Leslie Smith, a professional mixed martial artist since 2009, will pursue legal action against the UFC following its handling of a contracted bout this past weekend in Atlantic City.
Smith, 35, was scheduled to fight Aspen Ladd at UFC Fight Night in what was to be the final fight of her UFC contract. The bantamweight bout was canceled, however, when Ladd missed weight by 1.8 pounds at the official weigh-in.
The UFC paid Smith’s entire fight purse of $62,000 but also informed her that she is now a free agent. According to Smith, she tried to extend the deal given the circumstances, but she believes that the UFC wanted to part ways because of her involvement with Project Spearhead, an organization attempting to unionize professional fighters.
“There’s a lot of litigation in the future with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB),” Smith told ESPN. “I never even agreed to what happened. We weren’t like, ‘Here’s the deal. You sign here, I sign here.’ I kept trying to make adjustments on how it was going to be resolved, and they never even acknowledged them.
“I was struggling with whether to still accept the fight, but they weren’t struggling at all. That’s the impression I got. They found a way to end the issue.”
As of Tuesday, the UFC had not commented on the matter.
Smith (10-7-1), of California, is the leader of Project Spearhead, which aims to classify UFC athletes as employees rather than independent contractors and eventually unionize them. She has won three of her past four bouts, and is the No. 10-ranked bantamweight in the world, according to ESPN.
Smith’s attorney, Lucas Middlebrook, expects to file a complaint on Smith’s behalf with the NLRB by the end of the month. According to Middlebrook, such a complaint may accelerate Project Spearhead’s cause, as the NLRB would have to determine Smith’s classification as an employee before taking action.
“The biggest question is whether the actions the UFC took are retaliation for her role with Project Spearhead,” Middlebrook said. “It would essentially be firing an individual for unionizing in the workplace, which is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act.
“Another question is, ‘If you file a charge as an independent contractor, how are you entitled to protections under the National Labor Relations Act?’ And the answer is that if the UFC makes that argument and we contest it, the NLRB will have to make a finding on it.”
While it’s unusual for the UFC to essentially buy out the last fight of an athlete’s contract, it would not be unprecedented for it to not re-sign Smith — despite her recent record. And it is worth noting, the UFC just promoted Al Iaquinta in a lightweight title fight earlier this month. Iaquinta is also publicly involved with Project Spearhead.
Smith acknowledges those points, but she believes that the overall evidence suggests the UFC took retaliatory actions against her.
“There are people all over the internet saying, ‘She’s 35, who cares about her fights? She’s not exciting. She’s not pretty,'” Smith said. “The fact is, I’m ranked inside the top 10. I got a stoppage in my last fight, and the fight before that I won a fight-of-the-night bonus.
“All the evidence shows I’m doing everything I need to do to be an exciting, winning fighter.”