Leslie Smith looks to do the impossible: Beat Cyborg

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist

It's not a vacation by any stretch for Leslie Smith, not when she's only hours away from standing across the cage from the most ferocious female fighter in the world. But if truth be told, she's kind of enjoying her trip to Brazil.

As, she's quick to add, just about every trip she's made since she signed with the UFC, where her travels have taken her to Mexico City; Brisbane, Australia; and now, Curitiba, Brazil, for a bout on Saturday against Cris "Cyborg" Justino on the main card of UFC 198.

Smith is a pleasant person and easy to talk to, who just so happens to be on a business trip that she's making a quasi-vacation.

"Don't tell my coach," she said, chuckling. "He wants me to fight at home all the time, but I'll tell you – I love the traveling thing. … It's about a million times better fighting in another country."

She makes it a point to visit historic points of interest on her trips, as well as botanical gardens and general outdoorsy spots.

"When," she asked, "can you go on trips like these and have someone else pay for them?"

It's a good point. But the fun and games will end sometime early Saturday, when she'll have to confront the reality that her trip was no vacation at all but rather a fight against the most fearsome knockout artist in the brief history of women's mixed martial arts.

Leslie Smith says she's not afraid of Cris 'Cyborg' Justino. (Getty)
Leslie Smith says she's not afraid of Cris 'Cyborg' Justino. (Getty)

Justino is close to a 20-1 favorite in the sports books that are even taking action on the fight. And Smith, who is 2-1 in the UFC and 8-6-1 overall in her MMA career, has heard plenty of folks worrying about her safety.

She's not, interestingly, one of them, though there have been many folks not brave enough to walk into a cage with Justino who have been more than willing to tell Smith via social media all the doom that is about to befall her.

Despite the odds, despite the taunts of so-called fans, Smith is going to show up on Saturday and will fight to win. She's been in four Fight of the Night matches in her career, all of which have been in Invicta, and is the woman who was so angry when the referee stopped her fight with Jessica Eye in Mexico City after her cauliflower ear burst.

Hate is a powerful word, and Smith isn't about to go there, even though she's not crazy about the negativity that has been spewed at her by some segments of the fan base.

"There are a lot of people who like to talk about proving the haters wrong and that they weren't going to rest [until they did so], but they then realized they always had a lot more to prove wrong," she said. "Well, that's not what motivates me. I think that being motivated for the sake of hatred is, well … I know people use the word hate flippantly without putting the full significance on it. But the word is hate.

"And I feel like even though it's easy to be motivated by hate, by the dark side, that's limited. Eventually, you run out of it because eventually you're going to run out of haters. Eventually, you're not going to care about the haters. I prefer to motivate myself on the other side. I want to be able to prove everyone who believes in me right."

Listen to her talk and she honestly believes she can beat Justino, a fearsome fighting machine who lost her pro fighting debut via knee bar submission as a 19-year-old and has gone on to win every fight since.

Justino is 15-1 with one no contest and has scored 13 KOs or TKOs. The only fighters to have gone the distance with her were Vanessa Porto, in Justino's second pro fight, and Yoko Takahashi in 2008.

The Smith-Justino bout is being contested at a catch weight of 140 pounds. Justino is a naturally large woman who is heavily muscled and is intimidating in the cage.

But Smith said the last thing that will enter her mind is fear.

"I welcome the challenge," Smith said. "Quite frankly, for me the biggest issue, the thing I'm always the most scared about, and this is going to sound so silly, but it's tripping and falling or, I don't know, peeing my pants on the way to the cage. I always stress about doing something incredibly embarrassing on the way to the cage.

"I know that once the fight starts, I am a fighter. That's what's in me. Once the fight starts, I'm going to do whatever I can, and that's how it works. It's one of the reasons why I think anybody can be a fighter."

It takes a special person to walk out amid thousands of fans in an arena and, potentially, millions more watching on television, and step into the cage or slip between the ropes.

The center of the ring has often been called the loneliest place in the world, but Smith says there is a fighter in everyone.

"If you put someone in a situation where they have enough incentive, even someone who says, 'I'm not violent,' or 'I hate to fight,' or, 'I couldn't hit someone,' if you put them between an attacker and something they value, they're going to be inspired to fight," she said. "Luckily for me, I don't need anyone behind me; I just need someone in front of me, because the fight is inside of me."

And so Smith goes about her business fully expecting to hand Justino her first loss in 11 years. This woman, who has fought at flyweight as recently as two-and-a-half years ago, will take on the woman many see as the best in the business by a landslide.

Her plan is simple, but she believes it fully.

"I'm going to try to not get hurt and hurt her as much as possible," Smith said. "I can take that a little further. She's a human. She's a person. She is not a machine. People with lots of muscles need to breathe. There's going to come a time when she's going to have to breathe, and I'm going to be right there and I'm going to make her pay."

Time will tell if Smith can live up to those words. But she definitely has the attitude one wants in facing a seemingly unbeatable foe.

She's long wanted to see Justino fight on the world's biggest stage, and now that it's happening, she'd love to welcome her to the UFC by scoring one of the biggest upsets ever.

As the odds show, few outside of her team believe she can do it. But Smith is fine with that. She believes, and her team believes, and to her, that's all that matters.