In early April Ashlee Evans-Smith spoke to Bloody Elbow about her upcoming fight with Bec Rawlings. It was the former featherweight and bantamweight’s flyweight debut and she was confident in her chances, stating she was the ‘better fighter’ and that she felt great, and more focused, training at a lower weight.
During the interview Evans-Smith hinted that she was feeling confident despite issues happening during camp that had the potential to completely derail her. “It’s been a very unique camp for me,” she said, adding, “I will probably go into more detail about it after my fight, just because it’s not really important right now. But I think a lot of people, if they knew what I was going through in my camp, they might think, ‘Oh no, maybe she’s going to be messed up mentality-wise.’ But for me, I’m very adaptable and I can adapt to changes and I’ve had a lot of changes in this camp.”
After making these mysterious comments, Evans-Smith went into UFC 223, at Madison Square Garden in NYC, and fought three tough rounds with Rawlings. As she predicted, Evans-Smith was the sharper fighter on the feet and she was able to use her range, quickness, and timing to pick apart her opponent on route to a unanimous decision victory.
The win saw Evans-Smith move to 6-3 on her pro career. It also propelled her into the burgeoning UFC flyweight rankings. With the dust settled on the Rawlings’ fight, Bloody Elbow reconnected with Evans-Smith to discuss her camp in candid detail.
“This was probably the hardest and best camp I’ve ever had,” revealed ‘Rebel Girl’. “Just because so many things ended up falling through. If this fight camp had a theme it would be people leaving me at the last minute.”
For most of her UFC career Evans-Smith trained at Team Oyama in Irvine, California, alongside former UFC champion Carla Esparza and other top fighters such as Marlon Vera, Louis Smolka, Brent Primus, and Alex Reyes.
However, just before Evans-Smith found out she would be competing at UFC 223, everything changed.
“Right before my fight camp, I parted ways with my home gym,” said Evans-Smith; referring to Team Oyama. “I did have places I could go and train, but my home gym — that I was at every morning — I was no longer a part of anymore because I was kind of given an ultimatum and I decided to not take it.”
When pressed on what went down at the gym, Evans-Smith said: “It was actually a compliment, realistically. My coach wanted more of me at the gym.” Evans-Smith then explained that she decided to turn down this plea because of her desire to spend some of her time with other coaches at other gyms.
“We parted ways on good terms,” added Evans-Smith. “I still think it’s a great gym with great coaches. I still recommend it to people. But not every gym is a perfect fit for everybody.”
Evans-Smith said that being ‘home-gymless’ forced her to become more of a ‘gypsy fighter’ traveling between different facilities, sometimes over far distances, to get the required training ahead of a UFC contest. She chose this route over enlisting with a new gym/team because she was unsure of what she might get if she tried to settle into an established set-up at this juncture.
“At that point I didn’t want to jump into a new gym where I didn’t know what the coaches were like, what the chemistry was like, or who my training partners were,” she said. “I didn’t know if they were going to try and take my head off because they’re a bunch of insecure dudes who want to prove that they are tough. So I ended up not having a home gym and I was ok with it.”
Evans-Smith stated that not having a home base made her preparation “really different and kind of hard.” All of this was brought even more into focud when more than just Team Oyama started falling away from her.
“To add kind of salt into the wounds, I found out that my Muay Thai coach wasn’t going to be able to be in my corner. So I lost my head coach and my Muay Thai coach. And my jiu jitsu coach was out in Vegas, and we hadn’t seen each other in months, so it was pointless to have that person be my coach as well.”
Evans-Smith’s Muay Thai coach was with another fighter in Budapest, Hungary when she was scheduled to fight at MSG. When she found out he, and the BJJ coach, would not be part of her camp, she had improvise.
One of her improvised moves took her to RVCA in Costa Mesa, CA. There she worked with former UFC standout Mark Munoz aka ‘Filipino Wrecking Machine’. He worked on Evans-Smith’s wrestling, but this arrangement eventually fell through, too.
“Mark Munoz was amazing,” enthused Evans-Smith. “But in the last week of us working together, he had to go away for a wrestling trip that happened last minute. So there’s another person that was taken away from me unexpectedly.”
Despite Munoz, and many others, dropping out or being whisked away from her camp, Evans-Smith did enjoy a trio of individuals who were there from day one, as well as in the Octagon come fight night.
Carla Esparza remained with Team Oyama after Evans-Smith left, but she also stuck with the debuting flyweight. Evans-Smith called Esparza her best-friend and said that ‘Cookie Monster’ stepped-up as a coach and training partner. Esparza, who won The Ultimate Fighter strawweight tourney, is an All-American wrestler out of Menlo College. She put Evans-Smith through her paces on the mats, but also worked on her overall MMA game.
She cornered Evans-Smith vs. Rawlings, as did Chuy Gutierrez; who acted as Evans-Smith’s boxing coach throughout this unusual camp. “The fact Bec was a boxer — or called herself a boxer — and I got to work with him and he got to coach his first UFC fighter and be a part of that, it was amazing. And he’s just a really happy and positive guy.”
