Ishe Smith (right) has waited a long time to get a shot at a major world title. The 34-year-old veteran will finally get his opportunity against IBF 154-pound titleholder Cornelius Bundrage (left) in the beltholder’s hometown of Detroit on Saturday.
At 34 years of age, longtime contender and sometime gatekeeper Ishe Smith has finally found himself on the right side of boxing politics.
For years, Smith was often cast as a B-side in his most meaningful fights, meaning the deck was often stacked against him. However, in his 14th year as a professional fighter, the Las Vegas native has an opportunity to earn a major world title as he meets IBF junior middleweight beltholder Cornelius Bundrage in the main event of a Showtime Championship Boxing telecast from Detroit that was originally headlined by Devon Alexander against Kell Brook. That fight was postponed when Alexander suffered an injury.
For Smith, Saturday marks an opportunity to make history. Despite the Sweet Science’s rich connection to the city of Las Vegas, no homegrown talent has ever held any sort of major title, an interesting anomaly.
Not only is Smith a true Las Vegas native, he is as homegrown a talent as there exists—his early career was handled and promoted by the Orleans Hotel & Casino on small club shows known only to hardcore fans. It was called the Guilty Boxing fight series.
The matchmaker for the Orleans during that stretch was renowned Brad Goodman, who now develops fighters for Top Rank Boxing alongside the legendary Bruce Trampler.
“Out of all the fighters I’ve matched over the years, Ishe is undoubtedly one of the most talented,” said Goodman in a phone interview discussing Smith’s chances. Coming from Goodman, a no-bulls__t type who has had a hand in some of the sport’s most prolific fighters’ careers, that is quite the compliment.
“The only thing that has ever held Ishe back is his head,” continued Goodman. “He’s always had all of the talent in the world, but in the past, he sometimes has let himself down by just the way he thinks about things.”
Smith was only 10-0 when he caught his first big break, taking on the experienced Sam Garr in a ShoBox headlining bout that Smith won easily. For that fight, Smith earned a paltry sum but figured it was the beginning of more reasonable paydays given the kind of difficult fights he was being offered.
“I started at welterweight and I was able to work myself up into the top 10 of every organization at 147 pounds,” said Smith prior to working out at the Mayweather Boxing Club weeks before his fight.
“And in doing that, it was tough because I wasn’t making no money. I was fighting tough fights. I think I made ten thousand to fight [a then unbeaten] David Estrada. Then I came back and fought Randall Bailey for like eleven thousand. So, it was just, the money wasn’t there.”
This all came prior to Smith making an appearance on the first and most recognizable season of the reality boxing show The Contender. In fact, it was Smith’s involvement that really lent a lot of credibility to the series given his track record and standing within the sport at the time.
But in order to get on The Contender, Smith had to file bankruptcy in order to get out of his promotional/managerial situation at the time.
“That was never a goal of mine. I filed bankruptcy because I wasn’t making no money, and I had a wife and a son I had to take care of,” explained Smith. “People can say what they want to say. The books, look it up for yourself, it’s there.”
“It was just in the process of filing for bankruptcy that The Contender called me up,” recalled Smith when asked about how he came to participate in the groundbreaking program. “I can still remember the day they were calling. I was working out and they called me, and I was talking to them on the phone. I thought I was too qualified, and they told me to come and tryout and I didn’t have to spar or anything.”
The rest, as they say, is history, and Smith beat 18-0 Ahmad Kaddour before falling to eventual Contender champion Sergio Mora in the following round of the TV tournament, a fight that Smith maintains was incorrectly scored.
“When I fought Sergio Mora, I had him hurt in the 5th round. How one judge scored that 5-0 is still shocking to me,” said Smith when recollecting that fight against Mora. “They never showed the fight. I would like to see it just to see it. But I know for a fact he was really hurt in the fifth round.”
When asked if The Contender did much in terms of helping Smith’s career along, it’s hard to quantify.
“Every time I go somewhere, somebody recognizes me from that show, that is what’s crazy,” admitted Smith. “If it’s a grocery store, gas station, people recognize me from the show.”
“I would, however, like to think that for guys like me and [Peter] Manfredo, we were already established when we got linked up with The Contender. He had just won some regional titles, we were both in camp together with Shane Mosley. The other guys, the show helped them out a lot more, I think, whereas me and Manfredo brought some legitimacy to the show with our names.”
It is hard to argue that others didn’t benefit more greatly from The Contender than Smith did. Alfonso Gomez, Jesse Brinkley, and Mora all got world title shots largely off making their name from the show.
“Those guys were able to parlay their success on the show into world title shots in the future,” said Smith. “For me, I am finally getting my shot but I never imagined it would come eight, nine years after participating in The Contender and 13 years after my first pro fight. But you know, God works in mysterious ways and I’m just glad to be getting the opportunity.”
Smith’s recent three fight win streak doesn’t feature any prominent names, and in fact, is one of his least impressive stretches as a pro in terms of the quality of fighters he has beat. But what is different this time is Smith’s alliance with Floyd Mayweather and The Money Team, a makeshift promotional entity that has taken a good number of fighters under their wing and helped guide them into televised bouts in recent years.
Many members of the boxing community have dogged Mayweather Promotions due to the company not being a legitimate promoter with a license. Yes, they’ve never put together their own boxing show (usually pairing up under the Golden Boy Promotions banner), but one can’t argue with the results.
Without Mayweather’s involvement, there is no way Smith would be fighting Bundrage on Saturday in a Showtime televised bout, nor would J’Leon Love be fighting in the co-feature against the unheralded Derrick Findley. For that, Mayweather and his team deserve a lot of credit for lending a helping hand to a batch of mostly African American fighters who have been passed up by the sport’s bigger name promoters.
To that logic, Smith is in complete agreement.
“I don’t think this fight happens without Floyd, without Mayweather Promotions, without The Money Team,” concluded Smith.
“Obviously, I owe them everything. I thank God for giving me this opportunity, for placing us in each other’s lives. But without Floyd Mayweather, without everybody working hard, this fight wouldn’t happen. I know where my blessings come from and I know God will put people in your life for a reason. And I’m very grateful for the opportunity Floyd has given me, for the trust he has put in me.”
For Smith, there was a stretch of time where he had no clue where his career was headed, but through patience, he was able to find this recent string of opportunity.
“I didn’t fight for 18 months,” says Smith.
“I didn’t know whether I was even going to keep boxing or what I was going to do. Life was kicking me in the ass and I couldn’t really fight back. I didn’t know whether to give up or not. To have Floyd come and pick me up, and put me on a card in May and come right back and fight in September, that was huge. Then we got a couple offers and then to get this title shot. Even while he was in jail, we communicated, exchanged letters, talked on a regular basis. He kept saying to stay low. I got a couple offers to fight while he was locked up but I stayed loyal. I thank God that I did.
“When Floyd fought Cotto, he told me he was going to get me a world title shot. ‘You’re too good of a fighter not to have had a title shot. You’re gonna win a title and I’m gonna get you the shot.’
“I remember being in the locker room, nobody cared about me for 18 months, and I’m very grateful to Floyd. I’ve been knowing Floyd since I was 10 years old. He’s a friend, a mentor, I’m happy. I know this opportunity wouldn’t have happened without him.”
Mayweather’s personal life has been front and center in recent years, and usually it is for all the wrong reasons. But what Mayweather has done for a bevy of young fighters has almost been overlooked by fans and the boxing media. And Mayweather doesn’t publicize the work he’s done in order to get these fighters opportunities.
Smith’s opponent, Bundrage, hasn’t exactly traveled a privileged road himself.
Bundrage was on the second season of The Contender that featured quite a bit less fanfare than the original incarnation. Bundrage was thought of by most as a limited fighter, but after compiling a number of impressive victories over the likes of Kassim Ouma and Zaurbek Baysangurov, Bundrage would get a shot at 154-pound titlist Cory Spinks, though the fight wasn’t picked up by any major network and went untelevised.
Bundrage caught Spinks at the right time, coming off a DUI charge and having been rumored to be walking around at cruiserweight, wildly out of shape. Bundrage made easy work of Spinks, stopping him in order to earn his unlikely title.
“Bundrage was able to go fight the guy overseas [Baysangurov] and win that fight,” said Smith.
“He lost to Steve Forbes on the show but was able to revitalize his career by fighting Cory Spinks, like twenty times. Four fights in four years is not going to be enough come Feb. 23.”
Smith’s former matchmaker Goodman concurs that Smith should have no problem picking up a victory—so long as he’s on top of his game.
“Ishe is far more skilled than Bundrage, and as long as his head is on straight, he should have no problem taking care of business and becoming a champion. All those years ago, I envisioned Ishe getting to this point, and for him to get here after all these years is a pretty good story.”
It is hard not to root for Smith given all that he has faced in his career. It has been a tumultuous ride, no doubt, but all of that would be forgotten if he is victorious on Saturday. A belt is quite the bargaining chip, and with Mayweather being the cash cow that he is, there could be an opportunity for Smith to defend that title on a major undercard in his hometown of Las Vegas.
“You have no idea what that would mean to me, to have the opportunity to fight on one of Floyd’s massive undercards as the defending junior middleweight champion,” said Smith. “In fact, it is something I have dreamed about ever since I was a little kid. To be this close to obtaining that dream is a dream in and of itself, and one I intend to make a reality on Feb. 23.”
Photos / Tom Casino-SHOWTIME