By Thomas Gerbasi
Ishe Smith will never be remembered for putting on blood and guts wars like Arturo Gatti and his friend Diego Corrales, but over 17 years in professional boxing, he’s earned the title of “fighter.”
Through the ups, downs and sideways of this business, he’s always answered the bell for the next round, with his defeat of Cornelius Bundrage in 2013 for the IBF junior middleweight title the crowning achievement of a career that continues this Saturday with a bout against Julian Williams at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.
But 2017 has been more trying than most years for the 39-year-old. Already seeking a fight to no avail after a win over Frank Galarza in September 2016, Smith got hit with a punch he didn’t see coming in March when his ex-wife and the mother of his three kids, Latoya Woolen, was murdered in a senseless act of violence in Las Vegas. Then Smith’s hometown suffered the same dose of violence in October when Stephen Paddock opened fire on the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival, killing 58. One of those people was the coach of the youth football team Smith’s son played for.
“Charleston Hartfield was a good guy, he was beloved in this community, he was a wonderful coach who was a police officer, he served our country, and to lose him in such a senseless tragedy, I had no words,” said Smith. And as a Vegas native who become synonymous with the city when he beat Bundridge and became the first born and bred boxer from there to win a major world boxing title, the shooting had a major effect on him.
“I bled for this city, I love this city,” he said. “It’s like people from New York love New York. You can’t say nothing bad about New York, and that’s how I feel about Las Vegas and I will always love this city. To have something happen like that here, and to know so many people that were down there or to know someone who knows someone who was murdered, that was hard to deal with. It hit me pretty hard. I’m dealing with thing after thing.”
Even this week, days before his fight with Williams, the death of beloved trainer, cutman and friend Rafael Garcia was another reminder that every day must be cherished because it can all go away in an instant. So maybe that’s why Smith fights, just to show his kids and the world that you have to move forward and keep fighting.
That’s the romantic notion of all this. The realistic part is that taking care of a family costs money, and with two wins in a row and the possibility of a third potentially leading to another big title fight, the time is now for him to make one last run at this.
“People say, ‘It seems like Ishe’s fighting for money,’” he said. “Go tell that to all these other athletes. Take the money away from all these other sports and see how many of your favorite athletes show up night in and night out. So, of course, I wanted to make history, I’ve done that. I wanted to be champion, I did that and I want to do it again. But at the end of the day, I need to fight to take care of my family.”
And for 14 months there were no fights. Oh, there were possibilities for small local shows against non-descript opposition, but even those fell through. As Smith watched the boxing world turn, he heard the talk as he and his fiancée, Valarie, hoped for the right phone call to come in.
“It’s easier said than done to just tell a fighter go get a job,” Smith said. “I haven’t worked since I was 18 years old. What do you want me to do? I’m intelligent, I can talk, I graduated high school but didn’t go to college. But it’s easier said than done to just tell someone to go get a job. When you know it’s over, it’s over, but when you’re coming off wins in your last two fights and you’re sitting around for 14 months waiting…”
Smith’s voice trails off, trying to stay positive since he does have a fight lined up. But it’s hard not to reflect on the last year.
“I know what it is,” he said of the sport he’s competed in since the age of eight. “I know I have to win and this is a winner’s game. I know if I want to provide for my family, I have to go out and do it. I don’t want a handout. I asked for this fight. They were trying to get me a stay busy fight on a small show out here but they couldn’t find me an opponent.”
Then he thought of Julian Williams. On the road back after the lone loss of his career to Jermall Charlo last December, the Philadelphian picked up a win in June but wasn’t on the 154-pound championship tripleheader in Brooklyn in October. Smith reached out to his team.
“See what he’s doing.”
Now they’re fighting, and if Smith wins, he’s a player again at 154 pounds. He’s not expected to win, though, and he knows it. He doesn’t care about such expectations, because those folks won’t have gloves on when the bell rings Saturday night. He will.
“I defied the odds before,” he said. “And I’ve done it my way. It wasn’t always the right way, and there are probably more than a handful of people not picking me to win this fight and that’s okay. I’ve been the underdog before. I’ve been the A-side, I’ve been the B-side, I’ve been on no side.”
He talks about his first big win in 2004, when he beat Randall Bailey with just 13 fights under his belt.
“That guy had more knockouts than I had fights,” he laughs.
Then there was handing Pawel Wolak his first pro loss in Brooklyn, which served as Wolak’s east coast backyard.
“He had so many fans in there, I felt like I was fighting in a soccer stadium.”
And he won’t forget beating Bundrage in Detroit. So while Williams is a top talent, Smith isn’t intimidated in the slightest.
“I look at this fight and there’s nothing that he can do, or bring, that I haven’t seen already,” he said. “I’ve been in there with some of the best. Is he better than Randall Bailey was when I had 13 fights? Absolutely not. Was he better than Danny Jacobs was hyped to be when I fought him? Absolutely not. And I’ve done everything I was supposed to do. I feel good and I feel like this has been a perfect camp.”
Smith laughs, admitting that he doesn’t want to get caught up in the “I’m in the best shape of my life” clichés, but yeah, he does feel that way. And that’s a switch from the Galarza fight, where he felt nothing clicked during training camp. Even his buddy Badou Jack saw it, comparing him to Damon Wayans’ character from the film “The Great White Hype,” you know, the one with the gut that hadn’t seen a sit-up in ages.
“Sugar” Shay got the win that night, but it made him recall the lessons he learned while being around fighters like Corrales, Vernon Forrest, Shane Mosley, Fernando Vargas, Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather.
“The one thing they all shared with me is never disrespect the sport of boxing,” he said. “Always put your all into it.”
He did his part this time around for Williams, and whatever happens, there will be no excuses. He’s ready to get back in there, fight, and win. That’s the plan for Saturday and for the next two or three years and then that’s it.
“I’m writing my own book these last few chapters and I want to go out on top.”
The tale of Ishe Smith is already one of the most compelling you can find in a sport full of great stories, and there’s a hope that the chapter on 2017 will end in a positive manner given all the negatives that have hit him already this year. If we can go back to that romantic notion, it’s almost as if stepping between the ropes this weekend will be his place of peace, his escape from anything that has everything to do with life but nothing to do with boxing.
But again, he shoots down that romantic notion, making it clear that his escape from any negativity is found at home.
“My escape is my children,” Smith said. “I have such a good time with them. Now it feels good to be back to work, going to the gym and putting time into my craft, something I’ve been doing for 31 years, 17 as a professional. But I love going to my son’s soccer games, my son’s football games, I love that I was able to put my daughter through an expensive high school out here, Bishop Gorman. She graduated and is going to UNLV. So I enjoy being a dad. Part of that is going without a dad, and I love being a dad more than anything else.”
Smith’s voice changes when he talks about his kids, and you can tell he means everything he says. That same joy is there when discussing the wedding he’s planning with Valarie, and it’s clear that Julian Williams may not know what’s coming at him on Saturday night.
“I got some things to fight for,” said Smith with the tone of a veteran about to pull a surprise on one of the sport’s young guns.