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Leslie Smith offers additional details on UFC release: ‘It turned into a really big moral issue for me’

With the UFC willing to pay her not to fight, Leslie Smith felt she couldn’t justify ‘fighting for free’ against Aspen Ladd at UFC Fight Night: Barboza vs. Lee in Atlantic City.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Smith vs Lemos Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

When Leslie Smith arrived in Atlantic City, NJ this week, it was likely with every intention of fighting. She had been training for weeks to face bantamweight prospect Aspen Ladd on the undercard of UFC Fight Night: Barboza vs. Lee. But, what now seems just as clear is that, win or lose, the UFC may not have had any intention giving her another bout in the Octagon.

Smith has been at the head of the burgeoning ‘Project Spearhead’ movement. An organization she launched with the hope of organizing UFC fighters to challenge their independent contractor status. And it hasn’t been something she’s done behind closed doors; speaking openly about the organizations intent, and making public appeals to fellow fighters to sign membership cards.

That kind of labor organizing may have had a lot to do with why Smith ended last week, not in the cage, as planned, but instead with $62,000 and the last fight on her UFC contract cancelled.

The trouble started when Smith’s opponent, Aspen Ladd, missed weight by 1.8 lbs. Not a huge amount, but enough to be a bargaining opportunity for Smith. She’d take the bout with Ladd, at a catchweight, if the UFC would extend her contract – which was on it’s final fight. Seemingly a good deal to keep an action fighter on a two win streak. Especially one known for her fan-friendly style and willingness to take on all comers. But, not a deal the UFC was interested in.

At least publicly, it’s a highly unusual move for the organization, which has often used last-minute fight cancellations as a reason to extend the contracts of their talent automatically. And who have built a reputation for stinginess when paying fighters for bouts their opponents withdrew from with too little time to find a replacement. Japanese flyweight Ulka Sasaki only got $10,000 of of his $21,000 show money – to say nothing of his win bonus – when Magomed Bibulatov was pulled from this same Atlantic City card on weigh-in day. It seems reasonable to say that the UFC was unusually ready to pay Smith just to go away.

“They said they had no interest in extending my contract at this time, and instead, they offered me my show and win money,” Smith said in an interview with MMA Junkie shortly after the news broke. “So they said they’ll just pay me off, and since they’re giving me the win bonus, it counts as the last fight on my contract. So, I guess that would mean I’m a free agent now.”

The way Smith has framed it – especially given her position with Project Spearhead – if she was going to be paid in full anyway, she just couldn’t justify “fighting for free.”

“That was really hard, because my whole thing, what some people would say I’ve probably sacrificed my UFC career for, is Project Spearhead. And one of the major tenets of that is that fighters should not be fighting for free,” Smith said. “They should get paid what they’re worth. And since I had the chance to get the money and not fight, then I would have been fighting for free. It turned into a really big moral issue for me as opposed to wanting to take the fight.”

Hopefully for Smith she finds a new promotional home before too long, but opportunities for women to make the same kind of money and fight on the same kind of stage may be few and far between outside the UFC.