MMA Flyweight Ashlee Evans-Smith Is an Underdog No More

Ashlee Evans-Smith punches Bec Rawlings of Australia in their women’s flyweight bout during the UFC 223 event on April 7, 2018, in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

For Ashlee Evans-Smith, being an underdog in fights is a way of life.

Growing up in a small town in Northern California in the ’90s, the current UFC flyweight often found herself fighting her one-year-younger brother regardless of size difference. During her sophomore year of high school, Evans-Smith joined the boys’ wrestling team (despite having rarely played an organized sport in her life) simply because someone had told her that girls couldn’t wrestle; she became a state champion.

Toward the end of her high school run, the 5-foot-8 brunette almost lost her spot on the Menlo College wrestling team when her punk-rock-loving “Rebel Girl” attitude landed her in legal trouble thanks to an assault charge. Knowing she might not get another chance to leave her quaint hometown of Ukiah, Evans-Smith turned her energy, stubbornness and aggression into four years of all-American honors and a journalism degree before running into the same wall that so many collegiate wrestlers hit. After graduation, there just wasn’t much of a career path for a female wrestler in 2009. At that time, Ronda Rousey hadn’t yet made her amateur mixed-martial-arts debut, and the fight between Cris “Cyborg” and Gina Carano that put women’s MMA on the map was only just occurring.

Evans-Smith vividly recalls hearing UFC President Dana White say back in January 2011 that women would never fight in his company. But a chance meeting with MMA forefather Eugene Jackson while working as a bartender started her down a career path she couldn’t have envisioned a decade before. “[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 side of her head and growing tattoo collection only drawing a handful of eyes in Santa Ana’s 4th Street 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 skills against the toughest competition she could find in Northern California, and despite knowing only one person in all of Southern California (former UFC strawweight champion and collegiate teammate Carla Esparza), Evans-Smith decided to move to Orange County because it was home to some of the best MMA gyms, trainers and fighters in the world. She stayed with a generous teammate for a couple of months until she could find a job and earn enough money to pay rent in addition to her training costs.

Once Evans-Smith had settled into her new gym at Subfighter MMA in Laguna Hills, it didn’t take long for her to move into the MMA spotlight. With her first professional bout landing in the opening round of a featherweight (145-pound) tournament for the Miami-based Championship Fighting Alliance in March 2013, her unanimous-decision victory over a woman she’d lost to as an amateur pushed the young fighter into the championship match after her opponent in the semifinals fell through.

But before Evans-Smith could step into the cage again, the buzz surrounding her next fight had already taken an unusual turn. Just a few days after the opening round of the tournament, the woman Evans-Smith would later meet in the finals, Fallon Fox, came out as transgender. Partially because of the brutal knockouts Fox delivered in her previous fights, much of the MMA world began to question whether a competitor who wasn’t born as a biological woman should be able to compete against other women. Though she was seen as a huge underdog, Evans-Smith could not find a reason to not accept the bout against 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.”

During the surrounding circus leading up to the bout, Evans-Smith steered clear of the significant trash-talking much of the MMA community was dishing toward Fox. The LGBT ally wanted to show her sportsmanship and respect for her opponent, and she did her best to give a scientific and politically correct answer when directly asked about whether transgender women should be allowed to compete against other women. But saying that she believed there wasn’t enough scientific testing to know whether or not Fox had an unfair biological advantage over her competitors landed her in clickbait headlines throughout the MMA world, and being labeled as transphobic didn’t sit well with the genuinely friendly 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.”

Although the buildup to the fight would’ve been enough for many MMA fans to remember Evans-Smith’s name, the match itself played out in a bizarre fashion. After nearly getting knocked out in the first round, the wrestler bounced back in the second and found herself in the mount position throwing fist after fist at Fox’s face until the referee intervened to end the fight by technical knockout. While embracing her coach in a tearful celebration, Evans-Smith was pulled away by the same referee, who then explained that the stoppage had actually come just seconds after he apparently didn’t hear the bell signaling the end of the round—meaning the fight wasn’t officially over, so they’d be going into a third round.