The third individual in Evans-Smith’s corner at UFC 223 was Bellator veteran Mario Navarro, who is also Evans-Smith’s boyfriend. “He really was the glue for my entire fight camp. Not to sound corny, but he’s really like my best friend, too. So he got to fill these roles, as a coach and partner, and our relationship got stronger.”
Evans-Smith said that another unexpected benefit from having her status-quo thrown out the window was that she was able to experience a higher level of freedom and autonomy over her preparations.
“I was really really happy the majority of the camp because I wasn’t worried about what a coach would say, because I kind of got to structure my own fight camp,” shared Evans-Smith. “I got to do whatever I felt like I needed to do. I always made sure I was doing strength and conditioning. I also made sure I got every aspect in, but if I felt like I needed a night off, I didn’t have to worry about my coach getting upset with me or letting down my teammates or stuff like that. So, it was just a very different fight camp and it was probably the weirdest most unusual fight camps and one of the best ones I had.”
While Evans-Smith was getting work in with the trio that had stuck by her, she had even more disappointing news. Two weeks before the fight, while she was deep into her first ever weight cut to 125 lbs, Evans-Smith’s nutritionist — who was prepping meals for her — bailed.
For her cut down to this new division, Evans-Smith was using a professional meal prep company for the first time in her fighting career. She said the reason why the nutritionist quit the job was “ridiculous”.
“It was only because I had not checked in for a couple of days and the nutritionist got very mad, saying, ‘How am I supposed to make your meal accordingly if you don’t check in with me?” but I’d only missed maybe two check-ins and by check-in I mean texting that person my weight.
“The only reason I didn’t do that is because I plateaued. My weight hadn’t gone up or down and this person flew off the handle and told my manager at the time that I’m ‘hard to work with’ and in all the years I’ve been sponsored and working with different businesses, I had never had any company ever complain about me.”
Evans-Smith said she didn’t get upset over those claims because, in her opinion, the unnamed nutritionist, “was very sensitive” and did not grasp her dietary needs. “I am a vegan and I am a fighter, so I can’t eat certain things, but I do need things that give me energy and protein. It just wasn’t working out realistically anyway, but just for them to bail last minute when I might have needed them the most is a really rude and horrible thing, in my opinion.”
Even though her weight-cut plan was thrown through a loop, Evans-Smith weighed in at 125.8 lbs. She credited her wrestling experience and own determination for making the cut, along with previous time spent at the UFC Performance Institute. There she met the UFC’s nutrition tsar Clint Wattenburg, who traveled to UFC 223 in New York and was on hand to help her, and other fighters, shed those last few ounces.
During this time Evans-Smith learned her manager, who she no longer works with, would also not be able to make it to fight week. This was due to illness. “So that’s another person who was not there,” she said without malice.
Throughout camp, which saw her lose her home gym, head coach, Muay Thai coach, BJJ coach, new wrestling coach, nutritionist, and manager, Evans-Smith said she had to field constant questions over her well-being.
“A lot of people kept asking me, ‘Are you ok?’ expecting me to be really upset or depressed or unhappy because of all these things that were happening,” revealed Evans-Smith. “I kept telling them, and myself, it could be worse. At the end of the day, I still got to step in the Octagon and fight someone I really wanted to fight. Even if I had no corners, even if I didn’t make weight, things could always get worse. I still get to live my dream.”
And at the end of a camp where “everything that could go wrong, did go wrong” Evans-Smith still managed to get her hand raised. The moment was special for Evans-Smith and not just because of what she went through over the past six months.
“Who is going to enjoy winning more? The person who it comes easy to or the person that really has to work and sacrifice and dedicate?” asked Evans-Smith. “Everyone enjoys a win, but when you have a hard camp and you just really need that win…not only did I have a hard camp, an unusual camp, but I was coming off two losses and financially I wasn’t feeling so good, because I hadn’t fought in a while. So I needed it overall. And just to win with my best friend and my boyfriend/coach and these people standing right behind me, it was definitely the best feeling I have ever felt.”
And with that win Evans-Smith now recognizes what she at times felt was the worst possible training camp ever was probably one of her best. “It was weird,” she said. “It was different. A lot of things fell through. A lot of people fell through, but a lot of people got to shine and a lot of people really came to my rescue when I needed them the most.”
“I’m not upset at anyone who fell through,” continued Evans-Smith. “Not my old manager, not any of the coaches, no one, not even the meal prep company. At the end of the day s**t happens. Honestly, it kind of gave me a little more confidence in myself. I know I can push through a lot of things, but sometimes the mental side of fighting is the hardest, but I stayed focus and I got the job done.”
Evans-Smith doesn’t know yet if she’ll join a new home gym ahead of her next UFC fight or if she’ll stick with what worked well this time around. Either way, she’s evidence that being prepared for anything is an important mindset in the fight game and that sometimes, the true story of a fight camp can only be told after the final bell has rung.