Lee Groves

James ‘Smitty’ Smith: Always in Boxing’s Corner

 

James Smith (right) practices boxing technique with one of the frequent guests of his show, “In This Corner,” RING 122-pound champ Nonito Donaire. “In This Corner” celebrates its ninth anniversary on Monday, April 1.

 

Whenever James “Smitty” Smith enters a room, it’s difficult to mistake him for anyone else. If the Miami Vice-style suits, the shock of electric blond hair and the hawk-like eyes aren’t enough to distinguish him, the attitudinal package will – the confident stride, the staccato twanged voice that cuts through the air and the strong opinions that voice forms. At age 54, the 5-foot-6 Smith remains a tightly coiled 145 pounds thanks to frequent workouts in the gym as well as a schedule that would exhaust three people, much less one.

But when one looks beyond the stylish exterior, one finds a man of considerable substance whose accomplishments have been the product of initiative, hard work and uncommon fearlessness. Despite his diminutive stature, the speedy Smith – who wowed his gridiron teammates by benching 300 pounds and running a 4.55 40-yard-dash in his final year of college – played wide receiver at Carol City High School in Miami and at the University of Minnesota Tech for two years before a knee injury ended his playing career. After that he turned to professional boxing for three years and sparred with the likes of Alexis Arguello, Johnny de la Rosa and Sugar Baby Rojas at Miami’s legendary 5th Street Gym.

His 28-year broadcasting career has spanned the spectrum – radio (1985-2003), television (1997-present) and, in recent years, the internet. In fact, Smith did play-by-play during the first live boxing broadcast over the web in May 1997. His broadcast partners have included Col. Bob Sheridan, Al Bernstein, Steve Farhood, the late Nick Charles, Sean O’Grady, Arnold “Tokyo” Rosenthal, Roy Jones Jr. and Mike Tyson, and he’s done cards with entertainment figures such as singer Aaron Neville and San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark. He has served all three commentary roles in a boxing broadcast – blow-by-blow, color analyst and roving reporter – and, like Howard Cosell and Don Dunphy, he has executed the TV equivalent of flying solo.

His boxing expertise has earned him frequent appearances on pay-per-view pre-fight “Countdown” shows, Fox Sports Radio’s “J.T. The Brick” program and Radio Sport New Zealand, which he has done nearly every week since 1998. His sense of showmanship helped him fit in during a stint with the professional wrestling company WCW, where he interviewed Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Diamond Dallas Page and Captain Lou Albano among others.

The vehicle that has best illustrated his fusion of in-the-trenches experience and broadcasting know-how is his show “In This Corner,” which has been televised weekly since its first episode aired nine years ago today. For those who haven’t seen it, the half-hour programs that have featured active and retired boxers as guests unfold in two parts, the first being a conventional one-on-one interview in which the fighter discusses his life and career and the second being an in-ring segment in which the guest explains – then demonstrates – the techniques that led to his success.

Sometimes those demonstrations took a physical toll.

“When I did the in-ring with Mike Tyson, there was a point where he had me against the ropes and I asked him to demonstrate the combination that stopped Frank Bruno in their rematch – the right to the ribs followed by the right uppercut to the jaw,” Smith recalled. “For a split second I’m thinking,‘what if he has a flashback? This is it for me.’ Mike’s hands were so heavy that when he hit me with a shot on the left side of my face, my bridge was loosened and the next day it fell out. That’s just from him tapping me.

“I remember when Bernard Hopkins demonstrated some of the ‘dirty tactics’ he did with Felix Trinidad and they took my legs away. The next day I had trouble standing up at first, and no wonder,” he continued. “Getting in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard was a dream come true, but we couldn’t do the in-ring at the time we taped the show. Ray had promised me he would do one with me and – because Ray is a man of his word – we ended up doing it during the 2012 International Boxing Hall of Fame weekend before a live audience. He accidentally hit me with a hook to the face and he realized it right away. He said ‘oh s__t,’ and I responded with the first thing that popped in my head: ‘No mas!’ I had to put ice on my face afterward and for that I give him a hug every time I see him.”

In all, Smith has sparred with more than 40 world champions during the series, which is nearing its 60th episode. And, with a glint in his eye and mischief in his voice, he proudly proclaims that “I’ve never been knocked down. I never won any of those fights, but I’ve never been knocked down.”

