By Christopher Murphy @MurphMMA
This Saturday, MMA fighter Leslie Smith will be fighting Jennifer Maia at Invicta 6 in Kansas City, Missouri. Before she enters the cage, the Cesar Gracie fighter spoke with BJPenn.com’s Fist-Ta-Cuff Radio to talk about her last fight with Sarah Kaufmann, her training for Maia and much more.
Most people who follow women’s MMA will recognize Smith, a fighter known for her constant pressure and exciting fighting style. She has won two ‘Fight of the Night’ bonuses through Invicta FC. Her style and toughness make her a natural fit for the Cesar Gracie fight team, a move she made not too long ago.
“I moved up to Northern California so that I could train with the Cesar Gracie Jiu Jitsu team. The Gracie fighters. They’ve come through. It’s such a cool thing to be around [them]. I go to Gilbert Melendez’s gym, the El Niño Training Center. I’ve gotten to spend some time down in Lodi. I’ve gotten to go up to see David Terrell’s up in Santa Rosa. And then, you know, Cesar Gracie’s gym itself right here in Pleasant Hill, that’s the main place that I go to. It’s so cool to get to be around people who are so established. Like Gilbert Melendez, you know, he has been in almost every MMA situation that you can imagine; and he carries it all off so well, and it’s awesome to get to see people who devoted everything to it and made it work. It’s really, really motivational and inspirational. I really feel like I’m still just barely starting my MMA career. I feel like I just started it yesterday, because there is so much more for me to learn, but I’m lucky that I have such impressive people around me to kind of follow their ways.”
In some ways, Smith’s style brought her to train with the Skrap Pack from Northern California; and yet their tutelage of her can be seen in her more recent fights. In her last fight, for instance, she landed a volume of strikes to Sarah Kaufman, even dropping her opponent with a head kick.
“I think that there’s a combination of both of those factors,” Smith said of her fighting style. “It really is just how I want to fight. I just want to go in there, I don’t want to think about anything. I don’t want to have my game plan on my mind. I just want to go in there and take it to the other person. I don’t care if I get punched, I just want to make sure I get to punch them twice as hard and twice as much. That is my mentality. My coaches have been working on trying to make sure that I temper that with technique and game plan and everything else. We’re still working on that, we’re always working on that. But it definitely helps that I get to be on a team with guys like Nick and Nate [Diaz], and Gilbert Melendez, and Jake Shields, who [are] super tenacious, they come out, they fight hard… Yeah, when I came and joined the team, that’s what I did. I sat down and I watched a bunch of their fights. I was like, ‘Oh! That’s how you can do it! That’s it! I’m going to do that!’ And it worked out well, because it’s kind of what I do anyways. The fights that I had before I came to the team, I was pretty crazy and all over the place. I had a lot of heart, but not a lot of technique. So I’ve been working on fixing the ratio, not by decreasing the heart at all, but just increasing the technique. I’m working on it.”
That action-packed style certainly has brought Smith a wealth of fans, but for her, it is simply the most fun way to fight.
“Not only is it if I go in there and brawl everyone is going to love me, it’s also: if I go in there and brawl, it’s going to be the most fun for me.”
At the same time, Smith’s ultimate goal is to win the Invicta belt. She is working on maintaining her aggressive style, but sticking to a game plan of sorts to ensure that she walks away with a win.
“So there’s a thing about the delayed gratification of it all: which is, if I go in, and I’m just like, ‘Dude, let’s do this! What!? Let’s go!’ And I’m just doing what I feel in the moment, it’s really fun in the moment; but if I can delay that gratification a little bit and say, ‘OK, you know what? 15 minutes, if I can stick to this game plan and I can get this win, it’s going to be really, really cool to get my hand raised, that bonus check and all that.’ Yeah, it’s kind of hard to balance that out. That’s the goal, to balance that all out. Easier said than done though.”
Like any fighter, Smith leaves most fights with signs of having fought. The difference for her, of course, is the social response to a woman with a black eye.
“It’s one of my favorite parts of the whole thing actually. [I was in] the grocery store with my boyfriend afterward, then we’re standing in line, and I’m like, ‘You better be nice or else I’m going to scream, ‘Don’t hit me again!’ really loud.’ Then he’s like, ‘Oh my god, I’m already getting 20 people giving me dirty looks right now, please don’t say anything! Please don’t say anything!’ It’s pretty hilarious. I’m sorry… I should be more sensitive to that, but I just find it comedy. The one thing that’s kind of a bummer about it is that I see all the looks that I get, and if I really [were] a battered woman, I don’t think that those looks would feel very helpful. I think that they’d make me feel like I did something wrong. And so, that’s kind of the flipside to it. I do think it’s funny, I get a kick out of the humor of it; the bummer is that, you know, I don’t think people walking around who give all those women the looks don’t realize they’re not helping anything. If you want to help, then help. If you see a woman, you think that she’s getting beat up- and I guess maybe that I’m not even the best person to say this, because I’ve never been in an abusive relationship- but I would think that the best thing to do is to say, ‘Hey, is there anything that I can do for you?’ Not [to] stand there, look at them funny, and shake your head, or make some kind of a face. I don’t feel like that would be very helpful to me if I actually needed help.”
