The New York boxing community is rather intimate and, at times, even benign.
When interviewing fighters, trainers, or anyone else involved in the game,
you realize just how tightly woven it is. This past Monday, at the
Webster PAL in the Bronx, Lou DiBella stablemates Chris Smith, Paul Malignaggi,
and Sechew Powell—all Gleasons guys who made the lengthy journey north—were
giving back to the community by putting on a boxing clinic for youngsters.
Observing the prospects in the basement gym were a couple of teenagers who
recently made their bones in the Golden Gloves, and would love to be in such
a position: undefeated, and fighting in Midtown Manhattan Thursday night
(at The Grand Ballroom at Manhattan Center).
Looking at the pros' gentle way with the kids, you would never have thought
them participants in a brutal blood sport. This is most true of welterweight
Chris “The Mechanic“ Smith (16-0-1), whose inviting, unmarked face befits
a camp counselor, not a guy with 10 KOs on his ledger. As he critiqued the
kids shadow boxing in the ring, he was attentive and patient, as if he had
no greater priority. He even dispensed a few tricks of the trade most
vets would keep to themselves. (This was not a photo-op; other than the ubiquitous
fight photographer Teddy Blackburn and myself, there was no media in sight.)
Smith seemed aware of the impact this brief encounter might have on one of
the impressionable youths—Charles Barkley's “I am not a role model“ schtick
doesn't fly with this thoughtful pugilist.
While several kids circled and threw punches at Smith, I stood off to one
corner of the gym with his trainer, Partick Ford. Ford was one of the
best featherweights Guyana ever produced; in 1980 he busted up the great
Salvador Sanchez for the WBC belt, but lost a questionable decision.
When asked what he liked most about his charge, Ford said Smith can adapt
to any style. (That's good to know since they know little about tonight's
opponent, Darien Ford (9-4, 6 KOs “I can tell you he is not related
to me,“ the trainer joked.) Smith's advisor, Johnny Bos, noted his
client is hard to handle because he throws more punches with each passing
round. “He'll throw 60 in round 1,“ Bos said, “and a hundred plus in
round 10. And he's a helluva defensive fighter.“ An outstanding
boxing historian, Bos describes the 29-year-old Smith as a “throwback,“ reminiscent
of Henry Armstrong.
Smith has experienced some rough patches during his pro career—managerial
and promotional letdowns, a full-time job he struggled to hold down, a car
accident that damaged his back for 6 months, and a broken hand, to boot.
All the aggravation led to an 18-month layoff where he considered himself
retired from the ring. But the thought of never boxing again threw
him into a depression the likes of which he had never known. Now he's back
doing what he loves, with a new promoter he's pleased with, a strong team
around him, and good health. Expect to see him climb up the rankings
and take a crack at Cory Spinks, or whoever else is holding the title when
his moment arrives.
ZL: Are you a native New Yorker?
CS: I moved from Brooklyn to Queens when I was about 11 or 12, and have been
there pretty much ever since. I grew up in South Jamaica. Then we moved
to St. Albans. And now I live in Hollis. So you gotta keep it
ZL: Do you feel a special connection with Queens?
CS: Yeah, I love Queens. Queens is very mellow. To me it's
more like my personality, very laid back. Brooklyn is very cool, I
got a lot of family there. It's almost like Manhattan—the city that
never sleeps. When you go to Brooklyn at certain times, especially
in Flatbush, it's busy. But in Queens it sort of dies down after a while.
I like that
ZL: What were you like as a kid? A lot of guys come to boxing because
they liked to get into street fights.
CS: I wasn't really like that. If you're talking about getting
into street fights and stuff like that, that was before I came to Queens.
In Brooklyn I fought all the time. I don't know what it is—
ZL: Because people pushed you to it?
CS: It was just the atmosphere there...a lot of trouble in the summertime
cause it's hot and everyone's out! (laughs) I could remember once I
got into a fight in Queens, and my brother said to me, “This isn't like Brooklyn,
because they jump people there.“ And then I just sort of took my brother's
lead because he's...both of my brothers I should say...they're cool guys,
you know. Everybody knew them, and they were friends with everybody.
I said, ‘You know what? I want to be more like that. I don't
want to be the rowdy type. I just want to be friends with people and
ZL: They're your older brothers?
CS: Yeah, my older brothers.
ZL: Are you guys still tight?