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Like most people who came of age during the 1960s, Smith’s interest in boxing – and indirectly in broadcasting – was sparked by Muhammad Ali. The difference between Smith and most people, however, was that he was able to spend years of quality time with the man himself.

“I caught the Ali bug at a really early age watching him,” Smith said. “I saw Ali on Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight Show’ and mentioned him to my uncle, who knew Ali. My uncle asked, ‘Do you want to meet him?’ and I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ The next Sunday afternoon I was waiting outside the gym and I saw two dark figures coming toward me. One of them was Ali. He stopped, looked down at me and he saw my jacket. I wrote his name in magic marker on this brand new jacket and he got a kick out of it, especially when I told him my mom was going to be mad at me for doing it. He put his arm around me and led me up the steps toward the gym entrance. There was a rope that cordoned off the gym entrance from the crowd that gathered outside and I hesitated. Ali said, ‘No, you’re coming with me. You’re my main man!’ and from that point on I was addicted to the sport.

“One day my sixth grade teacher let me skip school to watch Ali train for the first Frazier fight,” Smith continued. “Ali was hitting the speed bag and he looked down at me and said, ‘little white kid, what do you want to be if you ever grow up?’ I laughed at his joke about my size and said, ‘I want to be like Johnny Carson because I saw you on it.’ He then said, ‘You know what? You will have your own show because you are just like me – you never shut up!”

That moment planted the seed that would grow into an oak with many branches. But unlike many trees whose branches emanate from the trunk, it was Smith’s branches that would form his ultimate foundation.

Smith’s first athletic outlet, if not his first love, was football. One day Smith saw an article in Sports Illustrated about a man who got a job with the Washington Redskins simply by knocking on the door at the team’s offices. The 11-year-old Smith figured he could do the same with his hometown Dolphins. When he broached the subject with his friends they all laughed at him. All of them except David Grant, who decided to give it a try, too.

“We approached Dan Dowe, who was the Dolphins’ equipment manager, and we said, ‘we want to work for you.’” Smith said. “Maybe because he liked our courage, he told us to ‘show up tomorrow.’ The next day we were in the locker room sorting out stuff.”

From 1970 to 1973 Smith, who worked as a ball boy during summer training camps, had a bird’s eye view on football history, for in 1972 Don Shula’s Dolphins achieved the only undefeated and untied season in the NFL’s modern era. During his time with the Dolphins Smith was befriended by many members of the team, including his hero, wide receiver Paul Warfield. In Warfield’s honor Smith wore number 42 when he played wide receiver for Carol City High School and the University of Minnesota Tech. One of Smith’s greatest gridiron highlights was catching a 21-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Scott Fern against Brainerd – the only score in a 6-0 victory.

“One reason I felt I could make it in football was because I was fast and I had such great hands,” Smith said. “I could actually catch punts out of the air with one hand. I made up for my lack of stature by overachieving and overdoing things, but at the end of the day it was too much to overcome. After I tried out at the University of Colorado, I was told by then-coach Chuck Fairbanks that I was too small to play major college football. From that point on I was crushed because all I thought about was doing that. My heart wasn’t in it anymore, especially after I injured my knee. But being the super-intelligent guy I was, I figured I could dump a bunch of weight and become a world champion boxer. I was convinced that my athletic days weren’t over. I was super-strong – I could bench 300 pounds – and I figured I was so quick that I’d be too good for these guys.”

With typical bravado, Smith eschewed an amateur career and started his boxing education in the pro ranks. He moved back to Fort Myers, Fla., and commuted five to six days per week to Miami’s 5th Street Gym under the tutelage of Mac Goodman. The welterweight in football eventually became a bantamweight in boxing.

“My first sparring session was against Anthony Collins, who was the lightweight champion of Florida,” Smith remembered. “Chris Dundee (who owned the gym) was there and before we started he yelled up to Anthony, ‘You’d better not hurt this kid.’ We went four rounds and he beat the crap out of me, but thanks to my signature left jab I was able to bloody his nose.”

The fights were few and far between but the steady training at the 5th Street Gym – and the assembly line of superstars that worked out there – helped Smith’s development.

