When Liverpool fighter Stephen Smith scrolled through his phone on Monday he was reminded that it was 13 years to the day since he turned professional.
Well, after a frustrating period over the final few years of his career, he decided Monday was as good a time as any to haul the curtain down on his 28-4 career.
A decorated amateur who boxed for two versions of the world title, he had endured a stop-start period from 2017-2021 with just three fights in 2019 to show for his efforts in the gym.
Aged 34, he knew his time was drawing to a close but he hadn’t thought about putting the full-stop on his career, even if he’d internally suspected the writing had been on the wall.
“When Covid came I said to [wife] Jade, ‘I think I might be retired,’” he explained. “She thought I was messing but I couldn’t see boxing happening again while the pandemic was happening. I’m 34 and as it went on, 12 months went by and I started to think ‘I’m done’. I never intended on announcing anything, I was going to leave it at that but I was getting messages on social media, people asking if I was going to fight again and these were people who had been to my fights and bought tickets and looking back I should have said but I was looking at my phone and it said ‘13 years ago I made my debut’ and I had more messages [that day] asking me about my plans so I thought I’m just going to announce it now, and it was a spur of the moment thing, but I was glad I did it.”
While the decision to call it a day came quickly, the words of his announcement were harder to come by, exacerbated by the emotion of accepting that life would never be the same.
“As I was writing it, I was thinking of retiring and thanking the coaches, people who’d watched me and I was getting proper emotional and I just didn’t expect it,” he admitted.
After he’d managed to craft his farewell, he put his phone away, sighed and went about his day.
Later on, he checked his phone and was overwhelmed by the hundreds of messages and well wishes.
Then, as he scoured them the emotions came flooding back to the surface.
“I was lying on my bed reading them filling [tearing] up and it really meant a lot to me, especially the people who were messaging me, people who I respect a lot and it shocked me how much it meant to me and the way it made me feel,” Smith said.
‘Swifty’ had been tipped for big things turning professional and despite his achievements, he feels he wanted even more out of boxing.
“Listen, I couldn’t spend my whole career saying I aim to be world champion, finish not a world champion and say I accomplished, definitely not,” Stephen stated. “I gave everything I had to be world champion and I didn’t do it so at the moment there’s part of me that’s gutted about that but I can put my head on the pillow and know that nothing was for the lack of trying. I gave everything I had, every day in the gym, and I pushed myself and took every opportunity I got. I never said no to a fight and sometimes things happen one way or another and you’ve just got to accept it. You can try your best and fall short but I can live with it and know I gave everything I had to the sport. I’ve got no regrets. I can’t say I wish I’d trained harder or I wish I did this or I wish I did that, but it wasn’t for the lack of trying so I’m okay with it.”
He turned pro with Liverpool trainer George Vaughan and moved to Joe Gallagher during his career. There were big nights, in Vegas, Liverpool, Monte Carlo and Germany to name a few but the stop-start nature of his career from 2017 meant he didn’t get the chance to go out how he hoped.
“In a way, I feel really robbed about the end of my career, especially with Covid, it’s sort of robbed me of my last shot or my last hurrah,” he lamented. “But I can’t sit here and be bitter about it because I’d rather it happened at the end of my career rather than how it’s been for some of these poor lads now who are training for an Olympic Games that has been put back or people who are trying to showcase their talent early in their career or trying to learn and boxing’s just stopped. To not have any boxing must be very tough for those lads and I really feel sorry for them.”
One of ‘Swifty’s’ high points came when he threw one of the best punches of 2013 to dispatch Gary Buckland with a picture-perfect right uppercut.
He and Gallagher had repeatedly worked on that as the difference-maker and it paid off.
There was a backstory, too. It wasn’t bad blood but Buckland was from the same gym as Lee Selby, who’d two years earlier taken Smith’s unbeaten record, and Buckland was on a rich vein of form
Then, in 2016, Smith fought Jose Pedraza for the IBF super-featherweight title and lost on points. Pedraza was world class, and better than Smith admittedly anticipated.
