Photo: Buda Mendes (Getty)

Pro MMA veteran Leslie Smith was supposed to fight on last weekend’s UFC Fight Night card, but her bout with Aspen Ladd was scrapped under strange circumstances. Ladd weighed in 1.8 pounds over the limit, claiming that “certain female circumstances” kept her from being able to cut weight. Smith initially okayed the catchweight fight on the condition that the UFC extend her expiring contract, but the UFC instead paid Smith her show money and win bonus for the fight, thus ending her UFC career.

As Smith first told Luke Thomas last week, she believes the decision not to renew her deal is because of her efforts with Project Spearhead, a nascent pro MMA fighters’ union drive. Smith went on the MMA Hour yesterday and told Ariel Helwani that she’s planning on exploring a case against the UFC with the federal National Labor Relations Board, as well as a California court. “It’s my opinion that what the UFC did was illegal,” Smith said. “Because they have created a situation where it encourages a climate of fear where the other people in the UFC on the roster are going to be fearful of publicly organizing and standing up for their rights.”

As MMA Fighting noted, it’s rare for the UFC to pay a fighter their win bonus for a canceled fight, and it’s also rare for such a payment to be considered a contract buyout. In pure fighting terms, it doesn’t make sense to cut Smith, since she’s a top-ten ranked action fighter on a winning streak. Smith told Thomas that taking the deal was a no-brainer, saying, “Do I take $62,000 with no risk, or do I fight her for $31,000?” Fighting for less than she’s worth would have violated the spirit of Project Spearhead, she said:

“I feel like if I didn’t do that at this point, it wouldn’t be living up to everything I’ve been talking about,” Smith said. “That’s why I couldn’t take the fight once they offered me the $62,000, because then I would be fighting for free. And that’s been my whole point this whole time. We shouldn’t be manipulated by pride. We need to look at ourselves as a business and fight for the large sums of money that we deserve.”

Smith’s no dummy, and she said plainly that she knew her unionization efforts could cost her her UFC career. Even though she’s no longer eligible for a fighters’ union, she is going to continue a signature drive, and if 30 percent of fighters sign cards, then the NLRB will examine whether UFC athletes should qualify as employees and not independent contractors. Project Spearhead’s stance is that the UFC treats its fighters like employees, but pays them like independent contractors. “They want to maintain control over us without the legal responsibility that comes with having employees,” their site reads. Smith said that the project is on track to get the 150 signatures they need by their Feb. 2019 deadline. Perhaps Smith’s own legal case against the UFC will push the union drive forward.