When Ishe Smith travelled to Detroit back in February, he knew he had to make the most of his opportunity in fighting Cornelius Bundrage for the IBF junior middleweight title.
It had taken 13 years for him to receive his chance at winning a world title, one he wasn’t going to let slip through his hands. He won a majority decision, 116-111 twice against the curious 114-114.
The recently turned 35-year-old says of his achievement, “It will go down as one of the greatest days of my life.”
Though he won‘t go as far as to say a loss would have been the end, he knows it would have been very damaging: “I knew in the back of my mind I didn’t think it would be the end, but I knew I had to (win). I didn’t think this will be my only shot if I lost. That never crossed my mind because losing never crossed my mind.”
A few years ago “Sugar Shay,” an alumni of the first season of The Contender, was cast adrift in the boxing wilderness, going nowhere, depressed, even having suicidal thoughts. Thankfully, he got the call to go to camp with Floyd Mayweather Jr. ahead of his fight with Miguel Cotto. He impressed Mayweather, who said he’d get Smith a fight, and from there they managed to manufacture a title opportunity.
This weekend on the undercard of “The One,” headlined by Mayweather vs. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, Smith (25-5, 11 knockouts) looks to make his maiden defense in front of his fans in Las Vegas against the ever-awkward Carlos Molina, who’s on a two-fight win streak after being controversially disqualified last year against James Kirkland. It was originally scheduled to take place on July 19 before Smith was cut in sparring. Now he’s healed and ready to make the most of his new opportunity.
Ishe Smith: I told the public and the press I thought he was a worthy challenger before I won the title and I told everybody I was going to give him a shot. People seem to mistake that for ‘I have to fight him right now.‘ I have until Nov. 23 to make my mandatory, but because I felt he was worthy … my first fight was going to be against him. Or I thought the other worthy opponent was (Gabe) Rosado but he fought up at 160 pounds. It‘s just one of those things where I felt he was a worthy challenger. How he’s ranked number two I don’t know, you’ll have to ask the IBF about that.
I felt he deserves a shot and that’s what he’ll get, but I still think he’s one of the dirtiest fighters in boxing. I think he had some tough breaks with the (Erislandy) Lara fight. Honestly, the (James) Kirkland fight was tough but outside of that I don’t watch the guy fight. He doesn’t have a pleasing style, he holds, he hits behind the head, he does a lot of stuff to make fights ugly.
AW: You were cut in sparring, forcing you to pull the plug on the original date of July 19. How is the injury now?
IS: The cut is great, it’s healed up, no more issues with it, everything is good. Everything happens for a reason. Of course, I was ready to go July 19. I was in tip-top shape but things happen for a reason. God works in mysterious ways. It’s an honor and privilege to be a part of such a big show.
AW: The fight now takes place as part of “The One” promotion. What’s that like?
IS: Oh, man, it’s a blessing. You know, not too many years ago I couldn’t get any fights, nobody wanted to fight me. Thank God now I’m a world champion and one of the featured fights on the biggest pay-per-view of the last ten, fifteen years, maybe in the history of boxing. It’s really special to be a part of a show that has a chance to break the record of the most pay-per-view buys.
AW: It takes place in Las Vegas. As the first Las Vegas-born titleholder how important is this to you?
IS: It’s very important to come home and defend my title in front of my fans. I’ve spent my whole life born and raised in Las Vegas, 27 total boxing years, 13 professional years, so my most loyal fans are in this city. It was very important to me and dear to me to defend my title here. Golden Boy and Mayweather Promotions, Leonard Ellerbe, Floyd Mayweather everybody at Showtime, Steven Espinoza, have come together so I owe a lot of people. Especially Mayweather Promotions, Floyd & Leonard got the ball rolling to have the fight here which is just a blessing. I never go a day without thanking God for everything he has done for me.
AW: You won the title beating Cornelius Bundrage back in February and you did so on the road. Can you talk us through the Bundrage fight?
IS: You know, I just knew it was once in a lifetime, it was a dream. I knew coming in it didn’t matter if it was Canelo, it just didn’t matter who it was, I wasn’t going to be defeated that night. I was going to go wherever I had to go. If I had to fight him in his mom’s house I was coming to take that title and I trained really really hard. We had a really good camp, outside of getting injured two weeks before the fight, I hurt my rib.
Even through all that I wasn’t going to be denied and it all just boiled down to I was better than him, I had more drive, more heart. I wanted it more while he was focused on everything on the outside – he wanted to fight Floyd, he wanted to be the next man in line – he forgot I’m a very dangerous fighter and I was right in front of his face. And I told him ‘you’re not going to make it to Floyd.’ I wasn’t going to be denied.
