THACKERVILLE, Okla. – The last time Leslie Smith fought for Bellator, she was as green as can be.

Smith remembers trying to bond on the fighter bus to the venue for Bellator 7 in May 2009, where she was scheduled to fight Kerry Vera, the wife of now-former UFC fighter Brandon Vera.

“I was like, ‘Look at us, we’re being professional fighters! Anybody want a granola bar?’” Smith, who returns to action Friday at Bellator 224, told MMA Junkie. “And all these guys were like, ‘No, we’re about to fight. … So yeah, things have changed a little bit.”

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Smith is now 18 fights into her professional career. She’s a UFC veteran and the leader of Project Spearhead, an organization advocating for collective bargaining in MMA. And she’s starting over.

Smith’s exit from the UFC was traumatic. She contends she was cut from her contract when the promotion refused to give her another fight following a weight miss from her scheduled opponent Aspen Ladd at UFC Fight Night 128 in April 2018. The UFC’s position was that it had fulfilled Smith’s contract by paying her her show and win purse despite her not fighting.

To this day, it irks Smith to hear from people who side with the promotion.

“I know that I’m not supposed to care about what people in the internet say,” said Smith (10-7-1 MMA, 0-1 BMMA), who faces Sinead Kavanagh (5-3 MMA, 2-3 BMMA) on the MMA Junkie-streamed prelims at WinStar World Casino and Resort. “The least productive thing ever is to read the comments of random people on the internet. But it is still irritating to see that people are like, ‘Oh, they fulfilled the contract because they paid her the show and win money.’

“Well, that’s not a fight. I got a contract for four fights, and they cut me. They didn’t release me, because it wasn’t fulfilled. Getting paid is not the same thing as having a fight.”

Assessing her options, Smith considered several promotions for the next step in her career. But she said her work as a fighter advocate presented a roadblock for some parties.

“I did think about going across the sea over to some Asian promotions, but they were a little worried about Project Spearhead,” she said.

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When Bellator reached out by her sometime coach and career advisor, Gilbert Melendez, Smith jumped at the opportunity to return to the promotion, which is now run by former Strikeforce chief Scott Coker. Melendez shares a close relationship with Coker.

Smith isn’t trying to bond with anybody this time around. But she said it’s a lot easier to work with the people employed by her new promoter. That means a lot.

“It seems like everybody’s a lot more friendly and positive and willing to look you in the eyes and smile,” she said. “Or not smile, but either way, they’re willing to look you in the eyes. And feel like that was a big difference from other promotions I’ve been a part of.”

For more on Bellator 224, check out the MMA schedule.

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