By Jake Donovan
For decades, Las Vegas has been known as the boxing capital of the world, though a town without a homegrown major titlist.
Ishe Smith finally put an end to that drought, becoming the first-ever Vegas-born fighter to win a belt Saturday evening. The hard-luck veteran did so in hostile territory, taking a split decision over Cornelius Bundrage in the defending titlist’s hometown of Detroit, Michigan.
Scores were 116-111 (twice) for Smith and 114-113 for Bundrage in their Showtime-televised main event.
Smith’s second-half run and emotional post-fight interview made for a memorable evening even when the action in the ring didn’t always accomplish that feat.
The bout began painfully slow, as neither fighter offered much more than a jab in the early going. Bundrage was docked a point in round two for extracurricular activity during a lull, hitting Smith on the break and then again after shoving him to the canvas. There was initial confusion as to the deduction, as referee Sam Williams sent both fighters to the corner and deducted a point without saying who was being penalized and why.
There was little else to speak of in the first two rounds, though action gradually picked up in third round. Both fighters began to pick up the pace in the round. Smith slowly found a home for his jab, while Bundrage enjoyed mild success in combination punching.
Smith enjoyed his best round of the fight in the fourth, scoring with a right hand that momentarily stunned Bundrage. As has been the case far too often in his career, Smith chose to admire his work rather than truly follow up and cause further damage.
Bundrage capitalized on his opponent’s reluctance, landing power shots in round five. The defending alphabet titlist wasn’t much more active than his challenger, but landing enough to preserve his assumed lead.
Drama finally ensued in the second half of the fight, well after boos began raining down. Bundrage was forced to contend with a cut around his left eye, though no official call came from the pedestrian referee. The real concern, however, was Smith uncharacteristically taking the lead, scoring with a three punch combination that had Bundrage in trouble in round nine.
Smith carried over the momentum in round ten, as Bundrage struggled to find answers for the challenger’s straight right hand. Left hooks were also landing with regularity for Smith, though his rare surge of aggression led to openings for Bundrage to exploit in the 11th round.
Not to be outdone, Smith came roaring back in the final minute of the round. Right hand shots from the Vegas native had Bundrage in serious trouble, though the hometown fighter was able to land just enough counter right hands to avoid disaster.
Neither fighter seemed willing to take the initiative in the final round, despite the perception of the fight being on the table. Smith spent most of the round on the outside, resembling a fighter who believed his previous stretch was enough to have already won the title.
Bundrage spent most of the round on the hunt, finally catching his challenger in the final minute of the fight. The rally came too late in the fight to avoid going to the scorecards.
By then, the soon to be ex-champ knew his fate.
“Ishe fought a good fight and won fair and square,” Bundrage (32-5, 19KO) humbly admitted after the fight. Whereas most other fighters would make excuses or claim robbery, the soon-to-be 40-year old took ownership over what went wrong. “I didn’t follow the instructions of my trainer. He won the fight.”
The moment that declaration was made official by Hall of Fame ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr, the celebration began. Emotion immediately overwhelmed Smith, who dropped to his knees before pouring out his heart to Showtime’s Jim Grey afterward.
“It means everything, man,” Smith said of the title win, as he advances to 25-5 (11KO).
The win itself pales in comparison to what actually led him to this point… or importantly what almost didn’t lead him anywhere but a graveyard.
“Five years ago, I was about to kill myself,” Smith recalled of the darkest point of his life. “The thought of my kids growing up without a dad, I didn’t do it. I don’t know what to say.”
“I didn’t think I’d be here.”
Smith almost didn’t make it to the fight. There was first the issue of his not being ranked by the IBF, whose belt was at stake. Then came issues in training camp, where he was given the option by his new promoter – and current unbeaten pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr. Smith would have none of it.
“I got cut in camp. I got my rib hurt in camp,” Smith revealed. “Floyd said, ‘You wanna pull out?’ I said, No man. My rib hurt right now, but man we gotta take this fight.’ There’s a reason Floyd picked me up. 18 months I didn’t fight. Floyd went and got me a fight. Floyd told me he got my back.”
Mayweather saw something in Smith that several other promoter and networks were unable to unearth through the fighter’s 13 years in service.
“I’ve been boxing with Ishe since I was 14 years old,” Mayweather pointed out. “Ishe’s my guy. I love him. The only thing I want is to keep the sport of boxing alive. When everyone turned their back on Ishe, I grabbed him and stood behind him.
“I don’t believe in turning my back on no one. Showtime gave him a chance, now I’m on Showtime. Ishe is amazing.”
He is now also a permanent part of his hometown’s rich boxing history.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, Yahoo Boxing Ratings Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox