Click here for part one of Travelin Man goes to Detroit.
Saturday, Feb. 23:In the midst of his ultimate moment of athletic glory, it took a long time for Ishe Smith to stop crying.
Even before ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. announced Smith’s split decision over soon-to-be-former IBF junior middleweight titlist Cornelius Bundrage, the emotions poured out with torrential intensity. This was the dream Smith had worked for, sweated for and yearned for since he turned pro in July 2000 and when it finally came true he fought just as hard to get the words out.
“Thirteen years man…that’s all I can say,” said Smith, the first Las Vegas native to win a world title. “It means everything to me. Usually I’m a good interview but I just don’t know what to say. I didn’t think I’d be here man. I got cut in camp, I got my rib hurt in camp. Floyd (Mayweather) said ‘Do you want to pull out?’ and I said ‘No man, I gotta take this fight.’ It’s all God’s plan because like Ray Lewis says God don’t make mistakes.”
As Lennon was making his life-changing victory official, one could almost see Smith mentally reliving his fistic odyssey as he kneeled on the canvas and sobbed tears of joy, relief and validation. Given what he had lived through, the question shouldn’t have been why was he crying, but rather how could he have not?
The road toward his personal ecstasy had been pock-marked with multiple agonies. Frustration with his career path, the lack of the widespread recognition he felt his talents deserved and his struggles in step-up fights ate at him. Those issues threatened not only to overwhelm him professionally but also to push him toward the ultimate act of surrender and despair – suicide.
He revealed in post-fight interviews that he thought about ending his life five years ago but the thought of leaving his kids without a father just as he had been prevented him from following through. Perhaps it was God telling him to be patient and that his time eventually would come. Perhaps it was that remaining sliver of self-belief that prompted him to become a fighter in the first place, that piece of his soul that implored him to be available for one final date with destiny.
In an interview with Jim Gray shortly before the fight, Bundrage said he didn’t think Smith deserved this title shot. “Sugar Shay” was Bundrage’s third option but he got the call because he was the only one who was willing to travel to Detroit and fight “K-9” in his own dog house.
Still, given their respective histories, Smith vs. Bundrage was a fight that, in retrospect, was fated to happen. Both had fought on “ShoBox: The New Generation” during the early days of the series and Bundrage was one of 47 ShoBox alums who went on to capture a major world title. Both had also fought on “The Contender” series and each lost decisions in the semi-final round – Smith to eventual tournament winner Sergio Mora during NBC’s Season One and Bundrage to Steve Forbes on ESPN’s Season Two (Forbes, the pre-tournament favorite, lost to Grady Brewer in the final). They shared three common opponents – Norberto Bravo (both beat him), Sechew Powell (Bundrage split two fights, Smith lost a decision) and Joel Julio (Bundrage was stopped in eight while Smith lost a 10-round decision).
Additionally, neither man came by his accomplishments easily. Bundrage overcame defeats to Powell, Forbes, Brewer and Julio and had to fight two title eliminators before finally winning the IBF belt from Cory Spinks at age 37. Smith, in turn, surmounted setbacks to Mora, Powell, Julio, Daniel Jacobs and Fernando Guerrero – the latter two in back-to-back fights – before winning his next three fights and getting the shot at Bundrage.
And with that the story line was crystallized: The unlikely champion risking his belt against the unlikely challenger.
The fight itself represented a microcosm of Smith’s career, for it illustrated the reasons for his past struggles in the biggest moments as well as the late-career adjustments that paved the path toward his personal Everest.
For most of the first six rounds, Smith reverted to the tentative, defensive-minded boxer that had fallen short under the brightest lights. Smith threw just 17 punches in the first round, was out-thrown by more than a 2-to-1 margin (322 to 160) and was out-landed 74-58 in total punches and 30-28 in power shots. For all the world it appeared Smith had once again frozen under pressure and that he again would lose on a messy, disappointing decision.