“I lost a four-round decision to Jorge Ortiz because I had cracked ribs when I fought him,” Smith said. “When I was training for a Haitian kid named Eugene Thomas, Alexis Arguello came to the gym and we were shadowboxing together. He stopped his workout and tried to show me how to throw the right hand better. He basically took my right hand, pushed it up against my ribs, turned my right hand over, propped it against my ear and had me throwing it with torque. When I met Thomas, I threw that right hand exactly like he taught me and it was the only time I scored a one-punch knockout.”

Smith’s admiration for Ali ran so deep that he tried to fight like his idol instead of following his trainer’s recommendations. For that, he paid a big price.

“I never had an amateur career; I was just an athlete,” Smith said. “I didn’t listen to my trainer and I tried to fight like Ali. I suffered six to eight cracked ribs because I fought all wrong. I got beat up in the gym all the time but I was never dropped. I got hurt real bad, though, and I realized about two-and-a-half years into it that there was no way I could compete with these guys in fights after taking ass whippings in the gym. It wasn’t the kind of career I wanted. These guys have been doing it for so many years and I just didn’t have the experience to compete with that.”

Just as Smith fell back to boxing when his football career faltered, Smith fell back to another love when his boxing career ended – broadcasting.

“When I was the Dolphins’ ball boy, Paul Warfield put me on his radio and TV shows and I was there primarily because I was always with Ali and because of my knowledge of football,” he said. “One year I predicted all the division winners as well as the Super Bowl winner and loser. During a one-hour interview on one of Howard Cosell’s shows I beat Cosell in a trivia contest. I was the sports editor for the college newspaper and I had my own radio show while I was there. But it all goes back to Warfield.”

After ending his boxing career, Smith, now married and a father, had to take odd jobs to support his growing family. Smith knew, however, that he wouldn’t be productive unless he loved what he was doing. Given his background in radio, and being the proactive sort, Smith pounded the pavement and tried to sell himself.

“I remember getting a plastic suitcase and knocking on the doors of every radio station in Fort Myers,” Smith said. “Because I didn’t have a car it was a long day of catching buses and navigating through some really bad areas. I finally arrived at WCAI-AM, 1350 on your dial, and saw a man named James Seemiller. I was invited into the trailer to talk with him and not long after that I was told, ‘OK kid, you’re on the air next week.’ From that moment in 1986 forward, I have been on the air in some capacity.”

On radio he talked with legends in all fields – baseball’s Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Brooks Robinson, football’s Jim Brown and Johnny Unitas, horse racing’s Pat Day and track’s Carl Lewis among them. Another frequent guest was wrestling manager Captain Lou Albano.

“I dedicated one show each week to pro wrestling and the segment was sponsored by WCW,” Smith said. “The Captain became a regular on my show – as well as my answering machine. That eventually led to a one-day-a-week gig with WCW while I was still doing the radio show the other five days. I was having so much fun interviewing guys like Hulk Hogan, Sergeant Slaughter, Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair. I also got to hang out with Flair…could you imagine what that was like?”

With each passing day and with every succeeding circumstance, Smith was enhancing his skill set.

“The greatest broadcasters came from radio and one of the most valuable lessons I received was to never forget about entertaining the audience,” Smith said. “I found out over time that I had this great ability to interview anybody. The secret is to make them feel relaxed and comfortable and I did that by making them laugh. There are lots of guys who can sit with a stern face and interview LeBron James but there’s not a lot of guys who can make him laugh. To succeed, you have to have the diversity to interview anybody. That’s especially important in boxing because it’s such a diversified sport.”

Smith ended the radio show when he moved to Las Vegas in 1997. It wasn’t long before his next career transition began to take shape.

“Before I left Florida I was breaking into TV once in a while,” Smith said. “I got the call to replace Jimmy Lennon Jr. as the ring announcer for the Bernard Hopkins-John David Jackson fight when Jimmy couldn’t make it in. Since I was in Vegas for radio anyway, people from the networks would interview me to get my thoughts. But my real break was when Colleen Galloway, the director of pay-per-view sports and events for USSB, called me. USSB aired on DirecTV’s Channel 900 and they devoted everything to boxing. They basically hired me to do it all. I was working with so many promoters that Colleen ended up saying, ‘If there’s a fight and USSB is doing it, I want Smitty to be part of the broadcast.’ If Col. Bob Sheridan was doing blow-by-blow, I’d be his color commentator. If Sean O’Grady was doing color with Bob, I’d be the roving reporter.”

Of all the roles he fills, his favorite is color commentary because it allows him to utilize his greatest asset – his analyst’s eye.

