Leslie Smith views Saturday’s proverbial David vs. Goliath UFC 198 matchup against Cristian “Cyborg” Justino as the ultimate opportunity, rather than a concession to fatalism.
Sure, no one else would take this fight at the catchweight of 140 pounds, against a seemingly unbeatable – and highly motivated – veteran opponent making her UFC debut in her Brazilian hometown of Curitiba. “Cyborg” (15-1 MMA, 0-0 UFC) is currently a 17-1 favorite to prevail over Smith (2-2 UFC) at sold-out Stadium Atlético Paranaense.
That means as many as 45,000 fans will be screaming support for Brazil’s most legendary female fight star as she finally enters the UFC Octagon sometime around midnight Brazil time.
Rather than balk at the prospect of being led to slaughter, Smith said she’ll feed off the incredible energy. She’ll bask in the excitement of Brazil’s largest-ever MMA crowd, soak up the intoxicating atmosphere of being part of one of the most- anticipated main card events in recent memory.
And imagine they’re actually cheering for her.
“I was told I’ll be the first to come in and that I’ll have to wait there and hear everyone cheering for Cris. But all I’ll hear is, ‘Leslie, Leslie!’ and I’ll channel that into something really special,” she told UFC.com. “This is an extraordinary opportunity for me, and I’m so grateful for it.”
Certainly Smith has enjoyed her time in Curitiba, where she’s indulged in tangy Brazilian açai bowls and reveled in meeting fans who respect and applaud her choice of a UFC career. The fighter known as “The Peacemaker” is recognized on the streets and in the shops as the smiling, appreciative star of the UFC’s popular “Embedded” video series, and Smith welcomes all autograph seekers and selfie takers.
“People here truly respect someone who is a professional fighter,” said Smith, who’s also receiving ample encouragement from her close friend, UFC bantamweight champion Miesha Tate. “It’s very empowering.”
Why so composed? This is not out of character for the levelheaded Smith, who believes an even-keel approach may be the best strategy for overcoming massive underdog odds.
“I think you could probably describe me as relaxed and laid back,” she said. “I think the most dangerous opponent that one could possibly be is one who is cool and calm … calculated. And I’m avoiding getting emotional. I think that it can affect people in a good way, and it can affect them in a bad way.”
With that, Smith looked around at the lights, cameras and media crowded around her. “I mean, look at all of this,” she said with a huge smile, gesturing to the gathering. “What an amazing opportunity! And I can’t wait to get in there.”
Nancy Gay is the Editor-in-Chief of UFC.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NancyGay