But starting in round seven, the more assertive version of Smith that fueled his recent renaissance resurfaced. In his last three CompuBox tracked fights against Guerrero, Ayi Bruce and Irving Garcia, Smith averaged a combined 72.7 punches per round, a 58 percent increase over the combined 46 per round he averaged in fights against Patrick Thompson (W 10), Powell (L 10) and Jacobs (L 10). In fact, Smith’s ongoing resurgence could be traced to the final five rounds of the Guerrero defeat, for while he averaged 59.2 punches in the first five rounds, his work rate skyrocketed to 91.4 down the stretch. That, in turn, enabled Smith to out-land the then-undefeated Guerrero 176-155 (total) and 170-127 (power) during that span as well as score an eighth round knockdown.
This far more commanding ring persona shined against Bundrage during the time he needed it most. “Sugar Shay” upped his work rate from 40 per round to 53 and out-landed the hometown hero 116-74 overall and 75-43 in power shots. Moreover, Smith dramatically increased his accuracy as he surged from 28 percent (35 percent power) over the first six to 37 percent (49 percent power) in the second half.
One sequence in the final minute of the eighth best personified this attitudinal sea change as Smith unleashed a 15-punch flurry that had Bundrage covering up along the ropes. By seizing the initiative, Smith put his opponent on the defensive and proved to “K-9” that he too was an alpha boxer.
The final figures confirmed the feelings of everyone (save one judge). Smith out-landed Bundrage 174-148 overall and 103-73 in power shots while also being the more accurate fighter (31 percent to 24 percent overall, 22 percent to 19 percent in jabs and 44 percent to 33 percent in power punches). To his credit, Bundrage was class personified during the post-fight interview; he said Smith deserved to win and, in a genuine demonstration of spiritual faith, gave thanks to God after a loss. He said without hesitation that he would fight again and because of the success he earned during his late 30s he deserves the opportunity to try.
Other noteworthy developments from the undercard include:
Maryland super middleweight D’Mitrius Ballard couldn’t have asked for a more destructive professional debut as he dusted Bluefield, West Virginia’s Kelly Henderson (now 0-2) in just 66 seconds. A scorching hook to the body in the fight’s first 15 seconds dropped Henderson to one knee and essentially took all the fight out of him. The second knockdown came from a combination capped by a glancing right while knockdown number three resulted from a salvo of blows that missed the target but were enough to persuade Henderson to call it a day. The savvy Detroit fight crowd booed what they saw as Henderson’s unconditional surrender.
The next bout produced the night’s first upset as amateur star and recent Golden Boy signee Steve Geffrard lost his pro debut via cuts to Louisiana journeyman Kentrell Claiborne, whose record improved to 3-6 (2). Geffrard started strongly enough as he assumed the role of aggressor and blasted several power shots to Claiborne’s flanks. The fight started to turn midway through round three when, moments after Geffrard landed a series of rights, Claiborne responded with several of his own overhand rights that not only had Geffrard holding on but also opened a severe gash over the left eye. With the prospect of victory suddenly in severe doubt, Geffrard tried to mount a fight-saving rally but Claiborne landed enough punches to widen the cut even more. By this point, the blood flow was so severe that the ringside physician correctly stopped the contest at the 2:19 mark.
Geffrard was statistically dominant as he out-landed Claiborne 60-35 overall and connected on 44 percent of his power punches to Claiborne’s 38 percent. Of Geffrard’s 42 power connects, 21 struck the body while 7 of 27 Claiborne power shots targeted the flanks. The severity of Geffrard’s cut, however, rendered the final numbers moot.
Two more fights were staged during the crew’s lunch break: Detroit junior middleweight Joseph Bonas successfully entered the pro ranks by pounding Pounding, Virginia’s Coy Witt with two knockdowns in 55 seconds, dropping Witt’s record to 2-3 (1) in the process. Also, Puerto Rican junior lightweight Braulio Santos moved to 9-0 (8) with a 79-second stoppage of Grand Rapids junior lightweight Terrance Walker, who declined to 0-3.
