since her release from the UFC, which came after the promotion considered her contract fulfilled after paying the 18-fight veteran her show and win bonus when her opponent for UFC Fight Night 128 missed weight. Smith believes the release was retaliation by the UFC for her involvement in Project Spearhead, an organization aimed at forming a fighter’s union inside the premiere mixed martial arts promotion.
“My platform was effectively taken away by being cut from the UFC.” She said, “It put a climate of fear and people were really reluctant to voice their support for Project Spearhead and they were very worried they were gonna get found out and be punished for it, retaliated against, just like I was.”
The 36-year-old went on to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that she had been retaliated against for engaging in protected union activity and that the UFC improperly classified the promotion’s fighters as independent contractors. The charges were ultimately dismissed by the board, which in Smith’s opinion was the downfall of the unionization effort.
“The NLRB right now is very non-worker friendly. It’s pro-management, and they’re making a lot of decisions that are very pro-management and not beneficial for the workers.”
She said, “the results that we got were not encouraging for people to stand up for their rights right now, so while the idea of Project Spearhead is to educate and to help establish whether or not the UFC fighters are independent contractors or employees… I don’t have time right now to be sitting around and tweeting to everybody, and I also don’t have the platform because I haven’t fought in almost two years.”
It’s different over at Bellator
While “The Peacemaker” fought hard to get athletes classified as employees in the UFC, she doesn’t feel the same need to do so in Bellator because she feels the promotion treats fighters more like independent contractors.
“I am really happy to say that there is a lot of differences between Bellator and the control that Bellator has over their independent contractors compared to the situation where I came up with Project Spearhead.” Smith said, “Over at Bellator there’s not USADA stalking people and forcing them to find whereabouts, and there’s no uniforms that people have to wear, and there are cross-promotional opportunities.”
And that’s the biggest difference in Smith’s opinion, the flexibility in which Bellator allows their athletes to compete in other promotions.
“They’re pretty cool about letting people fight outside of the promotion. My teammate Keri [Melendez] got to fight for Glory after signing with Bellator, and we just saw the RIZIN and Bellator crossover… that’s the hallmark of an independent contractor relationship, is the opportunity to go out and pursue your business another place. I don’t see a clear path to a union or the same need for one, because there are so many more opportunities for fighters in Bellator.”
Fighting at featherweight
Focused on fighting more than anything else at the moment, Smith feels that the layoff from competition has been good for her overall and that she’ll do well in the 145-pound weight class.
“I feel amazing. It’s pretty nice, I feel like having that time was a good time for me to focus and really sharpen all my skills, and to get an outside perspective, to be able to be a corner, and a good teammate, and a good training partner…for me to get my body healthy.”
She said, “I feel strong and good…usually at this point I feel frail, and I feel relatively weak… I’ve been fighting my whole career depleted, and I’ve been doing crazy no carb things, and I’m really excited about how good I feel right now. It’s wonderful. 145 is a great thing for me.”
Over the span of her career, the California native has fought across three different weight classes, and though she won’t outright rule out a drop to flyweight within the promotion, she thinks that featherweight is the division to be in right now.
“I’ve always just kind of been chasing the action….in Bellator that’s where the excitement is, that’s where they have Julia Budd. I’m excited she’s gonna be headling the card. I’m definitely looking to wrap up my fight, shower up and change, then head right back out to the front row so I can get a good view of whoever is gonna be my next opponent.”
Chasing the title
With Budd defending the women’s 145-pounds belt at Bellator 224, Smith could easily thrust herself into the featherweight title picture with a standout performance, and that’s something she’s counting on.
“That’s what is driving me forward right now, is the idea that I have gone through a whole lot, and I’ve gone through this layoff, and I’ve gone through some pretty high highs in these past two years and some pretty low lows, but this feels like it’s the culmination of my hard work.” Smith said, “I think that’s what every single MMA fighter sets out to do, is to become champion, and it’s been a curvy up and down road, but I think I’m finally seeing that goal realized.”
Before she gets a title fight, however, she’ll need to get through Sinead Kavanagh. The Irish veteran has had her struggles as of late going 2-3 in her last five outings, and “The Peacemaker” isn’t worried about her opponent as much as herself.
“I know that she brings a boxing pedigree to the table and that’s exciting… It’s probably gonna be a battle between my ego, my ego is probably going to be like “box the boxer!” but ya know,” says Smith, “I definitely have a game plan and what I want to do, and it involves the fact that I am a much more dynamic fighter with a lot more MMA experience, and that I have a lot more tools in my tool bag that I wanna use.”
Ready to put on an electrifying performance come July 12, there’s no denying that the past few years have been a roller coaster for Smith. While happy with her new promotional home and excited to fight again, she still advocates for fighters’ rights and has come out in support of Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, a staunch advocate of extending the Ali Act to cover MMA fighters.
Though she isn’t looking to get into politics herself anytime soon, Smith is passionate about furthering her education on the issues and is enjoying the process—even if things don’t turn out the way she’d always like them to.
“I’m not so bummed about Project Spearhead as I used to be because I’m learning a whole lot right now,” she said.
“I feel a lot better about what I can admit was a failure to start a union inside the UFC because I understand that these things do take time and it’s a process, and I’m having a lot of fun learning about the processes and maybe I will get to something in the future political or otherwise, but none of that’s gonna happen unless I keep my nose to the grindstone right now, and keep on fighting and winning, and keep on studying and do what I need to do.”