I knew the second half of the fight was my fight. I was able to hurt him. He called me every name in the book, he said I can’t punch, I cant do this or that, but at the end of the day he was hurt really bad twice in the fight and he was stung a couple of times. I like it when people don’t think I can punch. Yeah my knockout percentage is low, but I fought a lot of good fighters over the years, a lot of them I’ve hurt or dropped, so I don’t think it’s a process of not being able to punch. I just think when you fight a lot of good fighters it’s hard to knock those guys out.
AW: Did you feel that was your one shot at becoming a world champion and it was now or never?
IS: Sometimes you’re backed into a place where you have to cash in. You know, you see it with all types of athletes, that they get that one shot but they never get it again. We’ve seen it with Charles Barkley, a couple of other athletes – they make it to championships and they were never able to capitalize on it. I knew in the back of my mind I didn’t think it would be the end, but I knew I had to (win). I didn’t think this will be my only shot if I lost – that never crossed my mind because losing never crossed my mind – but what did cross my mind was this was a big opportunity and I had to seize the moment and I had to take full advantage of it, and that’s why I was able to go out there and fight the way I did, especially the second half of that fight.
We came into that fight injured. I was severely injured with my rib. It came to a point where Floyd was asking me if I wanted to pull out. I wasn’t able to spar the last two weeks of training camp. I have a great team: Eddie Mustafa (head trainer), Dejuan Blake (camp coordinator), Bob Ware (cutman), Rafael Ramos (one of the coaches). They did a tremendous job in camp and I just believed in myself more than anything. I knew if I went in injured there was nothing he could do to phase me.
AW: After the fight you were as emotional as I can ever remember seeing a fighter. Looking back now could you put it into words what you achieved?
IS: You know it was a great night, to have all my kids there, my sister who’s my only sibling, everything came together in one night, all the hard work, the blood, the tears, the sweat and just everything, all the days in gym, the amateurs. I remember losing in the Olympic trials in 1996, losing to Zab Judah and I felt like my world had ended ’cause I had this dream since I was 8 years old of going to the Olympics, and when I lost to him my world came crashing down. And then to go to the pinnacle of boxing… ’cause nobody really remembers you for winning gold medals. Gold medals are OK at the time but the difference between winning a gold medal (and being a world champion) is 4 years later you go back to them and there’s another gold medalist. (Professional) boxing is a little different from other sports like swimming and all those other sports because you can keep going back, but boxers, especially in the States or the U.K., they usually go pro after. You don’t get known for winning a medal, you get known for becoming a world champion. And to be able to accomplish that and to be the first in history to do something for my city and for my state that they were able to be proud of, it will go down as one of the greatest days of my life.
AW: You’re aligned with Floyd Mayweather Jr., he’s your promoter. Could you tell us how this came about, how he’s helped you and a little about the relationship the two of you share?
IS: Being with Floyd is a blessing because at the time … I lost a close decision to Danny Jacobs. I thought Danny out-worked me. Then I came back with the (Fernando) Guerrero fight, (and) I thought I put my all into it. I thought I won, I felt they took the decision from me, and I came back and fought a tune-up in November 2010. After that I wasn’t able to get any fights. Lou (DiBella) tried to get me a fight, he pressed the issue, but we couldn’t get a fight. ESPN said I was unapprovable on their network, Showtime did their best – they offered me a fight but it was too short notice; it was on two weeks’ notice and I didn’t want to take that. And it was 18 months, no fights.
Lou DiBella was gracious enough to say I’m not able to get you fights and rather than hold you back I’m just going to release you and maybe you’ll have better luck getting fights on your own. So that just tells you what a stand-up guy Lou DiBella is. (Then) I linked up with Floyd. I didn’t fight straight away, I went to camp with Floyd to help him get ready for Cotto and we were able to sit down and he said I’m going to put you on the day before I fight. He did, (and) I looked good after being off 18 months. He said ‘I’m going to take you under my wing, you have the skill to be world champion.’
We communicated while he was in jail, we wrote each other letters. He said he was going to get me a shot at a title and to keep my head up. I had another fight I think around September of last year and a few months later I’m fighting for a world title. It just shows you when you bring honesty and integrity to this game like Floyd Mayweather does, what he can do for someone like myself. Things weren’t looking too good but God placed us together and he manufactured everything. I cant thank God enough.
AW: Tell us a little about being around Floyd.
IS: Being around Floyd is a good experience. He’s the best in the world. Whatever you can learn and have him guide your career and mentor you on the way is a positive. I consider him a friend, like a brother – it’s been nothing but positive since me and him hooked up. He’s been a key factor in getting me a title shot so I will forever be grateful for that, I can’t say enough of how much he’s done for me and my family to achieve my dreams.
