A few years ago, women's MMA was a rarity. If you wanted to see the ladies scrap, you could occasionally catch them on a Strikeforce or Bellator card, but that was about it. The fame and notoriety wasn't there.
Fast forward to present day and women's MMA is quickly becoming the hottest ticket in town. Not only is there an all-women's MMA company that has garnered a massive cult following in Invicta FC, but the UFC even has ladies competing in the Octagon as well.
One of the rising stars in the sport is Ashlee Evans-Smith. It's not because she is a pin-up doll of a fighter or rabid self promoter, but because she's a nose-to-the-grind, down-to-earth woman with a great attitude and a developing skill set that could make her a future contender in the big leagues.
The ride Evans-Smith took to get here has elements that are familiar to the average fighter mixed in with some uniqueness. The entire ride has made Evans-Smith one of the more interesting up-and-coming athletes in the sport.
"I started wrestling my sophomore year of high school and I was pretty good at it," Evans-Smith told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "So, I wrestled in college at Menlo College, where I was a four-time All-American. The year after college, I was pretty lost, but I met [UFC and Strikeforce vet] Eugene Jackson. At the time, I was playing rugby just to keep me busy, but it really wasn't doing it for me. I mentioned to Jackson that I was a wrestler. He had just opened an MMA gym and told me to come train with him for free and that he'd turn me into a fighter. I had no idea what MMA was and I needed sports in my life. My understanding was it was wrestling with punches."
And that's all it took. Evans-Smith was hooked instantly. Many times you'll hear from fighters that MMA saved their lives or is the reason they are not in jail anymore. Some of it is true, some of it is exaggerated. For Evans-Smith, it was the difference between straightening out her priorities in life and building further on past mistakes.
"When I was in high school, I hung out with the misfits, the punk rock kids. They were good kids, but all we did was drink and party. My senior year, that caught up with me. I had some legal trouble, but the judge was lenient with me. Having the opportunity to wrestle in college and getting that extra chance after my troubles was what kept me out of trouble."
Evans-Smith's time at Menlo College not only got her a high-level education, an outlet from trouble in the form of wrestling and a chance to live her life right, but it also introduced her to a girl who would eventually become a great friend. That friend is Carla Esparza, current Invicta Strawweight Champion and member of the UFC roster.
Esparza also wrestled at Menlo College as a teammate of Evans-Smith. However, the two had very different life styles and career goals. In fact, there was an ironic foreshadowing in how Evans-Smith viewed Esparza's free time in college.
"Carla Esparza and I became good friends our junior year of college," Evans-Smith explained. "In college, she told me she was doing this thing called MMA where she would go to boxing classes after wrestling practice. I had to go to work after practice, I was a personal trainer. I thought it was weird at the time, my thought was 'why don't you put all of your focus on wrestling?' She already had the idea in her head that she wanted to do this after college, and in my head, I wanted to be a journalist."
And that was the great irony. Evans-Smith did not become a journalist, and she would eventually join her former college teammate into MMA. With the aforementioned help of Eugene Jackson and the knowledge that a wrestling teammate was participating in MMA, Ashlee decided to give it a shot.
"After we graduated, Carla and I kept in touch, just barely. It just so happened that I came down for her first pro fight to support her, but I had no idea what was going on. A couple months later I met Eugene. It was then I thought, 'if Carla could do it, I could do it' because of our similar backgrounds."
And do it she did. Evans-Smith got into the gym and stated prepping herself for the start of her amateur career. She would take her first fight at the end of 2010, taking on Stacie Seidner at Dragon House 4.
"I trained for about three months before my first amateur fight. It was mainly jiu-jitsu and striking training. I was confident going into the fight because of my wrestling and I thought it could carry me through."
Evans-Smith opened up her amateur career on fire, winning four straight fights in four months, including a win over now-UFC fighter Jessamyn Duke. However, she would go 1-3 in her next four fights before taking her last amateur bout against a heavily hyped Veronica Rothenhausler. Evans-Smith took a major setback in that bout and suffered a five-second knockout loss.