Punch counting partner Aris Pina – a 28-year-old with the boxing knowledge of someone decades older – and I returned to ringside just in time to catch 2012 Olympian Terrell Gausha out-point Tarrytown, New York super middleweight Lekan Byfield over four rounds, the first time in three fights that Gausha traveled the scheduled distance. Although all three judges saw Gausha a 40-36 winner and the CompuBox counters saw him out-land Byfield 93-14 (overall) and 63-12 (power), this bout was a good test of Gausha’s patience. Byfield’s loose-limbed style enabled him to avoid taking the brunt of Gausha’s bombs and even when the occasional blow landed flush Byfield (now 2-4-2, 0) showed little discernible effect. Still, Gausha was the far more polished fighter and never gave up his “A-side” status.
Milwaukee super middleweight Luis Arias used a pair of rifling body hooks to score two knockdowns en route to a knockout in 143 seconds. The effects of the second hook were particularly graphic as Edgar Perez (now 5-3, 3) slammed his eyes shut, opened his mouth wide and immediately dropped to a knee, where he stayed for the full count. In all Arias was 21 of 59 overall (36 percent) and an impressive 18 of 28 (64 percent) in power shots while Perez was 2 of 30 (7 percent) in total punches and 1 of 14 (7 percent) in power punches. Of Arias’ 18 power connects, 13 were to the body.
The final non-TV fight pitted Las Vegas-based super middleweight prospect Badou Jack against Houston tough guy Don Mouton in a scheduled eight rounder. During most of Jack’s first 12 fights he showed himself to be a prodigious body-punching specialist but against Mouton Jack sought to diversify his game. Moving well in both directions and concentrating on landing jabs to dictate distance, Jack successfully controlled the first five rounds. But in rounds six through eight, Mouton shifted to a higher gear. He actually out-landed Jack 68-63 overall and trailed 36-35 in power connects, but went on to lose a 78-74 decision on all three cards. Jack, originally from Stockholm, Sweden but now based in Las Vegas, raised his record to 13-0 (9) while Mouton dropped to 12-6-1 (10).
The CompuBox numbers told one part of the story: Jack out-land Mouton 179-134 overall, 84-66 in jabs and 95-68 in power shots. He also was more accurate across the board, but not by a lot (31 percent to 26 percent overall, 23 percent to 22 percent jabs and 43 percent to 31 percent power). Jack’s 365 jabs over eight rounds translated to 45.6 per round — nearly double the 23.6 super middleweight average. In four previous CompuBox tracked fights, Jack’s attack was more balanced (44.7 jabs and 41.8 power shots per round) so the shift toward jabs was worthy of notice.
It’s too early to compare Jack to fighters of the past but that can’t be said of Mouton, and that’s where the other part of the story begins. When I told Steve Farhood that Mouton may be the modern-day Sanderline Williams his face brightened and he said “now that’s a name from the past.” He also agreed the comparison deserved merit and here’s why. Though Mouton has been matched tough as of late, he has a competitive spirit that allows him to produce solid, if not consistently winning efforts. He has yet to suffer a knockdown or a knockout loss despite losing to Curtis Stevens, Maxim Vlasov, Ray Smith, Ronson Frank and Jack, who carried a combined 57-3 (39) record at the time he faced them.
As for Sanderline Williams, he was one of boxing’s gold standards when it came to durable journeyman in the 1980s and 1990s. Between 1982 and 1993, Williams faced a gauntlet of prospects, contenders, champions and former champions and while he lost to the majority of them his ring craft and survival skills guaranteed illuminating long-distance tests. Within his 24-15-1 (14) record Williams was good enough to beat onetime top middleweight contender Dwight Davison (W 10) and to inflict the first blemish on James Toney’s record (D 10). But most of the time he fell short against the better fighters because of his defensive temperament.
