Leslie Smith

After more than a decade, Leslie Smith keeps pushing forward in MMA

Bellator featherweight Leslie Smith spoke to MyMMANews ahead of her fight against Amanda Bell at Bellator 245.

The last time Leslie Smith was at the Mohegan Sun Casino, she was ready for a fight against then-opponent, Jessy Miele. The fight never came about as the event she was fighting at, Bellator 241, was canceled on the day it was supposed to happen due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As Bellator worked to figure out how to put on events during this unprecedented time, Smith would not compete for the next six months. She continued to train and keep busy until they did, and Smith finally received the call to fight in September at Bellator 245.

Smith is now back at the Mohegan Sun Casino, and this time, fight week feels real.

“It’s very exciting to be here,” Smith told MyMMANews. “It’s kind of crazy to be back in this same casino where I was supposed to fight before because it feels like a dream. Like a dream that I woke up from just a little too early to see how the ending was going to go. Walking around the casino is like, ‘I’ve been here before. I was here for a fight but I didn’t get to fight’ so it’s exciting. I feel like I finally get to have the full Mohegan Sun experience.”

While Smith was invited back to her original venue, she would go without her original opponent. Rather than have her fight with Miele rescheduled, Smith was given an entirely different opponent in fellow featherweight contender, Amanda Bell. Smith admits she was very excited to fight Miele, who was the first “lefty” of her career, but she is happy to return against another great match-up in Bell.

The fight she was preparing for is obviously different now that she is meeting Bell instead of Miele, but Smith prides herself on having a training camp that can be best described as all-encompassing. In other words, whoever is put in front of Smith, she will be ready for them.
“I’m usually the person that they find to put against someone,” said Smith. “I’m very comfortable with whoever they put in front of me. I haven’t been used to having three-month training camps to prepare for one opponent, so I was happy with it.

“I like the idea of being a complete fighter who can take anyone than just having a specific gameplan for this person. My mentality the whole time has always been whoever it is, let’s go.”

As much as she enjoys being ready for anything and everything in a fight, Smith still takes time out to focus primarily on what her opponent does. For someone like Bell, Smith knows that she will more than likely engage in a striking battle with her.

It is exactly the kind of fight Smith wants.

“Amanda Bell is very clearly a very forward fighter. That is her thing,” said Smith. “She definitely favors her striking and she has her kicks and punches. I have been watching her latest fights and she has got some nice combinations that she likes to throw. So, I have been preparing for her and I’m excited about it. I always get excited about fighting somebody who is a game opponent and who seems to be a forward fighter because when I close my eyes and picture my ideal fight, it’s someone who is standing in the middle of the cage slugging it out with me. That’s my idea of fun and it seems like she’s going to be willing to do that.”

The fight against Bell marks the 21st in Smith’s storied career and she continues to compete against some of the top names in her division. Earlier this week, Smith received praise from one of her former (and potential future) opponents in Cris “Cyborg” Justino for remaining a staple in mixed martial arts for the better part of a decade.

When asked how she remains such a strong presence in MMA after all of these years, Smith gave full credit to her team.

“Well, first I want to say thank you to Cris for posting that,” said Smith. “It’s a weird thing in the fight game. Not everybody really allows themselves to throw out encouragement to other people who could potentially be another opponent or who has already been a past opponent. I thought that was super cool of her and I appreciate that.

“For my longevity in the sport, I am surrounded by an amazing team. It’s been the fact that my team has evolved with the sport and been able to teach me new things. We’ve got Jake Shields, who has amazing jiu-jitsu and really has his finger on the pulse of jiu-jitsu. At the same time, I get to train with Cesar Gracie, who is an encyclopedia of pain and everything that is being done now, he has been doing for years. It’s pretty rad. And then, Gilbert Melendez. I mean everyone has seen him on Unlocking the Cage and he is a genius. He does such an amazing job at understanding but also expressing what’s going on and how people are evolving their game and what they are doing inside of the cage. Getting to have those guys helping me understand the game is priceless.”

