Even though the first round of Ashlee Evans-Smith’s bout with Ailín Perez hasn’t started yet, “Rebel Girl” already feels like she’s won.
Evans-Smith has been on the sidelines for nearly three years while she recovered from a spine surgery to fix pinching and nerve pain in her neck and back. At this weekend’s UFC Fight Night: Holm vs Bueno Silva she makes her comeback, fully healthy and full of gratitude for everything that she went through to make it to this point.
It’s a big moment for Evans-Smith, who looks back on those endless hours of physical therapy, acupuncture, stem cell treatments, massages, and sports psychology as key building blocks for her comeback.
“True competitors make their biggest setbacks part of their comeback,” Evans-Smith told UFC.com. “Man, this was a really big setback, so I expect an amazing performance on Saturday.”
“For a minute there, I was really thinking that I wasn’t going to come back into the sport. Being able to go through all those trials and tribulations and to fight back from physical adversity and mental and emotional adversity, when you think about the whole psychological effects of pro athletes being injured, I’m so proud of myself. In my eyes I’ve already won this fight. So no matter what happens, I’m just grateful.”
Although Evans-Smith has a completely different mentality heading into her bout with Perez, the 36-year-old plans on being a similar fighter to what she was before her injury – aggressive and exciting to watch.
She’s added some wrinkles to her game but she’s confident that her fighting style is part of the reason for her longevity in the UFC.
“I don’t want to change much because the way that I used to fight is still the way I fight, but fine-tuned. I think that I was always an exciting fighter,” Evans-Smith said. “I’ve been in the UFC since 2014, I’ve won some I’ve lost some, why am I still here? I think because every knows when they watch an Ashlee Evans-Smith fight, she’s going forward and it’s going to be exciting.”
If you go back and look at Evans-Smith’s strength of schedule, it’s quite impressive. Even though she didn’t always come out with her hand raised, hard-fought bouts with the likes of Raquel Pennington, Marion Reneau, Ketlen Vieira, Andrea Lee, and Norma Dumont show that Evans-Smith has never backed down from a challenge.
Setting a goal or a challenge to accomplish is one of the main things that drive Evans-Smith. That’s why she feels like she’s already won, even though she hasn’t even walked to the Octagon yet.
Coming back from such a significant injury and surgery was her goal – she accomplished it – and now she’s looking to beat Perez for another reason.
“I struggle with putting this pressure on myself because I know I’ve already shown the people that have helped me a lot of love and gratitude,” Evans-Smith said. “But I can’t shake the feeling that the way you pay people back that helped you along the way is getting that W and doing it in the best way possible. Following the gameplan, overcoming adversity, not giving up when times get tough in the third round. We all can quit. Do you have that character? Do you have that internal person inside of you to be better? I know I do.”
Octagon door shuts behind her and Perez. She feels the readiest because she’s been so focused on herself and doing what it takes to not only get back to this point, but doing what makes her who she is.
She knows that Perez is hungry and she’s young and she’s looking to notch her first UFC win. But there’s no way that Evans-Smith is going to let that happen. She’s got too many people to pay back for all their time, effort, and love.
“When I win on Saturday, it’s like repaying all the people who have helped me these last three years; doctors, agents, therapists, coaches, training partners,” Evans-Smith pauses to hold back tears before continuing. “But how can you thank someone? It’s invaluable what they’ve done for me. This is not just my career but it’s everything that I am. There’s more to me than being a fighter, but getting back into the Octagon and following my dream and being here means the world.”
UFC Fight Night: Holm vs Bueno Silva took place live from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada on July 15, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!