Leslie Smith is keeping her expectations low in the early stages of her new effort to unionize fighters.
Earlier this month, the UFC women’s bantamweight launched Project Spearhead, an association that hopes to form a fighters’ union to increase the rights of athletes. Smith said she and partner Lucas Middlebrook have always visioned a “grassroots, fighter-led” union, and that’s what they aim to form with Project Spearhead.
We’ve seen other unionization efforts in recent years, including the Professional Fighters Association (PFA) and the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association (MMAAA). Both fizzled out — or, as Smith put it, were “dead in the water.”
Smith is confident Project Spearhead, of which she is the interim president, will go further than previous efforts, but fighters don’t know that yet, so she has set the bar low for support it receives right away.
“The biggest challenge is the education — educating all the fighters on what this means, what the steps are, on how it can benefit them; showing the fighters that the struggles that they’re going through are the same struggles as all the other fighters are, have, and will go through,” Smith told BloodyElbow.com.
Smith admitted that now might not be the perfect time to launch Project Spearhead. In an ideal world, she said, she would travel to different gyms to educate fighters in person. She would, in detail, explain the organization process and the benefits of coming together. She would give the fighters an opportunity to speak and ask questions, too. And then she would form the effort.
But an ideal world doesn’t exist.
Smith faces Aspen Ladd at UFC Fight Night 129 in April in the last fight of her UFC contract. She decided not to re-negotiate before the Ladd fight, because her leverage isn’t as high as it would be should she beat Ladd. She signed a new four-fight deal ahead of her May 2016 meeting with now-featherweight champ Cris Cyborg. Since that fight, which she lost via TKO, Smith is 2-0 in the Octagon.
Even though Smith is on a winning streak, it’s not a guarantee the UFC will re-sign her after the Ladd fight win or lose. And Project Spearhead has the best chance to succeed if its head is an active UFC fighter — not someone looking in from out.
“My time is running out. I have been vocal about the union for quite some time now,” Smith said.
“I’m in a good position as far as my fighting career goes, but I’m not deluding myself that the UFC has any obligation to keep me on just because I’m winning. I know that they don’t; that’s part of the independent contractor relationship. If I am not actually in the UFC and I’m working on all these efforts, not only is my access going to be restricted, but my relevance will be, as well.”
Smith said it wouldn’t be as “authentic” if she had waited until she was outside of the UFC to launch Project Spearhead, which is giving her “something else to fight for.” Right now, there are no outside influences in Project Spearhead, according to Smith, and that’s one of the few reasons it will go further than previous efforts, Smith said.
She also doesn’t plan on re-signing with the company unless she receives a large increase in pay.
“My contract right now is for $31k/$31k. And that’s gonna be another obstacle, because at this point, it will not be worth it for me to re-sign for $33k/$33k or something like that,” Smith said. “It’s gonna have to be at least $100k (to show with no win bonus), and that’s probably the lowest that I’m gonna go — we’ll probably start at $250k.
“I am a very exciting fighter; people really like to watch me fight. I bring it every time, I make weight, but I’m not gonna sign myself away for less than what I feel I’m worth.”
If Smith isn’t offered what she’s looking for after the Ladd fight, she said she’ll most likely hang her gloves up. She plans to pursue a second degree after MMA competition is in her past.
“I’m currently looking at applying to the Sorbonne University in Paris, where I could go study international law — who knows?” Smith said, indicating that her future is still very much up in the air. “If I don’t get signed, I’m going back to school.”
So, Smith has chosen to go all in on Project Spearhead. UFC lightweights Kajan Johnson and Al Iaquinta are also part of the interim executive board, and labor lawyer Middlebrook will help out with the legal side of things. They are currently collecting authorization cards from UFC fighters; they need 150 within the next year to make it to the next step — the National Labor Relations Board determining whether UFC fighters are employees or independent contractors.
Smith explained Project Spearhead will work, unlike the PFA and the MMAAA, because the fighters are in full control. Per “The Peacemaker,” there are “no outside influences, no outside money, no outside agenda, (and) no glaring discrepancies (or) inconsistencies between the past habits of anybody who’s” part of the association.
“The MMAAA had Bjorn Rebney, who said he was there to make things better for fighters,” Smith said. “He had the opportunity to do so when he was the head of an organization (Bellator MMA). His behavior in the past didn’t really line up with what he was saying his goal for the future was. I feel like that was the main reason that didn’t work, because Bjorn Rebney was a big part of it, and he had his own agenda.
“The PFA didn’t work because Jeff Borris started a committee of agents that he did not tell me or Middlebrook about. When the confidentiality became an issue, he gave them all the information. That was a breach of the confidentiality.”
Smith is keeping her expectations low when it comes to the support from fighters, but thus far, she’s been “pleasantly surprised,” she said.
“Leading up to this, I’ve had tons of fighters come up to me and tell me they really appreciate what I’m doing, they really like the spirit of it, and that they would love to be part of it, but they’re scared for their jobs,” Smith said.
“The UFC has a lot of people scared to speak up, and that’s what I want to change. We don’t need a climate of fear that’s governing the fighters and the UFC. We need a climate where fighters’ opinions and rights and desires and needs are valued and weighed in when making decisions.”
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