"Going into the fight, I told myself that it was time to start making money doing this. It was time to go pro after the fight against Veronica Rothenhausler," Evans-Smith explained. "Then the knockout happened and it shook me a bit. It was a crappy way to lose. I sat down and had a decision to make: I could quit and wash my hands of this or get my ass back in the gym and work my hardest to make sure that doesn't happen again."
She opted for the latter, knowing that people were going to remember that loss and wonder how she would respond to it. Evans-Smith examined what went wrong and tried to build from it and improve as a fighter.
"I don't make excuses. There are a lot of outside factors that went into that fight. I definitely also think I looked past her a bit, I got a little cocky. I learned a lesson the hard way. That's how it has to happen sometimes.
"The girl you are watching on tape when preparing for the fight isn't the same fighter you are fighting when the cage door closes. I feel every time I get on the mat that I am better than the day before. It's been a short time, but I feel I'm a much more advanced fighter since my amateur days."
That is the type of outlook and attitude that builds champions. Now that Evans-Smith had turned pro, it was time to set her eyes on a big prize. The CFA organization in Florida was set to have an eight-woman tournament to crown a 145-pound champion, with the winner earning a title belt and $20,000. Evans-Smith entered that tournament, despite being 0-0 as a pro. Her first fight was against a familiar opponent in Tori Adams, a woman who had defeated her as an amateur.
"In wrestling, I learned going into a tournament that you know who the best people are and who you will likely face down the road. I also learned you have to take it one fight at a time. My only focus in the quarterfinals was beating Tori Adams and getting that win back from my amateur career. That proved to be good because I did beat Tori and made it to the semifinals."
Evans-Smith fought Adams and showed she had improved from her amateur days. She outworked Adams for the better part of 15 minutes, earning a unanimous decision and a spot in the semifinals. Her fight would be against Peggy Morgan, a tall striker with great physical gifts that presented an exotic challenge.
However, Morgan dropped out of the tournament and would pursue another endeavor in the form of The Ultimate Fighter 18. This left Evans-Smith without an opponent until CFA presented her with Anna Barone. That's when even more craziness happened close to fight time.
"I was looking forward to fighting Peggy Morgan because she was kind of talking a little smack that came around to me. She said my wrestling wasn't that good and I wanted to prove it was against her. Then, she dropped out to due TUF 18 and they matched me up with Anna Barone. She missed weight horribly and I got a free pass to the finals. I was bummed I didn't get to fight at all because in my mind now it's 'I could be 3-0 but I am only 2-0."
The free pass to the finals meant one step closer to a big payday and championship status. Her opponent would be Fallon Fox, a competitor who won her quarterfinal bout in brutal fashion. It was after that quarterfinal bout that the MMA world found out Fox was a transgender woman. CFA continued to have her in the tournament, and Fox would punch and choke her way to the finals to set up a high-profile bout with Evans-Smith.
"We found out about Fallon Fox's situation while we were celebrating at the bar a couple days after the quarterfinals. I was like, 'whoa, that's crazy.' Knowing that I may have to fight her, I was a little upset about the situation, but I'm a fighter. I wasn't scared of her. What's she going to do, knock me out? I've been knocked out before. I knew I could build my name off her, so this fight was really important to me."
Evans-Smith took the cage October 12, 2013 with Fox in her cross hair. After some sticky situations and amazing perseverance, Evans-Smith was able to ground and pound her way to a stoppage over Fox, effectively pushing her stock through the roof and earning her championship gold for the first time as a pro. It is a belt she still holds to this day.
The win made Evans-Smith an overnight sensation. Those who watched WMMA were intrigued by this soft-spoken warrior. She had the swagger of the cool girl in school with the ability to open a can of whoop ass on any lady who dared square off with her.
That fame earned her a call from an up-and-coming promotion by the name of World Series of Fighting. They wanted to sign her to their newly formed bantamweight division, something Evans-Smith was eager to do.