Whatever the response may be to Smith outside the cage, inside of it she commands the respect of her fans for always putting on a show. Despite her tenacity and aggression, she goes by the nickname of “The Peacemaker,” a name she says describes more accurately what fighting does for her than what she does inside the cage.
“Well, why I feel peaceful in the middle of a fight is because I can’t think about a million other things while I’m fighting. I’m not thinking about feeding the dog or paying the bill or getting homework done or the next class I have to teach. There’s nothing there except for the fight; and that’s awesome. That never happens, I don’t think, to most people. I mean, maybe I’m not giving other people enough credit because it’s just me who doesn’t end up spending a whole lot of time being completely focused on one thing. But that’s why I feel so peaceful; there’s one task in front of me, one goal, that’s all I have to focus on, and that’s all that I can focus on. And that feels great, it’s an awesome feeling to have that kind of focus.”
What Smith is working on now, under the guidance of the Cesar Gracie fighters, is balancing her cleared mind with the ability to implement a game plan.
“It’s definitely a balance there, and I’m always working on it, and I’m always trying to get better at it. But I think that it’s got a lot to do with good training and the right kind of training. I’m getting the muscle-memory down; and I’m really lucky that the coaches I get to work with, they know me at this point. They know that they need to drill this stuff into me hardcore, or else it’s just not going to be there in the fight. They can’t just sit down with me the night before the fight and say, ‘So, I think you should do this, and this, and this,’ and expect me to be able to go out there and do it. There are some people out there who can do that, and that’s wonderful for them, but I’m not one of them. I need to be practicing something every day for about two months so that I can walk into the ring, and I can actually carry it off. “
Smith will be bringing those months of drilling and preparation into the cage Saturday against Jennifer Maia (7-2-1), a fighter with four wins by submission where Smith has none. The difference in skill-set, however, is of little concern for Smith.
“I don’t really focus on other people’s strengths very much at this point, because I’m such a developing fighter. I have so much I need to get better at in all the departments. It’s not like I’m like, ‘OK, my stand-up’s great right now, so I’m going to focus on just my wrestling getting ready for this fight.’ It’s everything. You know, I have to work on every single part of it. By training every single part of it, I’m getting ready to fight and use every single part of it. Whatever the other person’s strength is, another part of me being a fighter- and I think that there’s a lot of fighters who probably think like this too- is I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I can take it. That’s not better than me, I got that.’ So instead of maybe respecting their strengths, I’m more focused on making my strengths better- which isn’t to say I don’t go in there respecting people strengths, you know. I’m going to go in there and fight Jennifer Maia, I know that she has great stand-up. I know that she’s gotten a lot of wins by submission. I know that she’s strong and she’s used to bull-rushing people, so I’m taking that into consideration, but it’s not going to determine my game plan. It’s not going to determine what I’m going to do. Because I’m going to go in there, and I’m going to fight my fight.”
And her fight will be her first at a new weight. Smith has decided to make the drop to 125 lbs., in the flyweight division. Despite a 5-3-1 record at bantamweight and an excellent outing against a top-ranked fighter in Sarah Kaufman, Smith feels like the drop is the right move at this point in her career.
“I appreciate the sentiment that I was doing [well at bantamweight], but I lost my last fight. No matter how close it was, I did not win my last fight; and that’s not anything I can be proud of. I’m not proud of going three rounds with somebody. I’m not proud, you know, of even dropping her in the middle of it, because it didn’t get the result that I wanted. I might have had fun dropping her. I enjoyed it immensely watching her hit the canvas, but it’s nothing that I can pat myself on the back for, because I didn’t get the win. As far as I’m concerned, it was as much of a loss as if I had lost all three rounds or gotten knocked out in the very beginning. I need to be training ten times harder, and I did. I went and trained way harder after that fight to get ready for this next one. Why did I drop to 125? To get a shorter line to the belt. There’s a long line for the belt at 35- not just for the belt, but just to be up there at the top and the recognition for being the top 35 [lb] fighter. Not only are there so many women at 35, but there’s like three of my old teammates that I trained with. There’s Alexis Davis in the UFC, she just fought and won. There’s Sarah D’Alelio, she’s fighting Lauren Taylor on Invicta 6 as well. Then I’ve got Miriam Nakamura, she’s fighting on Invicta 6 too; and they’re all at 135. So there’s a bunch of us. Instead of staying right there all crowded, wondering what’s going to happen, which one’s going to bow out- because I’m not going to fight them, they’re my teammates- I figure I’m just going to take the short line to get the belt. I’m going to make my mark at 125. Then once I’ve got the belt, I feel like the respect is going to be a little bit different, I feel like the recognition is going to be a little bit different. And my boots are going to be a little bit bigger.”
Be sure to watch Leslie Smith make her flyweight debut against Jennifer Maia at Invicta FC 6 this Saturday live on Pay Per View.Tags: cesar gracie jiu jitsu, FIST-ta-CUFF, FIST-ta-CUFF Radio, Invicta, Invicta 6, invicta fc, Invicta FC 6, jennifer maia, leslie smith, mma, MMA NEWS, WMMA, Women's MMA