By Thomas Gerbasi
Despite what some pundits may say, not everyone becomes a world champion in boxing these days. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Some don’t get the opportunities or the breaks, some aren’t well-connected enough, and others just come up short when a belt is on the line.
So after years of toil that included the shedding of plenty of blood, sweat, and tears, Ishe Smith had come to a point where he assumed that his world title dreams would remain just that.
“I had always envisioned myself becoming the first born and raised champion from Las Vegas,” said the former star of the NBC reality show The Contender. “I always had that vision, that thought, and I wanted to get that done and accomplish that. And for so many years, especially post-Contender, it didn’t seem that that was gonna happen. I started settling in my mind that I had a good career and I had nothing to be ashamed of. And if I never got the world title, I had a lot to be thankful about.”
Enter Floyd Mayweather, who brought Smith in for sparring before his May 2012 bout with Miguel Cotto. The pound for pound king would not just spar with Smith though; he would sign him to his Mayweather Promotions and get him three fights, the third being a February 23rd challenge of IBF junior middleweight champion Cornelius Bundrage. Now all of a sudden, the pressure was back on for Smith. At 34, this was his shot, and the odds of getting another one if he came up short were likely to be slim.
“I had taken the pressure off that if I never got the shot, I was starting to settle in to the fact that hey, it’s been a helluva ride and this may be it,” he said. “But once I was able to be blessed enough and fortunate enough to have a second chapter in my career and in life, and was able to hook up with Mayweather Promotions and get that opportunity, that mindset turned into okay, you’re at the dance now; you want to cash in. Look at all the great athletes like Dan Marino, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and the list goes on; they would trade in all the records that they broke and all the stats for the championship. So when I got that opportunity, it was time to cash in. I didn’t want to have any regrets over my career.”
He wouldn’t have to, as he scored a 12 round majority decision over Bundrage in the Detroit hometown of “K9” to become Las Vegas’ first homegrown world champion. The emotional scene after the final verdict was read was one of the feel good moments of this – or any other – year, and despite Smith’s occasional battles with the media and fans over the years, this was a time where seemingly everyone was an Ishe Smith fan.
“It was awesome, and it was such a great feeling to have so many positive people wanting to see me do it,” he said. “When I stepped out of the ring and I had that belt around my waist, the first person that I was looking for was (Showtime commentator) Steve Farhood. He basically saw me grow up into this man that I am today and he saw all the ups and downs and I just gave him a big hug. It was really special to share that with him, Gordon Hall, Tom Casino, and everyone at Showtime. Unfortunately we lost a great person in Nick Charles, but it was a great moment to share that with them.”
It was a great moment for the sport as well, seeing someone not just survive the rollercoaster that is the boxing world, but get his hand raised at the end as well. But the funny thing about this sport is that winning the title is just the beginning. When the victory lap is over and the interviews and appearances die down, it’s time to fight again. And like a true champion, Smith didn’t search for a couple gimmes to extend his reign. He decided to take on one of the most avoided contenders in the division in Carlos Molina.
“I want to be remembered,” he said. “I want to go down in history as a guy that never gave up and that fought his way to the top and maybe leave a mark and get in the Hall of Fame one day. And I can’t finish writing this book, but I can damn sure do my best to add the pages. So fighting Carlos Molina is one of those things. I could have asked for Cotto. We know how this game works; I didn’t have to make my mandatory until November. I could have taken an optional defense, but I didn’t want to do that. I felt he’s worked hard, he’s had some bad decisions go against him, and I felt he deserved an opportunity, so I’m willing to give him one. He doesn’t have the most pleasing style, he’s awkward, and some people call him a dirty fighter, but at the end of the day, I’ve been in there with everybody. I’m always up for the toughest challenges, whether it makes sense monetarily or not. I’ve always been game.”
The Molina fight would have to wait though, as Smith was cut in sparring, forcing a postponement of their July 19 bout in Vegas. Postponed to when? Well, in the year of Ishe Smith, it was almost fate that the bout not only remained in his hometown, but on the biggest event of the year, September 14th’s Mayweather vs. Canelo Alvarez card. If you’re looking for a Hollywood story, it would be hard to find one better than this, but the now 35-year-old Smith isn’t about to let everything that has gone on this year go to his head. Far from it.
“What keeps me hungry is knowing that I’ve done this so long, and I know what it’s like to be broke and not have enough money to catch a bus to the gym,” he said. “I don’t forget that guy, because that guy keeps me humble. That guy didn’t have a lot, wasn’t making a lot of money, and he was still getting up every day and getting to the gym and making sure he was doing the necessary things he needed to do to be here. So I don’t forget that guy, but at the same time I never want to go back to being that guy, so I bust my ass in the gym for my family and my kids, and so everybody involved can have a better life. Even my coach, I’ve been with Eddie Mustafa (Muhammad) for five years and for him to stick it out with me for this long and never ask for money or anything, it means a lot to me to be able to cut him the kind of checks now that I’m able to cut him. Before, I wasn’t able to do that, so it’s been a helluva ride with me and him, and I appreciate him being by my side.”
Smith’s genuine gratitude is evident, and if you’re looking for objectivity at this point, that ship has sailed, because it’s stories like this that remind you why you wanted to cover boxing in the first place. At times, even Smith can’t believe how things have played out.
“God has really blessed me and he’s really brought me through a lot of places,” he said. “I couldn’t even imagine being here today. It’s truly a blessing, and it’s a story. It’s truly amazing.”
So how does the Ishe Smith story end?
“With me as a trendsetter, a gamechanger, a guy that never quit, and a guy that will go down in history,” he said. “If I had to write it, that’s what I would write it as.”