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MMA Flyweight Ashlee Evans-Smith Is an Underdog No More

MMA Flyweight Ashlee Evans-Smith Is an Underdog No More
Ashlee Evans-Smith punches Bec Rawlings of Australia of their ladies’s flyweight bout through the UFC 223 occasion on April 7, 2018, in Brooklyn, New York. Photograph by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC by way of Getty Photographs

For Ashlee Evans-Smith, being an underdog in fights is a lifestyle.

Rising up in a small city in Northern California within the ’90s, the present UFC flyweight typically discovered herself preventing her one-year-younger brother no matter measurement distinction. Throughout her sophomore yr of highschool, Evans-Smith joined the boys’ wrestling group (regardless of having not often performed an organized sport in her life) just because somebody had informed her that women couldn’t wrestle; she turned a state champion.

Towards the top of her highschool run, the 5-foot-Eight brunette virtually misplaced her spot on the Menlo School wrestling workforce when her punk-rock-loving “Rebel Girl” angle landed her in authorized hassle because of an assault cost. Understanding she won’t get one other probability to go away her quaint hometown of Ukiah, Evans-Smith turned her power, stubbornness and aggression into 4 years of all-American honors and a journalism diploma earlier than operating into the identical wall that so many collegiate wrestlers hit. After commencement, there simply wasn’t a lot of a profession path for a feminine wrestler in 2009. At the moment, Ronda Rousey hadn’t but made her newbie mixed-martial-arts debut, and the struggle between Cris “Cyborg” and Gina Carano that put ladies’s MMA on the map was solely simply occurring.

Evans-Smith vividly recollects listening to UFC President Dana White say again in January 2011 that ladies would by no means struggle in his firm. However an opportunity assembly with MMA forefather Eugene Jackson whereas working as a bartender began her down a profession path she couldn’t have envisioned a decade earlier than. “[Jackson] was just very forward, like, ‘Oh, you look like a strong girl’—and I think I had a wrestling T-shirt on, so he asked if my boyfriend wrestles,” Evans-Smith says, the shaved aspect of her head and rising tattoo assortment solely drawing a handful of eyes in Santa Ana’s 4th Road Market. “He had just opened a very new mixed-martial-arts academy in East Palo Alto, and I ended up getting very close with him and his family. He trained me for a little under a year, and I took a bunch of amateur fights up in Northern California and just fell in love with it.”

Having sharpened her expertise towards the hardest competitors she might discover in Northern California, and regardless of understanding just one individual in all of Southern California (former UFC strawweight champion and collegiate teammate Carla Esparza), Evans-Smith determined to maneuver to Orange County as a result of it was house to a number of the greatest MMA gyms, trainers and fighters on the planet. She stayed with a beneficiant teammate for a few months till she might discover a job and earn sufficient cash to pay lease along with her coaching prices.

As soon as Evans-Smith had settled into her new health club at Subfighter MMA in Laguna Hills, it didn’t take lengthy for her to maneuver into the MMA highlight. Together with her first skilled bout touchdown within the opening spherical of a featherweight (145-pound) event for the Miami-based Championship Preventing Alliance in March 2013, her unanimous-decision victory over a lady she’d misplaced to as an novice pushed the younger fighter into the championship match after her opponent within the semifinals fell by means of.

However earlier than Evans-Smith might step into the cage once more, the excitement surrounding her subsequent struggle had already taken an uncommon flip. Just some days after the opening spherical of the event, the lady Evans-Smith would later meet within the finals, Fallon Fox, got here out as transgender. Partially due to the brutal knockouts Fox delivered in her earlier fights, a lot of the MMA world started to query whether or not a competitor who wasn’t born as a organic lady ought to have the ability to compete towards different ladies. Although she was seen as an enormous underdog, Evans-Smith couldn’t discover a purpose to not settle for the bout towards Fox. “There was a halt to the tournament because the news [of Fox being transgender] came out, so I was waiting around for a long time,” Evans-Smith says. “It’s not what I signed up to do, but it was the best thing I ever could’ve asked for. I weighed my pros and cons and felt like it was a win-win for me. It was scary because she was hurting people. Not only was she knocking out people, but she was putting them in the hospital in ways that other women didn’t do to one another. In my mind, I was thinking the worst thing that could happen was that I’d get knocked out, but I’d already been knocked out in my amateur career before.”