“The only person who mid-fight made me think, ‘You’re better than I thought,’ was Jose Pedraza,” Smith continued. “I watched videos of him and thought ‘Tall, skilled, good boxer, I’ve got to be switched on and I’ve got to bring my A game and I can’t be falling behind and chasing him because he’s so skilful’ but I always thought I could do it and that I would beat him.
"And in round two he threw a right hand that landed right on the tip of my chin and I got buzzed and other than that shot he never really hurt me but that was a lovely shot and it made me switch on. It was just little things he was doing. I remember backing him to the ropes in about round four and he sort of stepped, stepped, stepped and the next minute he’s in the middle of the ring and my back’s to the ropes and he hadn’t thrown a punch and I was thinking, ‘You’re a lot better than I thought. You’re a lot better than the videos.’ But I take my hat off to him. It was down to his skillset and how good he was.”
Then, a couple of years on against Francisco Vargas, Smith suffered a terrible tear to his ear that is among the worst, most graphic and grotesque injuries sustained in modern-day boxing.
The fighters clashed heads in round two and Smith felt his ear swelling and throbbing. When the same thing happened in round nine, he felt it rip and the wound caused referee Russell Mora to stop it.
“At the time I didn’t know [how badly it was damaged],” Smith recalled. “I knew it was throbbing and I knew something was wrong with my ear because every time I went back to my corner, [brother] Paul was putting an ice pack on my ear and when it went again I thought, ‘For f---’s sake, it’s my ear again’ and I saw the referee call time. I thought it must be swelling quite badly but only when I walked across the ring and I felt it wobbling and I saw it hanging off on the big screen was when I thought ‘That’s just my luck.’”
Even now, that bloody sight is enough to turn a weak stomach to putty but Smith just wondered whether he would ever get the luck that might carry him over the line in a world title fight.
“It’s surreal,” he said, thinking back to the ear injury. “I remember going to the hospital in the ambulance and just thinking, how and why has this happened to me? I’d never seen that happen in the ring. Aside from Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear, never in my life had I seen someone get out of the ring with half their ear hanging off, why’s it happened to me? And you beat yourself up and feel sorry for yourself but you’ve got to take it in your stride and move on.”
A British champion at two-weights, Stephen is one of the four Smith brothers who have all won top domestic honours, including Paul, Liam and Callum.
He half jokes that only a shared dream would coax him out of retirement now, that one day the Smith brothers had hoped they would all share a bill at Anfield Stadium, home of Liverpool FC.
“It was always a little joint goal for us and would have been a dream and always will be,” Smith added. “If the world gets back to normal and Callum becomes a two-weight world champion and says he’s fighting at Anfield, I think you’d get me, Paul and my dad [Paul Sr] on it!” he joked. “We’d be desperate to get on that one. If it never happens it will be a crying shame as it was something we always wanted to do.”
But there was plenty that Smith did do. And just before we spoke he was in a school, inspiring and motivating children, telling them stories from a career that might not have delivered what he wanted but that has given him the closure so few fighters find.
“You do have a think about what might happen in life after boxing but you want to see what you finish up with in boxing and go from there,” he said, asked to consider what his next step might be. “It’s happened quicker than I imagined, I’ve kept denying it while trying to prepare myself for it in a battle in my own mind. I don’t know [what he will do]. I’m going to take a little break from boxing.”
First, he will wait for the world to get back to normal and then he will make a decision.
But regardless of what comes in his immediate future, he has plenty of stories from his recent past to share with his three children, eight-year-old Frankie, Leo, six and four-month-old Cece, as they grow up, whether it’s winning the British crown twice, the Commonwealth Games as an amateur, his ear hanging off against Vargas in Vegas or picking the perfect shot to down Buckland, Smith has much to be proud of.
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