“Puedo pelear, no me duele, tengo mis manos y mis ojos.”
At UFC 180, those were the Spanish phrases UFC women’s bantamweight Leslie Smith yelled to the Mexico City crowd as the Octagonside doctor called a premature end to her fight against Jessica Eye.
“I can fight, it doesn’t hurt,” and “I have my hands and my eyes.”
It’s no surprise that the winner of four Invicta FC Fight of the Night awards wanted to keep scrapping, even though her cauliflower ear had burst from a few of Eye’s punches. It was just a flesh wound to Smith, but it was gnarly enough for the medical team to warrant the second-round stoppage.
WATCH: Smith's loss to Jessica Eye via TKO - Doctor's Stoppage on FIGHT PASS
“The first round, I knew she was faster than me, so I’ll give her that,” Smith said. “We knew I would have to deal with her speed as I landed my harder punches. I wasn’t as fluid with my game plan as I needed to be, and I wasn’t as aware of the severity of the doctor’s impression of my ear. Notice, I’m making it the doctor’s impression of my ear. (Laughs) I would have traded that ear for another round and a half any day. I felt like I was getting dialed in. I felt like I was, way stronger in the second round, and I thought I was turning the tide. I don’t need an ear to fight. It was taken out of my control and I do understand why. It is the job of the referee and the medical professionals to watch out for our well-being, especially since it’s not our top priority as fighters. My ear is not my top priority. Winning the fight is my top priority. That’s the most mature thing I can think of to say about it.”
That “never say die” spirit that has made “The Peacemaker” a fan favorite is an inherent attitude of Smith’s, but it has been fostered most fervently by the famed Skrap Pack of Northern California. Actually, the cauliflower ear was a natural result of the 33-year-old grinding and battling in the gym with the likes of Keri Anne-Taylor Melendez and Kelly Faszholz at the El Nino Training Center in San Francisco. The loss is still a sore spot for Smith, but she’s learned from it and is focused on a possible rematch with Eye in the future.
“The funny thing is that it was a punch that wouldn’t have done any damage to me if I hadn’t been working so hard in my training camp. Isn’t that ridiculous?” Smith laughs. “The best thing that I learned is that I need to have more fluidity in my game plan, because there definitely are different things I could have done. The second best thing that happened because of a result of that is that when we get our rematch, there will be way more eyes on it.”
It’s been 16 months since Smith’s last Octagon outing, but it wasn’t because of the ear. Last April, the 7-6-1 pro unfortunately needed surgery to mend a torn meniscus, which kept her out of competition in 2015. During her time on the sidelines, Smith trained a lot even when she traveled, such as the five weeks she spent in Singapore working out with Evolve MMA, a gym which boasts an eclectic mix of world champions in MMA, Muay Thai, BJJ and wrestling.
“I definitely have an affinity for Southeast Asia,” Smith said. “I love the weather, I love the food, I love the plants that grow out there, and I love the positive attitude and the appreciation for fighting. I’ve spent a lot of time in Thailand and, for me, it was a goal to get there. Also, knowing that their coach was Heath Sims, I just reached out and they said come on down. They were even willing to do accommodations for me. They let me train with their team, it was a wonderful experience and I totally recommend it to anybody.”
Finally, Smith is poised for her return at UFC Fight Night: Hunt vs. Mir in Australia on March 19 (March 20 in Australia), and the timing of it all could not be better.
“Between Miesha (Tate) winning and Nate (Diaz) winning, that was probably the most wonderful night I’ve ever had watching fights,” said Smith, who was supremely energized by the terrific performances by her friends and training partners at UFC 196. “Just the respect and appreciation I have for the fights put on by Miesha Tate and Nate Diaz. That was amazing. It was so exciting to be there for that.”
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Using her friends as added motivation, Smith is set to tangle with grappling ace Rin Nakai. With her lone Octagon appearance being a decision loss to current UFC women’s bantamweight champ Miesha Tate, it’s fair to assume most UFC fans may not know the importance Nakai has carried in women’s MMA, especially in her native Japan. Prior to the loss in her UFC debut, Nakai owned a stellar 16-0-1 pro record dating back to 2006. Nakai will no doubt be a tough test for Smith, but The Peacemaker could not be more excited to take her on and entertain the fans once again.
“For me, it’s always been a dream of mine to go to Japan and fight a fighter out there because jiu-jitsu, judo, samurais and ninjas come from out there,” Smith said. “Maybe I’ve romanticized it a little bit in my head. But even though I’m not getting to fight in Japan, it’s going to be an honor to step into the cage with Rin. She has a pretty long and illustrious history in MMA. I feel like it’s a really good matchup for me. I have a lot length that I’m going to get to work with, and I know I have some of the best training in the world. I’ve spent the last year figuring out how to channel all that energy and all that aggression of mine into the most precise way that I can.”