In May 2016, Leslie Smith didn't manage to make it 90 seconds against the force of nature that is Cris Cybog. On Friday, Smith will hope that five years of growth will be enough to score a career-defining upset when the pair rematch for Cyborg's featherweight title in the main event of Bellator 259.
The two first met at UFC 198 in a 140-pound catchweight fight. The fight was Cyborg's first in the UFC after a lengthy period of trash talk between the then-Invicta FC champion and UFC president Dana White -- along with then-UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. A long-discussed fight with Rousey never came together, but Cyborg did manage a 6-1 record in the Octagon, including a stint as 145-pound champion.
After an unceremonious end to her UFC career, Cyborg signed with Bellator MMA and immediately defeated Julia Budd to win the promotion's featherweight title, becoming the first woman to hold championships in four "major" promotions (Strikeforce, Invicta, UFC, Bellator).
The problem with dominance is that fresh opponents and legitimate challenges become increasingly hard to come by.
Enter Smith, who was 3-2-1 in Invicta, 4-3 in the UFC and now sits at 2-2 in Bellator, maintaining a level of just above .500 in major promotions, but whose time in those promotions makes her a viable option for a fight with Cyborg.
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After a loss to Arlene Blencowe snapped a three-fight winning streak, Smith rebounded with a 2020 decision win over Amanda Bell to secure her shot at the title. Now, it's up to Smith to prove the validity of her claims of her growth since the 81-second knockout loss to Cyborg the first time around.
"We both changed," Smith said at Bellator 259 media day. "We both have been doing this for a long time, and I know that I have a much higher level of fight maturity, fight knowledge. I'm more cerebral. I have a better understanding on how to create and exploit opportunities than I ever did, but I know that she has changed a lot, too. I think as our styles have evolved, I think this has made the fight a lot more interesting than the first fight."
Elsewhere on the card, former bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell is back in action when he takes on Leandro Higo at 135 pounds. Caldwell returns to the division where he has had the most success after losing to AJ McKee in the Featherweight World Grand Prix semifinals in November. He hasn't fought at 135 pounds since losing his title to Kyoji Horiguchi in 2018 and 2019. Higo enters the bout on a two-fight win streak.
Plus, Austin Vanderford is back in a key bout at 185 pounds when he takes on Fabian Edwards. Vanderford, husband of former UFC fighter Paige VanZant, has made a name for himself in his blossoming career. He's 10-0 with seven stoppages to date. He picked up a decision over Vinicius de Jesus in his only bout of 2020 and holds a 4-0 mark so far with the promotion. Edwards, the brother of UFC welterweight contender Leon Edwards, is coming off the first loss of his pro career. He dropped a split decision to Costello van Steenis in September. He's 9-1 with an even split across his wins in decisions, submissions and knockouts.
Here's the fight card for Bellator 259 with the latest odds from William Hill Sportsbook.
Bellator 259 card, odds
Cris Cyborg (c) -1200
Leslie Smith +750
Women's featherweight title
Darrion Caldwell -310
Leandro Higo +250
|Austin Vanderford -240||Fabian Edwards +200||Middleweight|
|Maycon Mendonca -120||Jaleel Willis +100||Welterweight|
|Valerie Loureda -550||Hannah Guy +400||Women's flyweight|
Bellator 259 viewing information
Date: May 21 | Start time: 9 p.m. ET
Location: Mohegan Sun Arena -- Uncasville, Connecticut
TV Channel: Showtime | Stream: Showtime.com or the Showtime App
Cris Cyborg vs. Leslie Smith: Smith is a capable fighter and her 4-1 record since the first loss to Cyborg does suggest some growth as it is tied for the best five-fight stretch of her career. That said, Cyborg is a simply on a different level from every other woman on the Bellator roster. The only woman on earth who would be expected to compete with -- let alone beat -- Cyborg is Amanda Nunes. Cyborg's power is likely to simply be too much for Smith to be able to deal with in a five-round fight. But improvement can come in many forms, including Smith doing better than the first time around. Pick: Cris Cyborg via TKO3