"I decided on WSOF because it's a really great company that will let me grow as a fighter and continue to build me up. It's awesome that World Series of Fighting 10 has three female bouts now. I think it's great that WSOF is starting to promote WMMA more and more. I'm really excited."
WSOF 10 will be Evans-Smith's long-awaited debut. She is used to taking fights close to one another, but sat on the shelf waiting for WSOF to find her an opponent. The problem was that nobody wanted to fight her. The win over Fox had made her a feared competitor.
"Everybody they asked wouldn't take the fight," Evans-Smith claimed. "It got frustrating sitting on the sidelines waiting for a fight. Especially because I am so used to fighting often—I mean, look at my amateur career. I was super busy in terms of taking fights. So I was just training without having a fight. Now that I have a fight, I wake up every morning feeling happy knowing I finally will be fighting soon."
In her way at WSOF 10 is a 3-1 Invicta FC vet by the name of Marceia Allen. Allen is a respected fighter with good skills and great athleticism. It is the type of matchup that will serve as a measuring stick and really show Evans-Smith where she is as a fighter.
"I have studied all of [Marceia Allen's] fights. She's very good everywhere. Her striking is good, her ground is solid, she's very physically strong, but I already have a game plan. I know how she fights and I am going into the fight with a ton of confidence. I don't want to get cocky, though, because she is a very tough opponent."
Outside of fighting, Evans-Smith is just like any normal human being. We only see the braided-up warrior with four-ounce gloves on and sponsors littered on her gear. However, Evans-Smith is adamant about giving back to the community and spreading the sport around woman. That's why she runs the "Fight Like a Girl" seminars along with other fighters, such as her friend Carla Esparza.
"Our seminars are to get more little girls into the sport. Our first seminar was more pankration based because they are actually starting to enforce the rules in wrestling that little boys and little girls can't wrestle. So we are trying to get girls involved in wrestling, as well as MMA in the future."
"Not only that, we are trying to get older women into it as well because it's good for fitness and self-defense. We are doing another one here in Southern California possibly. It's girls and women only and we're going to teach them more striking and jiu-jitsu. We also make them aware of bullying and how to deal with that as well, which I think is great."
It's a great little endeavor that shows that while Evans-Smith is a killer in the cage, she's a true citizen at heart. She doesn't let the fame of the sport get in the way of her giving back to the community. And the seminars have done great things for the sport and Evans-Smith herself.
Of course, being a fighter forces many people in the sport to work on the side to support themselves, especially for the non-Anderson Silvas and Georges St-Pierres of the world. So how does Evans-Smith fit all of this into such a tight schedule?
"I am used to being stretched every which way from my college days," Evans-Smith replied. "Back then it was going to class, wrestling practice and working a part-time job. So it's not a huge deal to me training a bunch everyday and having a part-time job on the side. I am just happy I can get away from the restaurant business, because there I was drinking and smoking all the time and working late shifts. So it's good that I have a new part-time gig."
Going forward, Evans-Smith's plan is to continue winning and collecting gold. Her main focus is on WSOF and gaining win after win and make it to the top of the 135-pound division. It won't be immediate, but she's just here to enjoy the ride for now. She's worried about her immediate future rather than her distant one.
"I'm not really one to call one out. I like when people call me out, I want to fight girls that call me out. I like being the underdog and proving people wrong. I'm not calling her out, but maybe at some point fighting Jessamyn Duke just to see how far we have both come since our amateur days would be kind of cool. But I am ready to fight anybody."
*Ashlee would like to give a shout out and thanks to Subfighter MMA in Laguna Hills, CA and Innovative Results in Costa Mesa, CA where she trains. Check them out if you are in the area. She would also like to thank her sponsors Jagged Edge Nutrition, CNP Performance, Lexani, Bite Me Mouthguards, Amber Sports, OC Fight Docs, Rev Gear and Way of Life Juice. She would also like to thank all of her coaches, teammates and fans. Follow her on Twitter @AshleeMMA1
The Beaten Path is a regular series highlighting MMA's top prospects. For the previous interview in the series, click here. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.