By Thomas Gerbasi
Ishe Smith has been called many things over the course of his life in the boxing spotlight; some good, some bad, but never neutral. Having that type of effect on the public would almost guarantee a successful and lucrative career, but in 2009, he was called something that sent a life spiraling out of control even further.
That was the word from ESPN when promoter Lou DiBella tried to get his fighter on the network, and you couldn’t have hit Smith with a punch in the ring that would have hurt as much.
“I was devastated,” recalled Smith. “I’m looking at guys on the network, and I’m like, really? I’m thinking to myself, I’ve beaten some solid guys in my career and I’ve looked good beating David Estrada and Randall Bailey, and I’m unapprovable?”
DiBella, as is his custom when his fighters are wronged, went on the offensive against the network, something Smith says he’ll never forget, but to no avail. And just like that, a career that seemed destined for stardom and, at the very least, a world championship, had ground to a halt. One of the stars of the first season of NBC’s “The Contender,” Smith was introduced to the nation through the reality series, and this was AFTER he beat fighters like Sam Garr, Alfonso Gomez, Estrada, and Bailey, all within 14 pro bouts. He wouldn’t win the show, but that wasn’t expected to slow him down.
Those predictions didn’t pan out though. A disappointing 2007 loss to Sechew Powell and a close 2008 defeat against Joel Julio kept Smith in neutral, and though a 2008 win over then-unbeaten Pawel Wolak got him back on track momentarily, the “unapprovable” tag, coupled with a divorce, a stalled career, and the idea that he was losing everything hit him all at once.
“My life was already going out of control,” said Smith. “I had lost my car, was losing my house, I was catching the bus to the gym, and I was thinking I shouldn’t even box anymore. I remember being in the house by myself and looking at my gun, thinking about killing myself, like life isn’t worth living. I was sitting there talking to myself in my house, I’m getting ready to lose my house anyway, and saying if I can’t box, what the hell am I gonna do? This is all I know how to do. I don’t know how to do nothing else. The recession had started, people were losing jobs left and right in Las Vegas, and I’m like what the hell am I gonna go do?”
The wait was agonizing as Smith pondered his future. Finally, he made his decision.
“The one thing that woke me up and got me out of the whole situation was that I remember growing up without a dad, and him never being there and me never knowing how he looked, him never playing catch with me, him never teaching me how to be a man,” said Smith. “I had to learn everything on the fly, and what I didn’t learn on my own I had to learn from a woman, which was my mom. And I’m looking at this gun and thinking that this is the most selfish thing any man like myself could do. How could I do this to my children? I know what that’s like and I don’t want them to go through that because nobody can replace their father and make up for that pain. I got out of the funk, thank God, I prayed out of it, and I sold all my guns. I don’t own a gun today, and I’m here now. But I think God had to take everything from me for me to appreciate everything.”
The father of three wasn’t out of the woods yet though. Guys like Arturo Gatti would get opportunities wherever and whenever they wanted them simply because win or lose, they gave crowd-pleasing brawls. Slick, defensively sound boxers like Smith have to win all the time, often doing so as the B-side of the card, and if they don’t, it’s a rough road. Smith, one of the game’s straight shooters, didn’t do himself any favors with his mouth either, something that he readily admits to.
“You gotta be true to yourself, and I think at that time, if I was saying anything about the game in general, I meant it,” he said. “I may have said some things about some people like (Contender producer) Mark Burnett. I had some harsh words to say about him that I wish I could take back. But the things about the game in general, I was just speaking my mind. And now, I know that there’s a time and a place to speak your mind. Sometimes people will hold it against you and use it against you when you speak your mind, and you may come off a certain way, but again, when you’re young, you don’t necessarily think things through all the time.”
By 2010, Smith was seemingly at the end of the road. He lost two competitive decisions in consecutive bouts against unbeatens Danny Jacobs and Fernando Guerrero, but after that, the phone simply stopped ringing. Forget getting a title shot; he just wanted a fight.
“I was losing a little faith,” said Smith. “I think the hardest stretch was after I fought Guerrero. I had one tune-up fight that Lou got me, and then I didn’t fight for 18 months. That was the hardest point, and I said ‘man, is this the end?’ I’m getting older here and this is 18 months and nobody has knocked on my door.”
So what happened for someone who was expected to do such big things in the fight game?