CS: We're definitely tight. My brother, (Purcell) Junior, he's my personal
trainer. He's a certified trainer, so I gotta let him do his thing.
And he's been kicking my ass.
ZL: How much older is Junior?
CS: He's about three years older than I am.
ZL: Was he a boxer himself?
CS: No, I'm the only boxer in the family. He just loves to stay in
shape. The man is fit—diesel. He does some crazy exercises, and
he puts me through a serious workout every time we get going.
ZL: That's great that your fitness trainer happens to be your brother.
CS: Yeah, definitely. And I don't really have to pay him!
ZL: And what about your other brother?
CS: Actually, believe it or not, Gary doesn't do anything—no kind of workout.
But, when I was 12, 13 years old, he started working out. He got this
machine. I looked up to my older brother; to me he was The Man.
Everything he did I wanted to do. He's about six years older than me,
and it was a way to have a connection. So I started working out and
I never stopped.
ZL: What about your folks? How do they feel about your boxing?
CS: Oh, man, my pops, he loves it. Especially being successful.
My mom's a different story. She accepts it and she loves the fact I'm
successful, but would rather not see me do it. She didn't want me to
get into it. Like yesterday she said, ‘I'm just gonna encourage
you to continue doing what you're doing, cause you're not going to listen
to me and stop.'
ZL: So she won't come to your fights?
CS: No, she will not come to my fights. She's only been to one fight
and that was at the Madison Square Garden fight—the Golden Gloves.
That was enough for me. I'm not gonna push her to come.
ZL: Will she watch it on TV when it's over?
CS: She'll watch it on TV when it's over. She never watches while it's
on live. But afterwards, she hears the outcome—‘OK, let's watch the
ZL: So how did you come to boxing?
CS: You know what, when we got to Queens, we used to watch the karate flicks
on Sundays. I just wanted to do that hand-to-hand stuff. As a
kid I sort of looked at everything...for something I was the best at.
I tried baseball, I tried basketball—
ZL: Were you any good?
CS: No! (laughing). You know, I could play defense in basketball.
I was no good at track. And baseball, I couldn't hit the ball, but
I could catch. I could play defense. So I started boxing, and
I was good at it.
ZL: How old were you?
CS: I started boxing at 15. I was good, I stayed with it.
ZL: Tell me about your amateur career?
CS: I didn't really have much of an amateur career, to tell you the truth.
I had about 16 amateur fights. I had some gaps in between.
ZL: You fought in the Gloves.
CS: Yeah, I won the New York Golden Gloves. As a matter of fact, when
I first started boxing, I made it to the semifinals. I swear to God
I feel like I won that fight. The guy went on to eventually win the
whole thing. I knocked him down and everything. But I swear,
you ask me, I won that fight.
ZL: Amateur scoring is kind of kooky.
CS: Aw, man, it's crazy.
ZL: What were you fighting at as a kid?
CS: The same weight, 147.
ZL: No kidding. So you were full-grown at that point.
CS: Yeah, pretty much.
ZL: Then, when you eventually won, were you an Open fighter?
CS: Open, yeah.
ZL: And you decided to turn pro soon after?
CS: Yeah, I had one more amateur tournament. I won a duel between New
York and Finland. That was an experience in itself. The trip
was fabulous. It was just a great experience.
ZL: How old were you at this point?
CS: I was 22...23. I won the Gloves in '97
and turned pro in '98.
ZL: What were you doing for work back then?
CS: Ah! I used to work at St. Vincent's Hospital. I was a dietary
aide. I used to do that while I was boxing amateur.
ZL: What did your job entail?
CS: I used to, basically, get the menus from the patients. I also fed
ZL: What was it like working at a hospital? Hospitals kind of spook
CS: Yeah, man. It scared me too, and I did that for a couple of years.
It was something I didn't really want to do. I mean, the pay was good
and I needed to do something. But just going into these rooms with
really sick people.... (pause) I met some people from the hospital who were
sick and we're still good friends to this day.
ZL: You have such a nice demeanor, I'm sure you were very comforting to them.
CS: Thank you, thank you. I've heard that. There was this one
older lady and she was so happy when I would come by, and we'd talk a little
bit. We're still friends to this day.
ZL: So you did this job while you were a pro?
CS: No, once I turned pro I left the job. Because I got a manager who
was pretty much taking care of me. But then that sort of fell apart.