Through the surrounding circus main as much as the bout, Evans-Smith steered away from the numerous trash-talking a lot of the MMA group was dishing towards Fox. The LGBT ally needed to point out her sportsmanship and respect for her opponent, and she or he did her greatest to provide a scientific and politically right reply when immediately requested about whether or not transgender ladies must be allowed to compete towards different ladies. However saying that she believed there wasn’t sufficient scientific testing to know whether or not or not Fox had an unfair organic benefit over her rivals landed her in clickbait headlines all through the MMA world, and being labeled as transphobic didn’t sit properly with the genuinely pleasant Evans-Smith. “I thought to myself that it was a good answer and not like some bigot, but I got scrutinized for it a lot,” Evans-Smith says. “I know I should have thick skin about it after all these years, but I don’t because I’m really not like that. Now, I don’t let the trolls bother me, but at the time, I didn’t have as thick of a skin, social media-wise, as I do now.”

Though the buildup to the struggle would’ve been sufficient for a lot of MMA followers to recollect Evans-Smith’s identify, the match itself performed out in a weird style. After almost getting knocked out within the first spherical, the wrestler bounced again within the second and located herself within the mount place throwing fist after fist at Fox’s face till the referee intervened to finish the struggle by technical knockout. Whereas embracing her coach in a tearful celebration, Evans-Smith was pulled away by the identical referee, who then defined that the stoppage had truly come simply seconds after he apparently didn’t hear the bell signaling the top of the spherical—which means the battle wasn’t formally over, in order that they’d be going into a 3rd spherical.

“I legitimately thought I won, and at first, I felt dumb, like, ‘Wait, am I the only one who thought I won?’” Evans-Smith says with amusing. “I was all emotional, and you could see it on my face that I didn’t want to go another round, but my coach, Adam [Lynn of Subfighter], said the best thing between the second and third rounds. That’s when you know you have a good coach because you only have a couple of seconds to get some words of encouragement or technical advice, and it can make or break your mentality for the whole round. He looked at me and said, ‘Hey, you just beat her. Let’s beat her again.’”

And that’s precisely what Evans-Smith did. Choosing up the place she left off, Evans-Smith used her wrestling expertise to deliver Fox to the bottom as soon as once more and landed punches till the ref jumped in—this time earlier than the top of the spherical.

Because of the controversy surrounding Fox and the $20,000 prize (introduced stay on AXS TV within the type of an enormous Joyful Gilmore-style verify to a sobbing Evans-Smith), the event gave Evans-Smith the increase in recognition she wanted to take her profession to the subsequent degree. After dropping right down to bantamweight (135 kilos) and choosing up one other knockout victory within the World Collection of Preventing, the up-and-coming prospect acquired the decision she’d beforehand thought was inconceivable.

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Ashlee Evans-Smith punches Ketlen Vieira of Brazil of their ladies’s bantamweight struggle through the UFC Struggle Night time occasion on April 15, 2017, in Kansas Metropolis, Missouri. Photograph by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC by way of Getty Photographs

“Are you really going to tell the UFC, ‘No’?” Lynn as soon as requested Evans-Smith when she was not sure of whether or not to simply accept a short-notice supply to debut within the largest MMA promotion on the earth.

“When I got that call, I was really overweight. I’d like to say I’m one of those fighters who’s always in shape, but I like the whole balance thing,” Evans-Smith says. “I practice my butt off, after which I can have enjoyable, chill out, chill and do it another time. World Collection of Preventing informed me I wouldn’t be preventing for, like, one other two months, so I used to be nonetheless coaching, however I used to be additionally on the sofa consuming pizza.

“I’m grateful that I got into the UFC when I did, though, because now that it’s gotten so much bigger, they want, like, a 10-0 record with great marketability and a crazy backstory and all that,” Evans-Smith continues. “I had three fights at the time. I have a certain look—I don’t know if everyone likes it, but it’s a look—and they needed someone who they knew would be down to fight. After the [Fox] fight, I think they knew I was down.”

However filling in as a last-minute alternative towards current UFC bantamweight challenger Raquel Pennington proved a bit an excessive amount of for Evans-Smith. “Rebel Girl” did her greatest to get again into preventing form and put collectively a recreation plan, however Pennington muscled by means of Evans-Smith, ultimately choking her unconscious on the finish of the primary spherical. “I made the decision in my mind that I was either going out or was going to fight it,” Evans-Smith says. “She sank the choke in, and then I heard the [10-second warning for the end of the round]. I was like, ‘I got this! I’ve held this choke for way longer! My teammate is way stronger with this!’ and then [snores]. I don’t regret that decision at all. Every fighter has to make in-the-moment decisions, and it’s really important because sometimes when you make the wrong decision, it can cost you the fight.”