“The great historian Hank Kaplan once told me, ‘Kid, do you ever have an eye for the sport’ and Bert Randolph Sugar said I have among the best ‘eyes’ in boxing,” Smith said. “I can see things other analysts can’t because of my experiences in the ring and my ability to articulate why things are happening. For example, I was doing a women’s fight between Ann Wolfe and Vonda Ward in May 2004, which is considered by many as the greatest knockout in women’s boxing history. Going into the fight many people thought that Wolfe would go to Ward’s body because she wouldn’t be able to reach the 6-foot-6 Ward’s chin. But as the fight began I noticed that Ward pulled her chin straight back when she was backing up. But before I could finish the sentence…TIMBER!”

The time with USSB was the busiest time in Smith’s career in terms of sheer volume. The frequent flier miles piled up quickly and the exposure expanded his worldwide reach.

“One week I might be in Detroit while the next week I’d be in New York City,” Smith said. “Then I might be in Vegas, then it’s on to Mexico City and Hamburg. I was doing tons of international broadcasts and for a while I was considered the voice of women’s boxing because I was doing so many Christy Martin and Laila Ali fights. When Lennox Lewis was about to fight Michael Grant, USSB flew me in to do a one-on-one with Lewis for the promotional program. I was so busy that I couldn’t even attend the Lewis-Tyson fight because I had my biggest ever payday opportunity in New Zealand. If there is one event that really catapulted my career and led me to where I am today, it’s when Colleen Galloway hired me for USSB.”

Just when it appeared Smith’s career was about to hit the stratosphere, a sudden and unexpected event stopped the momentum cold – at least for a while.

“I get this call from Colleen on a Thursday morning and she began by asking me, ‘Are you sitting down?’ I answered ‘No, what’s up?’ She said, ‘I have great news; we’re going full throttle with the station. You’ll have a news show that you’ll anchor and you’ll be doing color commentary with Bob even more than you are. This is the salary you’ll be making….’ and so on. Three or four days later I get another call from Colleen: ‘We’ve been sold (to DirecTV).’ I ended up working another eight or nine months while the sale went through and then it all ended. You talk about being derailed and deflated.”

But all the exposure on USSB implanted positive impressions throughout the industry and the goodwill soon worked to Smith’s advantage. He eventually worked shows for CSI Sports, which aired cards from around the world on a syndicated basis.

“Cedric Kushner kept hiring me for shows and I was always there when I was needed,” Smith said. “People were using me because they knew that I was versatile. They especially liked the way I interviewed fighters.”

With a little help from his then-wife Kim, the seeds of an interview show that eventually became “In This Corner” were sown.

“When I first decided that I wanted to take a break from or even stop doing radio, Kim said, ‘Why don’t you do TV?’” Smith said. “We came up with the idea of ‘Smitty’s Ringside Seat’ where I’d interview all the great fighters of the past but I couldn’t get the money to do it. After a while I did some more thinking: ‘Why don’t I do some kind of biographical show with an added twist: An in-ring segment?’ I’ve been around this game all these years, I know the sport and who better than me to get in the ring with these guys and let them demonstrate how remarkable their skills are? These are athletes who have to make tremendous decisions in the eye of the storm. I wanted these subtleties to be demonstrated so the fans can understand the game better.”

Rick Abbott – a TV executive Smith knew from his USSB days – was working at Empire Sports Network, a channel devoted to sports in the Buffalo area. Smith sent a tape of a pilot episode featuring former bantamweight titlist Wayne McCullough to Abbott. Abbott liked the concept and the execution behind “In This Corner” and soon Empire became the first station to put it on the air.

“For a while Empire was ‘Sabres and Smitty,’” Smith said with a laugh. “They would run my show five or six times a day. They agreed to order 13 episodes but at the time I only had one filmed. I lied a little and told them I had 13 ready to go, but through the grace of God Evander Holyfield came to town, then guys like Mike McCallum, Diego Corrales, Kevin Kelley, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Johnny Tapia and everyone was in Vegas. That’s why I moved to Vegas: They either live here, train here or fight here.”

Smith’s own experiences in the ring made it easier to convince these marquee athletes to take a chance and help out the show.

“They’ve never done anything like the in-ring segments I had in mind but they knew I wasn’t just some other broadcaster,” Smith said. “Fighters believe that if you’ve done it, by golly you’ve done it, no matter what level you were.”