“If I had to sum it up, a lot of it was me,” he said. “I made some decisions in my post-Contender and maybe even pre-Contender career that probably weren’t the best, and maybe I wasn’t the most humble person in appreciating everything that I was being blessed with. Everything was coming so fast. I was in Ring magazine with 11, 12 fights, I’m on this big network, Showtime, everybody’s knowing who I am, and then boom, The Contender comes. All this fame just came so fast, and I think I got ahead of how it all started. I lost track of the guy that was fighting Sam Garr with ten fights, that humble guy. Everything was just coming so fast with The Contender and a lot of it was my own doing and some of it was just the game. I lost one fight to Sechew Powell, and after that things just spiraled out of control and I just couldn’t stop it. It was a rollercoaster going down and it never came back up. It never stopped and I just didn’t know if it was ever gonna stop. It was just a tough time.”
Eventually, Smith may not have come to peace with the way things had turned out, but he was beginning to move on. Of course, that process would have been easier if he was living in the middle of nowhere, but as a Las Vegas native and resident, seemingly every weekend was a reminder of how the boxing world was going on without him.
“I never get mad about what other guys are doing,” said Smith. “Even in my weight I’m happy because boxing’s such a grueling sport and I know what goes into it, especially when you have a family. It’s a hard sport, and then I was seeing Randall Bailey rejuvenating his career. He knocked Mike Jones out and he did so much, and ten years ago I beat him. I’m like, man, this is crazy. It was a crazy feeling during that stretch.”
Smith still had his friends and his memories though, and he would often think back to the times he spent with two late champions and friends, Diego Corrales and Vernon Forrest, both of whom told him to never lose hope. In particular, he thought of a dinner with Forrest soon after they had completed camp for Forrest’s rematch with Sergio Mora in 2008.
“Vernon picked me up and took me to dinner and he said ‘man, you’re a good fighter, I’m glad I called you for camp. I know I’m gonna beat Sergio Mora now. You remind me a lot of myself,’” recalled Smith. “I said ‘What do you mean?’ And he said ‘For the longest I couldn’t get nobody to fight. Nobody would fight me. Then Shane (Mosley) gave me my opportunity, and that’s why I rematched Shane because if it wasn’t for him, I would have never had an opportunity. You’re a great fighter, keep working hard, keep fighting, and your opportunity will come.’”
Smith pauses, then continues.
“He (Forrest) meant a lot to me. And Chico as well. We spent a lot of time together.”
It would be another world champion that salvaged Smith’s career though.
“I got a call from (Cornelius) Boza-Edwards in April of last year,” said Smith, who was asked to step in for some sparring with Floyd Mayweather for the pound-for-pound king’s bout with Miguel Cotto. “I was coaching youth football and enjoying life. I wasn’t happy with my career, but I was enjoying life and being a happy father and a happy man.”
He accepted the offer, and in talking with Mayweather’s advisor Leonard Ellerbe, he was assured that he wasn’t just getting a paycheck for sparring, but a fight the night before Mayweather-Cotto as well. Smith, having been burned before, didn’t get his hopes up, but Team Mayweather delivered.
“Weeks went by, and the fight was really happening,” he said. “I was excited, I fought, I was able to attend the fight with Floyd and be a part of that, and we talked a lot during camp, but we had a real heart to heart in the locker room after he beat Cotto, and he said ‘I don’t like a lot of the things that have transpired in your career. You’re a great fighter and you helped me for two of the biggest fights of my life, Shane Mosley and Miguel Cotto, and you gave me the best work. I’m gonna get you a title shot, just stick with me. I know I gotta go do this time, but don’t go anywhere. When I get out I’m gonna take care of you and you’re gonna get a shot one day – I promise. You’re too good of a fighter not to have a shot.’”
“I held on to those words and I believed everything he said,” said Smith, who followed up his May 2012 win over Ayi Bruce with a September 2012 victory over Irving Garcia. By now, Mayweather signed his to his promotional company, and while it was expected that he would fight Omar Henry last November, Ellerbe told him to hold tight.
“If it’s okay with you, we’re not gonna take this fight,” Ellerbe told Smith. “I’ve got some other stuff brewing. Let me work on some things.”
That ‘thing’ was an IBF junior middleweight world title fight with Cornelius “K9” Bundrage. Finally, after all the ups, downs, and sideways, Smith was getting his shot at the gold.
“Words can’t even describe the gratitude I have for Floyd and Mayweather Promotions and Leonard Ellerbe and Golden Boy and the IBF for this opportunity. It’s been a long, long journey,” said the 34-year-old, who is living proof that sometimes, there is some justice in this game for a long-serving veteran.
“This year will be 27 years in the boxing game since I was eight, throwing punches in my bedroom,” Smith continues. “Learning the boxing stance, going forward and backwards, it’s just a long time. And to culminate that with a championship would mean the world to me.”
Who says the fight game has no happy endings?