Whereas some fighters may turn out to be discouraged by their first skilled loss touchdown them on their opponent’s spotlight reel, Evans-Smith noticed it as an alternative to point out everybody that she might overcome adversity with one of the best of them.

Regardless of not competing in 2015 as a result of she examined constructive for a diuretic after the Pennington struggle, Evans-Smith bounced again in 2016, incomes two wins within the UFC. Not eager to get complacent, the hungry fighter opted to experiment with another gyms and coaches round Orange County—together with a stint alongside Esparza at Irvine’s Workforce Oyama—however ended up dropping a pair of fights, the latter of which ended with a dislocated elbow and one other position in her opponent’s spotlight reel.

Whereas therapeutic the primary damage of her MMA profession, Evans-Smith started to ponder shifting into the UFC’s newly created ladies’s flyweight (125-pound) division. As somebody who’d wrestled and fought most of her life at 145 kilos, making the flyweight restrict appeared virtually laughable, however a dietary change from vegetarianism to veganism—in addition to some improved consuming habits general—and it not appeared so daunting a process.

By the point she stepped into the octagon throughout from veteran Bec Rawlings on the UFC 223 occasion in April, the revamped Evans-Smith held such an influence benefit that she simply dealt with the 115-pound Australian. The dimensions and power distinction between the 2 was so outstanding that commentator Joe Rogan couldn’t cease speaking about it in the course of the battle.

“In my last fight, I swear to god that Joe Rogan said stuff like ‘Ashlee Evans-Smith is a big woman!’ 17 times,” Evans-Smith says with amusing. “I’m listening to it like, ‘If you call me a big woman one more time, Joe . . .’ And then [fellow commentators Jimmy Smith and Jon Anik] are like, ‘Yes, she is, Joe!’ It’s not what a chick wants to be told, but as a fighter, it’s fine. It’s nice to be bigger, and you definitely don’t want to be one of the smaller ones.”

MMA followers might have observed one thing else totally different about Evans-Smith in her bout towards Rawlings. For the primary time in her profession, she determined to undergo the whole coaching camp and struggle and not using a head coach. As an alternative of sticking with one health club, Evans-Smith took the unusual route of splitting time amongst a couple of trainers, most notably the revered Black Home facility that unfold to SoCal from Brazil.

As if the load reduce and lack of head coach weren’t sufficient, Evans-Smith additionally discovered herself in a state of affairs she’d achieved her greatest to keep away from main as much as the Rawlings struggle: slightly old style trash speaking. Even when she tore into Rawlings for being “raunchy” and “embarrassing” forward of their struggle, Evans-Smith made positive to not use any selection phrases she wouldn’t need a younger fan listening to. In any case, it doesn’t really feel like that way back that the 31-year-old was a little bit of a contentious child herself, and she or he is aware of it was finally wrestling that stored her out of hassle. With that in thoughts, Evans-Smith is dedicated to being a task mannequin for all the women (and boys) who attempt to compete like her in the future.

“I feel fortunate that I get to be in the budding stages of women’s mixed martial arts, so I take my role as a public figure and a role model very seriously,” Evans-Smith says. “I’m no angel, but I try not to have a lot of scandalous or vulgar things on my social media. I try to be a good sport and not trash talk because sportsmanship is really important to me.”

As for the longer term, Evans-Smith is about to sq. off towards famend striker Antonina Shevchenko—who additionally occurs to be the older sister of top-ranked flyweight and anticipated champion Valentina Shevchenko—on Nov. 30 in Las Vegas. As excited as she is to lastly be on a card inside driving distance of her household and associates, the highly effective grappler in her is much more stoked to make a press release together with her wrestling, identical to within the previous days.

“I think it’s a really good matchup for me because I don’t know what this girl’s wrestling is going to be like,” Evans-Smith says. “In my last couple of fights, I’ve done a lot of striking. I basically fell out of love with grappling and in love with striking, but I’m going to have to rekindle my love for grappling. I don’t know how the fight’s going to go, and she doesn’t know how the fight’s going to go. Maybe I go in there and end up striking with her the whole time. Ideally, I think that my grappling is going to give me a big upper hand in this fight. Everyone seems to think that I’m going to have my hands full with this fight because she’s Valentina’s sister, but that’s just it: She’s a worthy opponent, but she’s not Valentina; she’s her sister.”

Josh Chesler

Josh Chesler used to play baseball for some fairly cool groups, however now he simply writes about superior stuff like tattoos, music, MMA and sneakers. He enjoys injuring himself by skateboarding, coaching for fights, and enjoying musical devices in his off time.