Leslie Smith says she is “about as happy as can be” in Bellator.
Smith, a former UFC women’s bantamweight, signed with the promotion as a featherweight in April. She had her first fight under the Bellator banner in July, winning a majority decision over Sinead Kavanagh. Now, she looks to make it 2-0 in the promotion against Arlene Blencowe at Bellator 233 on Friday night.
“It’s been wonderful,” Smith told Bloody Elbow. “It’s been a really good time. I’m super happy to be with a promotion that is so fighter friendly and upfront.”
Smith, a longtime advocate for fighters’ rights, parted ways with the UFC on a sour note early last year. She refused to fight Aspen Ladd after Ladd missed weight for their scheduled bout in April 2018. At the time, Smith had one fight left on her contract. The UFC counted the cancellation as a fight on Smith’s contract because it paid Smith her show money for making weight herself. Smith said afterward she believed the UFC wanted to part ways with her due to her unionization effort Project Spearhead.
Smith said signing with Bellator was a breath of fresh air, because she believes it gives its fighters more opportunities, like having their own sponsors and fighting in other promotions as part of a crossover deal. Smith is also excited to have a quick turnaround at Bellator 233, something not always given to her in the UFC, she said.
Based on the sponsors and more frequent fights, Smith said she believes Bellator treats its fighters better than the UFC.
Smith said another key part of her signing with Bellator was the fact that her fighting for the women’s 145-pound title — currently held by Julia Budd — was always part of the conversation.
“The title fight is the way to make all that money,” Smith said. “In the other promotion, it wasn’t part of the conversation. I was ranked ninth in that promotion, and I never got to fight someone who was ranked above me. Being able to have a clear path to fighting the champion — that’s where the sponsors are, that’s where the opportunities are, that’s where the excitement is — and not being held back to some kind of a gatekeeper position, that is huge.”
Smith admitted there are no guarantees in life, but she is hopeful that if she keeps winning, the title shot will be hers. In fact, Smith said, Bellator initially talked about giving her a crack at Budd in her promotional debut, but ultimately opted against that idea. Now, Smith is looking at every fight, including Friday’s one against Blencowe, as a “logical step” to a title bout.
Smith mostly competed as a bantamweight in the UFC, besides a 140-pound catchweight fight with Cris Cyborg in 2016. But Bellator doesn’t currently have a women’s 135-pound division, so Smith has been at 145 pounds since signing with the promotion.
Smith is happy at featherweight and said she gets to recover “a whole lot better” not having to cut the extra 10 pounds.
“I get to eat food that replenishes my muscles and glycogen storage, so I have more energy to go do things,” Smith said. “I can feel a whole lot better. And I’m kind of just a happier person in general. That’s a really nice thing. Even though 135 was never an issue for me, part of the reason it was never an issue was I made a really big deal about it. I dieted pretty hard, I made sure my weight was really close, because it’s super unprofessional to miss weight. I probably dieted harder than I actually needed to. I definitely was not getting enough calories to build muscle or be in a good mood. I definitely feel stronger, I feel a lot more solid. When I was at 125, it was even worse. When it gets close to the fight, I start feeling a little bit frail — I used to.”
If Bellator suddenly decided to open up a 135-pound division, Smith said she would likely still stay at featherweight — and not just because the weight cut is easier.
“My home is where the excitement is,” Smith said. “I feel like the 145-pound division, there is a chance there to make some waves like never before.”
Bellator recently signed former UFC champ Cris Cyborg and former UFC title challenger Cat Zingano, adding to the depth of its women’s featherweight division. Smith said the signings are “awesome” and gives the division more merit than the UFC’s featherweight weight class.
“I love that they’re investing in the women’s 145-pound division,” Smith said of Bellator. “I think that in the future, that is going to be the place to go and the title to aspire to get.
“I extended a welcome to Cat that she is now in the deepest and best 145-pound division in the world. And that’s a big deal. For a martial artist to be able to come and have a wide range of potential opponents, I think that’s huge.”
Budd is set to defend the featherweight strap against Cyborg in January. Meanwhile, the winner of the Smith vs. Blencowe fight and Zingano will be both looming as top contenders in the division. Smith said she thinks there’s a good chance Bellator will give her the next shot if she wins on Friday, as opposed to booking her against Zingano or putting Zingano against the Budd vs. Cyborg winner.
“I’m looking at this as if it’s a No. 1 contender fight,” Smith said.
“I was in Colorado when I started my career, and Cat was in Colorado, and she was one of the most prominent fighters, so I figured that it was inevitable that we would fight. Then we both moved on to other places and ended up inside of the UFC, but we never ended up fighting there. It’s coming full circle — we’re definitely going to end up fighting. However, I don’t think it’s going to be the smartest thing for Bellator after investing in Cat to put her against me right off the bat. She’s 1-4 in her last several bouts. From a promotional standpoint, she needs some opponents that she can really remember what it feels like to win and be dominant again. When I fight Cat, I want it to be the best Cat possible.”