Then I got a job working at 499 Park, the Bloomberg building. I basically
worked there for a couple of years. After winning my title (NABA),
I worked about a month or two more and then I quit.
ZL: What's it like training the way you must, and putting in 40 hours a week
at another job.
CS: It was difficult. As a matter of fact, when I won the title, I
fought on a Thursday and I was back to work that Friday, the next day.
I had gotten head-butted, I was bruised, swollen, my hands was damaged.
I'm talking about putting in your time, I did it.
ZL: Looking at your record, I see that you only fought only once in early
2000 and not again until November of 2001. What happened?
CS: Management had just basically walked out on me at that time, but I was
trying to keep it going. Then I had an accident. That really
messed it up for me.
ZL: Whoa, back up. Your management walked out on you? You were
CS: Yeah, I was undefeated and they decided that I just didn't have it.
ZL: Who was your manager at the time?
CS: Chris Seeger, he's the manager of Kirk Johnson.
ZL: But if you're undefeated!?
CS: Right, right. What was crazy was I just fought Leo Edwards.
He was a jr. middleweight, and at that time he was not a shot fighter.
He had given some pretty good professional fighters some trouble. Everyone
that was there, the matchmakers, said I won at least 5 out of 6. If
you ask me, I won every round. I didn't understand how they scored
it that way.
ZL: How did that feel, having your manager bail on you like that?
CS: It felt bad. I was pretty upset with them for a while. But
then after a while, maybe a year after, I wasn't upset with them anymore.
Cause it could have been worse, they could have held onto my contract and
just decided I wasn't going to fight anymore.
[Sources close to the situation have told BT that Chris Seeger and his business
associates were vying for James Toney at that time, and dumped Smith in order
to allocate more money for the then-cruiserweight star.]
ZL: And didn't you also go on to have difficulties with your promoter, Duva
Boxing, as well?
CS: Yeah, my former promoters tried to do to me the exact thing I feared
my former manager would do—hold onto my contract while not giving me fights.
ZL: They tried to starve you?
CS: Exactly, knowing that the contract was broken...I had a clause in my
contract that they had to give me a fight every 100 days, and they did not
do that. I was going to have to take them to court. I mean, they
had a show at Madison Square Garden (Kirk Johnson-Vitali Klitschko) and they
did not put me on the card. But the situation was settled, and I'm
in a much better place now.
ZL: You mentioned being in an accident, what happened to you?
CS: Man, I was in a car accident. Two cars ran a stop sign and crashed
into my vehicle. I was hurt for about six months. It was a real nagging
injury I had to my back. What really got me was my mind wasn't into
it after that. My management had just walked out on me. My advisor
Johnny Bos said, “You know what? Maybe it's just time for you not to
box, stay away for a while and do something else.
ZL: That says a lot about Johnny, don't you think? Clearly, he was
a person concerned about your welfare and not just trying to make a buck
ZL: How did you and Johnny hook up?
CS: I met him at the Troy Waters-Trinidad fight (1997). We happened
to be sitting next to each other, and struck up a conversation.
ZL: Just by chance?
ZL: Did you know who he was?
CS: No, I didn't.
ZL: Did he know who you were?
CS: I'm pretty sure he did, but I didn't know him. I had just won the
Gloves and there were some guys who were bringing me out to England, Lennox
Lewis' people. And he was telling me I should go out there and listen
to what they have to say. But just for my own safety, I shouldn't sign
anything until I have somebody look at it. I went out there and sure
enough they wanted me to sign something. ...I didn't sign.
ZL: And so you picked Bos' brain on other things—
CS: And not really knowing much about him, just that he was someone to talk
to who knew the business. To me, it started out as a friendship and
really blossomed into a true friendship. Cause when I wasn't doing
anything, he was still there. And when he needed me, I was there for
ZL: That period when you stopped boxing, how was it for you?
CS: I was miserable, because that's not really what I wanted to do.
I was pretty much trying to find myself outside of boxing. But I took
the time out. I can remember that Johnny invited me to go with him to the
Boxing Hall of Fame. I went out there with him. I met Kid Gavilan,
got a lot of autographs. It was great. And I said, ‘You know,
I'm gonna give it one more shot.'
ZL: Johnny told me he saw the kid in you that weekend, that being at the
Hall of Fame really affected you. I'm glad he took you, it would have
been boxing's loss had you not gone.