As time went on, the segments became so detailed that some fighters hesitated to film them before an important fight.

“Guys wouldn’t want to do the in-rings just before their biggest matches, which I took as a great compliment,” Smith said. “One guy refused to do it even after I told him that the episode would air after his fight.”

One of the best episodes of “In This Corner” was one featuring Nonito Donaire. During the one-on-one interview, Smith convinced “The Filipino Flash” to sing the song he used to propose to his future wife while the in-ring segment saw Donaire describe, in intricate detail, how he set up his one-punch knockout over Vic Darchinyan.

“Nonito was preparing for a fight and we hit it off,” Smith said. “We have so much respect and admiration for each other. This year I named Nonito my pound-for-pound number one because of his activity level and the way he beat so many high-quality opponents.”

The level of trust exemplified by Donaire is something Smith treasures.

“It means more to me than anything that when I walk into a room with these guys, their faces light up just like mine did when I saw Ali,” Smith said. “I have a bond and a camaraderie with the fighters unlike any other broadcaster because there’s a respect for the way I’ve walked the two lines.”

No incident better illustrates that respect more than what occurred shortly after Diego Corrales was killed in a motorcycle accident in May 2007.

“We’ve had instances where we’ve had fighters laugh and cry but one of the things that touched me most happened shortly after Diego Corrales died,” Smith recalled. “At the end of every show I ask the fighters how they’d like to be remembered not only as a fighter, but also as a man, and Diego gave the most wonderful answer. Shortly after Diego died, his wife called and asked us to send a tape of the show so they could play his answer during the wake.”

Along with the TV show, Smith launched a YouTube channel where more interviews and features have been uploaded. One recent interview was with Dr. Margaret Goodman, the president of the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (VADA), about issues surrounding performance-enhancing drugs in boxing. But while Smith can discuss serious topics like PEDS with the appropriate seriousness and credibility, he also can crack self-deprecating jokes with the best of them.

Although Smith is in “the autumn of his life,” he still is pursuing goals. He’s trying to get a boxing-themed love story on the silver screen and he is in the process of developing a boxing-based reality show. He also wants to expand the “In This Corner” brand internationally.

“I want to go to places around the world using the template we have, such as ‘In This Corner Espanol,’ ‘In This Corner U.K.’ ‘In This Corner Canada’ and so on,” he said. “I’d like to sit in a theater one day and see a few of my movies. I filmed a Spanish-language interview with Roberto Duran that hasn’t aired yet and I ended up doing the final television interview Joe Frazier ever did. I have enough on my plate to keep me going.”

He also wants the best for his favorite sport.

“I want to experience a time when boxing is back on the front pages of the sports sections as it was in the past,” he said. “Boxing has become a secondary sport in the U.S. and I’d like to see boxing get the proper appreciation again. I’d like to witness a day when we have one world champion and 15-round fights and where the heavyweight championship of the world is once again the most prized possession in sports. There are a lot of great stories out there in boxing and I want to be there to cover them.”

Smith was inducted into the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame in 2010 but he hopes that in the end his work will receive even more recognition.

“At least in the United States, we haven’t received the acclaim or notoriety from the general public because we’ve been so independent,” Smith said. “Because we’re not part of the platforms offered by HBO, Showtime, ESPN or other outlets, we don’t have the wherewithal to promote and do the things that eventually lead to the plaudits. But around the rest of the world, it’s different. If I walk into an arena in Manchester or New Zealand or around Europe, probably more people would recognize me just because of the YouTube broadcasts. I’d like to say – I hope I can say – that I’m the worldwide voice of boxing.”

For all he has done, one of the greatest compliments ever paid to him took place during a recent conversation with his old friend Paul Warfield.

“He recently said that I was a great inspiration to him because of the fearlessness I showed as a kid,” Smith said. “To have Paul Warfield, a genuine Hall of Famer and legend, tell me that is worth more than I can say. If I wasn’t so fearless, I never would have met Ali – or Warfield for that matter. He was so fascinated by my combination of innocence and fearlessness that he was inspired by it. I’ve always believed that whatever the mind can conceive you can achieve and I’ve done it.”

 

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Photos courtesy of James Smith

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 10 writing awards, including seven in the last three 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 l.groves@frontier.comto arrange for autographed copies.

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