Bellator inks former UFC contender Leslie Smith, who plans move to featherweight

Leslie Smith (R), shown posing with Cris “Cyborg” Justino prior to UFC 198, has signed a multi-fight deal with Bellator and plans to compete as a featherweight. (Getty Images)
Leslie Smith (R), shown posing with Cris “Cyborg” Justino prior to UFC 198, has signed a multi-fight deal with Bellator and plans to compete as a featherweight. (Getty Images)

Leslie Smith hasn’t fought for a year which, as her primary way of making a living, makes things a bit difficult when it comes time to write the rent check each month.

She’s taught classes and was inspired by coaching on the Wimp2Warrior, in which average people get to train and then have a fight.

She also began attending Rutgers University, where she got perfect 100 scores in both employment law and sports labor relations.

But she’s a fighter and the itch to compete didn’t fade since her last scheduled UFC bout. She was supposed to fight Aspen Ladd on April 21, 2018, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in what was the final bout of her contract. Ladd missed weight, and the UFC canceled the bout.

It paid Smith both her show money and her win bonus and terminated her deal, making her a free agent. But perhaps because Smith was the public face of efforts to unionize UFC fighters, offers from other promotions didn’t come rolling in right away.

But thanks to her friendship with UFC fighter Gilbert Melendez and his wife, Keri, a Bellator fighter, Smith finally has a new fighting home. She has signed a deal with Bellator and will return to action later this year. Smith, 36, fought in Bellator once before, when she lost to Kerry Vera in 2009.

She was beaten down emotionally in many ways by battling with the UFC over her efforts to unionize. She said she believes the environment will be vastly different with Bellator.

“What I’m so excited about signing with Bellator for is that I do not think they do not have that climate of fear that was present in the UFC,” Smith said. “They’re a company that cares. They listen to their fighters. They put their fighters first and they give them the opportunity to have sponsors and there is a lot of expression that can happen inside those deals with the sponsors.”

She’s going to fight at featherweight instead of at bantamweight, where she ended in the UFC. She said she never had trouble making 135 and had fought at flyweight a few times.

One of the benefits of her time without fighting, she’s done research and gotten more information on her diet and her metabolism and how best to create a nutrition plan. She discovered that she was anorexic and wasn’t eating nearly enough.

Previously she was training four times a day and using 2,000 calories. Now she’s training twice a day but is at 4,000 calories. She’s even able to eat carbs, which were a no-no before. Her research showed that previously, she was carbohydrate deficient.

“I’ve been having fun eating a lot of food and it’s really fun to know that for my next fight feeling strong, not frail. It doesn’t make any sense, but I’d feel frail at the time I was about to fight when I should have been feeling my strongest.”

She hasn’t given up on her dream of unionizing the fighters and pointed out how long it took Major League Baseball to finally unionize. She said the first attempt to unionize baseball players came in the late 19th century that was called “The Brotherhood.” It wasn’t until a Supreme Court ruling and the persistence of Marvin Miller more than seven decades later that it finally came to fruition.

She said she was jaded for a while by the lack of public support from UFC fighters for the cause, but said she’s over that. She said that while fighters have short careers, which many point to as a reason against unionization, the difference between supporting the effort and not comes down to how she believes the athletes are categorized.

Some fighters feel they could battle for a union and for a collective bargaining agreement but never see the benefits of it.

“I think that’s just the difference between being a fighter and being a martial artist,” Smith said. “The more we see martial artists coming through, the more they’re going to embrace the opportunity to do the right things and make whatever sacrifices they need to make in order to see the sport go further.

“I feel at the heart of it, a fighter is there to beat their opponent and a martial artist is there because they have reverence for the sport. In that reverence for the sport, they have respect for their opponents and for themselves and that’s what it comes down to ultimately. The UFC fighters need to find that respect for themselves and the sport and their opponents that prevents them from going along with what it is that’s happening right now. It’s pretty disrespectful and isn’t respecting the athletes.”

Bellator president Scott Coker said he expects Smith to make a run at the featherweight title, held by Julia Budd.

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