No matter what people say about him he’s a good guy. He takes care of a lot of people, he does a lot of things in the community, and I’m able to see that hands-on because I’m on the inside, whereas a lot of people they’re on the outside. He’s fed the homeless, he’s helped people buy houses, he‘s done Thanksgiving drives – I know he helped a young girl who needed a surgical procedure – and what he does for the Money Team, whether a guy might need money for rent or be in a tough bind financially, Floyd’s always there. You can call him any time and tell him you need something and he’ll be right there for you. He’ll go down as one of the best, he helped me achieve history by becoming the first native of Las Vegas to win a major title.
AW: Headlining your card, Floyd steps back up to junior middleweight when he meets Saul Alvarez in a superfight. What are your thoughts on that fight?
IS: Floyd Mayweather is the best in the business. You saw with the (Robert) Guerrero fight, people were saying he can’t do this, he can‘t do that, he’s losing his legs. He looked like a young Floyd Mayweather. I just think he’s way too experienced for Canelo, I think he’s way too smart, I think he’s going to confuse him. I think Canelo’s going to fight him well early but I think Floyd is too smart, too intelligent and down the stretch he’ll beat him up. He might stop him, otherwise he’ll beat him up like he did with Guerrero, make him look like a C-rate fighter.
AW: Let‘s look at the junior middleweight division – what do you think of it as a whole?
IS: I think it’s a great division, really exciting. Like I say, Floyd-Canelo is the best fight that can be made but once he beats him I don’t think he stays here, I think he goes back down to welterweight. But Canelo can come back, he still has a good enough name. You have some other guys, young guys who haven’t been tested. I think it‘s one of the more exciting weight divisions in boxing. The young guys like the Charlo brothers, but they’re untested, they’re pretty good, so it‘s hard for me to take those guys serious just yet. You’ve got (Erislandy) Lara and (Alfredo) Angulo and then there’s (James) Kirkland whenever he decides to come back from his troubles, so it should be really interesting.
AW: Let‘s talk a little about you as a person. A few years back things were pretty rough for you. Could you tell us about that and how you overcame those obstacles?
IS: It was just I was at a point where you’ve been doing something all your life and you’re not able to do that. You using all your money and you’re not able to do what you love to do. Depression kicks in, suicidal thoughts kick in, you’re down on your luck. I was able to look at the strength of my kids, them growing up without a dad, then not wanting to commit suicide, to live. I was happy and content with just living life. I was in such a dark place, just to be able to wake up every day and kiss my kids was exciting for me but I still had that itch that I didn’t feel I was done with boxing. I was content if I never fought again; I was like, ‘I’ve had a pretty good career, I fought on every network, Showtime, HBO, ESPN, part of NBC’s Contender in the first season.‘ So I was starting to think the chapter was over almost ‘cause I wasn’t getting a lot of breaks. So for that book to still be going on in the second chapter, to finally be kicking in is a great feeling.
AW: You were a contestant on The Contender back in the day. What was that like?
IS: It was a great experience, all the pundits who talked about that show. That show has produced quite a few world champions: me, Sergio Mora, Alfonso Gomez fought for a world title, Peter Manfredo I think fought for a world title [Manfredo fought Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. for the WBC middleweight title in 2011 and lost by fifth-round knockout]. That first season was great, those guys will always be linked because we were part of something big. We got a big following in the U.K. I know from just being on that show. It was something that transcended boxing at the time. I still have a lot of fans from the show that follow my career and I’ll always be grateful for what they did for me.
AW: Could you tell us a little about your life away from boxing – what do you enjoy doing, what are your hobbies, interests, etc.
IS: I was coaching my kids‘ football team. I was coaching a few teams but I got busy with boxing, now I just go to the games and watch. It was great seeing the kids grow up and do great things, it was awesome. I love spending time with my family and kids and support all the guys on the Money Team. I love watching movies, trying different food. I’m a regular homebody. Camp is so different; you have to separate yourself from your family, so when I’m not (in camp) I like to be with family.
AW: In closing, do you have a message for Molina ahead of your fight?
IS: He should make sure he saves his money – ‘cause he’s getting a good payday – ‘cause this will be his last one. He’s coming here and he’s going back to Chicago empty-handed. He’s leaving Las Vegas the same way he’s coming, with just a waist belt holding up his jeans. I’ve waited too long to get this title, 13 years with all the ups and downs and there’s no way I’m giving this title to anybody.
Photos by Naoki Fukuda (2); Tom Hogan-Hoganphotos (2)