It’s easy to pick out the moment that Leah Letson arrived as a prospect to watch.
Matched up with Elizabeth Phillips at Invicta FC 21 in January of last year, “Leah-Nidas” was expected to be a bounce back opponent for the UFC veteran who was coming off of a four-fight stint for the world’s premier MMA promotion.
Instead, this happened:
Letson landed a devastating head kick that led to a flurry of ground strikes and the bout being waved off just 78 seconds into round one. That gave the relatively inexperienced Letson the biggest win of her career career to that point and landed her a plum spot on Invicta’s list of its greatest finishes.
After losing her first pro bout, Letson now found herself on a four-fight win streak, but she would have to wait to capitalize on that momentum due to her obligations with the United States Air National Guard. Letson was shipped overseas for seven months and later cast on the 28th season of The Ultimate Fighter, which would take up another six weeks of her life for filming and then keep her on the shelf until the time came for her to make her proper UFC debut.
That goes down Friday when Letson fights fellow featherweight semifinalist Julija Stoliarenko on the preliminary portion of The Ultimate Fighter 28 Finale in Las Vegas. Asked about when she knew she had a shot at competing in the UFC, Letson looked back on the Phillips win fondly.
“It definitely gave me confidence, especially with the knockout,” Letson recently told MMA Fighting. “There’s not a lot of knockouts in Invicta and I got the No. 6 knockout in Invicta history with that fight, so it definitely built my confidence and the fact that she had UFC experience and not just one fight in the UFC, she had a couple of fights in the UFC, which was way more experience than me.
“Being the major underdog in that fight, coming out with such a devastating knockout win was definitely a confidence booster and I think that kind of showed me and my coaches that I was ready for that next level.”
Letson began her career in 2014 and feels that she’s ahead of schedule with just five fights as a pro. She won another exhibition bout on TUF 28 with a two-round scrap against Bea Malecki, and then bowed out in the final four with a loss to Macy Chiasson. Regardless, she’s pleased with the work she’s put in to have Invicta, TUF, and soon the UFC on her resume at the age of 26.
On television, Letson was portrayed as somewhat of a disruptive presence among coach Robert Whittaker’s team, though she says the communication issues that were brought up between her and her mostly international teammates were more humorous than anything. In actuality, she got along with all of her teammates, particularly Brazil’s Larissa Pacheco, with whom Letson developed a strong rapport through just body language and facial expressions.
There were similarities between Letson’s military experience and her time in the TUF house as well. The isolation, the lack of entertainment options, having to get along with a group of strangers. She did appreciate not being yelled at every day, though after a while she would have preferred some of that old-fashioned discipline especially in the gym. Letson and several of her teammates complained to their coaches that the training lacked intensity and variety, but that sentiment fell on deaf ears.
“Literally, our training consisted of shadowboxing, that was our striking training,” Letson said. “And not even just full shadowboxing, shadowboxing jabs and crosses. We threw one combo the entire six weeks we were filming. We hardly ever hit pads, we never sparred besides the one practice that we did on our own. The training was not adequate at all and it wasn’t just me that felt that way, it was everyone.”
Back at her home gym of Pura Vida BJJ in Milwaukee, Letson is primed for the biggest fight of her life against Stoliarenko. The two were teammates on the show and part of the first-ever female featherweight cast. Many of the women cast competed primarily at bantamweight for most of their careers, but Letson’s last win came at 145 pounds and she’s excited about staying there if the UFC is making a commitment to building the division.
Women’s featherweight has essentially been a one-woman show run by the indomitable Cris Cyborg, something that Letson wants to change in the future.
“I would like to stay at ‘45 for as long as the UFC wants to keep the division around,” Letson said. “I am looking at Cyborg and I would like to fight her one day, so I would definitely want to stay at 145 for as long as possible. Plus the weight cut is just so much easier to ‘45 than it is to ‘34, but if the UFC decides that they don’t like the 145 decision and they decide to scrap it, I’m definitely willing to go back down to 135 as well. So it’s kind of up to what the UFC plans to do, but right now I’d like to stay at 145.”