That temperament served him well in a way, for despite losing to the likes of Herol Graham, Lindell Holmes, Iran Barkley, Ron Essett, Don Lee, Merqui Sosa, Nigel Benn, Reggie Johnson, Gerald McClellan, Toney (in a rematch), Lonnie Beasley and Joe Lipsey – fighters who had a combined 224-15-5 (164) record and 14 major titles – Holmes was the only one to register a knockout victory.
Mouton is, as Williams was, a matchmaker’s dream in that he is rugged enough to go plenty of rounds, good enough to test prospect’s skills but not dangerous enough to score sudden knockouts – if the fighter in question has the talent, that is. If the up-and-comer is wanting, however, Mouton is capable of springing the trap – just ask the 6-0 Samuel Clarkson (KO by 6), the 16-2-1 Jesse Lara (KO by 5), the 19-3 Jerson Ravelo (KO by 8), the 8-1 Richard Pierson (KO by 6) or Zab Judah’s brother Josiah (9-0-1, TKO by 1).
The televised co-feature saw another hardscrabble journeyman – late-sub Derrick Findley – occasionally push Detroit super middleweight prospect J’Leon Love before losing a 10 round decision that was scored wider than most thought reality to be (100-90, 99-91 twice). Love, now 15-0 (8), successfully dealt with Findley’s point-blank pressure, his ability to sustain himself following Love’s impressive fourth round assault and showed a nice finishing kick in rounds nine and 10, two stanzas he had not yet seen as a pro. While there are flaws to be corrected Love’s raw material gives him a solid foundation.
Love out-landed Finley 148-113 overall and 48-10 in jabs but Findley prevailed 103-100 in landed power shots. He also was comparably accurate as Love led 33 percent to 30 percent overall, 24 percent to 10 percent in jabs and 40 percent to 37 percent in power shots. The loss dropped Findley to 20-9 (13).
After the telecast signed off a poignant scene played out at ringside. Wearing his newly acquired championship belt around his waist, Smith walked directly to Farhood and gave him a hug across the table, then made his way down the rest of broadcast row. The reason for Smith’s gesture was obvious: Farhood has called ShoBox telecasts from the very beginning and it was clear Smith was thanking him for past kindnesses. Boxing has more than its share of faults but no sport can match its human drama – before, during and after.
Sunday, Feb. 24: Just four hours after turning out the lights the lights were turned on again. Although my Detroit-to Dulles flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until 2:35 p.m., I left the hotel at 10:45 a.m. to safeguard against GPS malfunctions and/or any other unexpected developments. I also take comfort at being where I’m supposed to be long before I have to be there.
As was the case two days earlier I was the only passenger in the rental car bus, which afforded me the opportunity to converse with the driver. Talk about living in a small world: The driver, though now living in Detroit, was born in Beckley, West Virginia. Also, one of the driver’s children lived across the street from the late, great Emanuel Steward, a native of Bottom Creek, West Virginia who went on to embody Detroit’s rich boxing history.
Unlike two days earlier, weather issues had no adverse effects on my itinerary but a big-time headache had a definite bearing on my well-being. Thankfully I packed an extra two-pack of Advil, which I took shortly after landing at Dulles. The relief arrived so quickly that I was able to spend most of the relatively brief layover tapping away on the laptop because the once-stifled words started flowing again.
After spending most of the final flight chatting with my seatmate – an Irishman now living in Rochester, N.Y. returning from a trip to Prague – my two-and-half hour drive home from Pittsburgh proceeded uneventfully, something for which I was thankful after Friday’s chaos.
As of this writing I don’t know where or when my next trip will be but I do know it won’t take place in March. Call me a masochist but I still love to hit the road even though it occasionally hits me back. In the meantime I’ll spend my Home Office time tending to my ever-expanding DVD collection, conducting plenty of research for CompuBox and, of course, writing for RingTV.com. As long as I have boxing, I’m a happy guy.
Until next time, happy trails.
Photos / Tom Hogan-Hoganphotos / Golden Boy Promotions
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including four in the last two years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at email@example.com arrange for autographed copies.