“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 a laugh. “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 exactly what Evans-Smith did. Picking up where she left off, Evans-Smith used her wrestling skills to bring Fox to the ground once again and landed punches until the ref jumped in—this time before the end of the round.

Thanks to the controversy surrounding Fox and the $20,000 prize (presented live on AXS TV in the form of a giant Happy Gilmore-style check to a sobbing Evans-Smith), the tournament gave Evans-Smith the boost in recognition she needed to take her career to the next level. After dropping down to bantamweight (135 pounds) and picking up another knockout victory in the World Series of Fighting, the up-and-coming prospect got the call she’d previously thought was impossible.

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Ashlee Evans-Smith punches Ketlen Vieira of Brazil in their women’s bantamweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event on April 15, 2017, in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

“Are you really going to tell the UFC, ‘No’?” Lynn once asked Evans-Smith when she was unsure of whether to accept a short-notice offer to debut in the largest MMA promotion in the world.

“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 train my butt off, and then I can have fun, relax, chill and do it all over again. World Series of Fighting told me I wouldn’t be fighting for, like, another two months, so I was still training, but I was also on the couch eating 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.”

But filling in as a last-minute replacement against recent UFC bantamweight challenger Raquel Pennington proved a bit too much for Evans-Smith. “Rebel Girl” did her best to get back into fighting shape and put together a game plan, but Pennington muscled through Evans-Smith, eventually choking her unconscious at the end of the first round. “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.”

While some fighters might become discouraged by their first professional loss landing them on their opponent’s highlight reel, Evans-Smith saw it as an opportunity to show everyone that she could overcome adversity with the best of them.

Despite not competing in 2015 because she tested positive for a diuretic after the Pennington fight, Evans-Smith bounced back in 2016, earning two wins in the UFC. Not wanting to get complacent, the hungry fighter opted to experiment with some other gyms and coaches around Orange County—including a stint alongside Esparza at Irvine’s Team Oyama—but ended up dropping a pair of fights, the latter of which ended with a dislocated elbow and another role in her opponent’s highlight reel.

While healing the first injury of her MMA career, Evans-Smith began to contemplate moving into the UFC’s newly created women’s flyweight (125-pound) division. As someone who’d wrestled and fought most of her life at 145 pounds, making the flyweight limit seemed almost laughable, but a dietary switch from vegetarianism to veganism—as well as some improved eating habits overall—and it no longer seemed so daunting a task.

By the time she stepped into the octagon across from veteran Bec Rawlings at the UFC 223 event in April, the revamped Evans-Smith held such a power advantage that she easily handled the 115-pound Australian. The size and strength difference between the two was so prominent that commentator Joe Rogan couldn’t stop talking about it during the fight.

“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 a laugh. “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.”

Photo by Amy Kaplan/Design by Richie Beckman

MMA fans may have noticed something else different about Evans-Smith in her bout against Rawlings. For the first time in her career, she decided to go through the entire training camp and fight without a head coach. Instead of sticking with one gym, Evans-Smith took the uncommon route of splitting time among a few trainers — a technique that worked so well that she’s sticking with it for her next fight.

As if the weight cut and lack of head coach weren’t enough, Evans-Smith also found herself in a situation she’d done her best to avoid leading up to the Rawlings fight: a little old-fashioned trash talking. Even when she tore into Rawlings for being “raunchy” and “embarrassing” ahead of their fight, Evans-Smith made sure to not use any choice words she wouldn’t want a young fan hearing. After all, it doesn’t feel like that long ago that the 31-year-old was a bit of a contentious kid herself, and she knows it was ultimately wrestling that kept her out of trouble. With that in mind, Evans-Smith is committed to being a role model for all of the girls (and boys) who strive to compete like her one day.

“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 future, Evans-Smith is set to square off against renowned striker Antonina Shevchenko—who also happens to be the older sister of top-ranked flyweight and expected champion Valentina Shevchenko—on Nov. 30 in Las Vegas. As excited as she is to finally be on a card within driving distance of her family and friends, the powerful grappler in her is even more stoked to make a statement with her wrestling, just like in the old 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.”

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