Going on for as long as Smith has is an incredible feat on its own and it is one that she was unsure of accomplishing. When Smith first started her career, she only intended to stick around for about two years and then re-evaluating that decision depending on how things went.

Things went pretty well for Smith in those first two years, so she decided to add another two. The next re-evaluation came and Smith found that she was pretty good at fighting and kept adding length to her career in increments of two years.

Smith is gearing up for another one of those re-evaluations and although it is probable she may add another two years, she acknowledges that this could be one of the last time she does so.

“I don’t know how much longer I am going to keep on going,” said Smith “I’m a little reluctant to put a time or a date on anything, but I am already working on my post-fight future. I am going to school right now and I am enjoying it a whole lot. I’m glad that I’m doing it as an older person. I’m working on getting my undergraduate degree right now and I’m really happy. I’m such a dorky student. It’s so much fun.  I don’t think that I would’ve been able to do this at any other point in my life. To be able to try as hard at school as I am right now and I totally credit fighting for the opportunity to learn how to try as hard as I can.

“For a long time, fighting was what taught me how to have a lot more self-respect and appreciation for everyone around me and I think that I am getting to a point now where I have enough of that respect coming in and going out. There are some other things that I want to do in the world that I feel like I can accomplish in arenas that are not the cage.”

Smith eventually walking away from the sport does not mean she will stop being a fighter. It is well-known that she has put on her proverbial gloves to fight for what she believes is right and will continue doing just that long after she leaves MMA behind.

During a time where long-existing problems such as racism are being addressed for the umpteenth time in the United States’ current climate, this rings especially true. And as long as these problems are around, Smith will speak up and out about them.

“It’s very clear for me that the whole point of a platform is to use it. To talk about things that matter,” said Smith. “It was just a given that if I have the opportunity to say something that I think is important — and maybe they’re not even my own words. Sometimes I go on and repeat things that I’ve seen other people say that I don’t necessarily think that everyone in the MMA community has been exposed to. Sometimes I’m just trying to amplify what other people say because I think it’s really important and I feel like I’m lucky enough to have a little bit of a platform. It needs to get used.

“I’m getting my gratification by talking about things that matter to me rather than trying to get people to talk about me.”

Not everyone is going to share the same point of view as Smith on these issues, so when she speaks about them, she understands there is going to be some pushback. Most of it is negative for the sake of being negative, but Smith tries not to take it to heart and focuses on the message.

“I think that when I get all those negative comments and I get just the dumb energy from people, it reinforces my belief that it is important to express the humane and necessary logic that I try to share,” said Smith. “When people talk all that smack and they attack me, the Black Lives Matter movement, it can be hard to deal with sometimes. At the same time, I am pretty aware of the fact that it’s not about me. You know the idea that a person shouldn’t take anything personally because if someone is being a jerk to you, it’s not about you but about them. So it’s easy to say that and try to live by it when dealing with those comments. It does add up sometimes, but when it does, I just go away for a little bit and that’s the privilege that I have. I don’t have to engage all the time, but I try to because I feel like it’s an important thing.”

Speaking about the issues is one thing, but Smith is hoping her actions speak louder than her words. On Saturday night, she brings the fight to not only Bell but to a society that desperately needs a wake-up call.

“One of the people that I follow, Ben Carrington, he’s an author among other things. He exposed me to the phrase, ‘No normal sports in a dysfunctional society’ and that is something that I’m looking to uphold. I tried to order some Black Lives Matter stuff, hoping that my masks and things would get here in time so that I could wear them. But I’ve got my Arrest the Cops that killed Breonna Taylor shirt that I’m planning on walking out to the cage in and I feel like that statement really captures what the emotions should be of no normal sports in a dysfunctional society. Our society is not functional. We are not living by the ideals that we purport to be the fundamental ideas of being American. It just another opportunity to bring awareness, show support and show my solidarity in a movement that everybody should be behind right now.”

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