DECEMBER 12, 1986 is not a date carved out in the collective consciousness of boxing fans, but for James Odell Smith better known as “Bonecrusher,” it heralds his finest hour inside the ring. The old adage that one man’s loss is another man’s gain aptly describes what happened next to the former farm boy, college graduate, soldier, prison guard and car salesman.
Smith had been readying himself for just another run-of-the-mill encounter with Mitch Green when news filtered through that Tony Tubbs had injured his shoulder in training on the eve of a title match with WBA champion Tim Witherspoon, Smith agreed to substitute the luckless Tubbs. Powerfully built at 6ft 4 inch, 228lbs and equipped with a strong right hand and a solid chin, Smith signalled his intentions from the opening bell staggering old adversary Witherspoon with his first punch, an overhand right. A dazed and confused Witherspoon was unable to hold back the determined challenger who relentlessly pursued him across the ring, unleashing a thrilling sequence of piledriver lefts and rights, sending the normally resilient champion to the canvas for the first time in his professional career. Not even a flash knockdown by a Witherspoon right hand could stem the tide as Smith continued his onslaught. The champion visited the canvas twice more invoking the WBA regulation of the three knockdown rule. After 132 seconds the unfancied Smith was crowned the new champion.
Grizzled veteran commentator Reg Gutteridge summed it up best: “That’s got to be one of the most sensational turnabouts. The man [Smith] literally came from nowhere and stopped the champion. In fact, he murdered him.”
Mike Tyson, the young WBC champion and a keen ringside observer, described it as a “dramatic display of physical power.” Three months later Tyson and Smith clashed as part of HBO’s heavyweight unification tournament and Tyson outpointed Smith who fought an exceptionally cautious fight and was deducted points for excessive holding.
Smith continued to mix in good company but never again reached those dizzy heights. In an 18-year career (1981-1999) of see-sawing fortunes he finished with a ledger of 44-17-1 (34). Smith met la crème de la crème of the heavyweight division including eight former and future world champions tangling with Larry Holmes, Witherspoon and Mike Weaver. But British fight fans will always remember him as the man who came to Wembley Arena in May 1984 and upset the odds by bursting Frank Bruno’s bubble inflicting upon him his first professional loss.
The personable Smith, 66 today and now living in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina spoke to Boxing News about his career and he began by recalling the phone call that changed his life…
“At the time I was suing the big promoter Don King,” Smith says, “and he called me up one day:
DK: Bonecrusher, I want to settle this lawsuit with you. I’m gonna give you that world title fight and I’m gonna give you a lot of money. [$230,000, his largest payday to date]
JS: Don, that’s awesome, man. Who’s the fight with? When is it? And where is it going to be?
DK: Bone, the fight is going to be against the guy that beat you last year, Tim Witherspoon. [I took Tim Witherspoon 12 rounds the year before. He won the decision for the North American Boxing Federation title.]
JS: Don, when is this fight? Where’s it going to be?
DK: Bone, the fight is going to be on HBO television and you’ve got a chance to redeem yourself in front of the world on HBO.
JS: Don, when is this fight? Where is it going to be?
DK: Bone, the fight is going to be at Madison Square Garden, New York and it has to be next week.
JS: [laughs aloud] Don, you mean to tell me you are going to give me a whole 7 days’ notice to fight a guy that’s had plenty of time to train for me and he beat me from pillar to post?
DK: Yeah, take it or leave it!
JS: Don, can you give me a minute to think about it?
JS: Don, I have a dream. I’m not Martin Luther King, but I have a dream.
“I took the fight on seven days’ notice and I knocked ‘Terrible’ Tim Witherspoon down three times in the first round to become heavyweight champion of the world.”
How did you get started in boxing?
I was a pretty good basketball player in high school and in college. I think that football might have been the sport that kinda got away. I didn’t play football in high school because my mum and dad didn’t want me getting hurt. And I was one of the biggest kids in school. Then I end up being a prizefighter [laughs]. I got started in the army. I don’t think they [Smith’s parents] appreciated it too much. But they did appreciate going to some of the big fights that I took care of. They were proud.
You were stopped on your professional debut. What do you remember about it?
What a lot of people don’t know is that I began boxing at 23 and I was 28 when I had my first pro fight. I got knocked out on ESPN against James Broad. He beat me down. He won the Olympic trials. He was very experienced. I was just getting started. I should have never fought Broad in my first fight.
Then you notched an unbeaten 14-fight sequence including 12 knockouts, and you didn’t lose again until you fought Larry Holmes for the IBF title.
I probably shouldn’t have fought Larry either, at that particular time because there was a tremendous difference in experience between Larry and me. He had beaten everybody. He was a very smart fighter. That was a good fight. Oh man, I was digging with Larry! I mean, we were tossing heavy leather with Larry. I rate him [Holmes] as the third best heavyweight of all time.
What do you remember about the Frank Bruno fight? How did that fight come about?
I had fought on the undercard of NBC. My manager had a relationship with NBC and they said this fight had come about and they told me what the particulars were. I accepted the fight. I knew that if I hit anybody with my right hand, if I hit them square, they were going to be in trouble. I had a shot at it. I guess a puncher’s shot, and I took him out in the last round [10th round]. I connected and I think he was probably surprised me going 10 rounds like that. But Frank Bruno was strong. I remember the noisy crowd yelling BRU-NO, BRU-NO. They were all for him. That didn’t bother me.
What do you remember about winning the WBA heavyweight title?
It was in the Mecca of boxing; Madison Square Garden. It was a fast start. The whole thing happened so fast. Everything moved very quickly. It was lightning fast. My plan was to be all over him [Witherspoon] and not let him get set because I knew he would get stronger the longer the fight went on.
Within three months you were back in the ring defending your belt in a unification title fight with Tyson.
When I fought Mike Tyson I became the first guy to take him 12 rounds when he was a fighter not a biter. He [Tyson] was young. He was 21. I was 33 and the media and all the odds were on him. I guess, I kinda got caught in the hype. Looking back I feel like had I fought him straight up I could probably have knocked him out. I could have taken him out. Had I knocked him out, who knows what would have happened? I might have ended up going to jail because all kinds of things happen. That was a big fight. Who knows what would have happened had I beat him?
You fought Larry Holmes, Michael Moorer, Greg Page, Mike Weaver, Mike Tyson, Tim Witherspoon, Tony Tubbs and Frank Bruno. All these guys were world champions at one time or another…
Yes, they were all world champions. I feel good about that. I could beat any of them. Had I fought them under my timetable I probably could have beaten any of those guys but a lot of the time, I fought the guys when I wasn’t quite ready to fight them. I shouldn’t have fought them at that particular time. At a later time when I had more experience I could have beaten all of those guys.
Which was your hardest fight?
My ex-wife. She whooped my ass! I got my ass whooped by a girl! [laughs A LOT!] Tyson was the toughest fight. He was short and had very quick hand speed. He was very fast when I fought him. It wasn’t a pretty fight to watch as a lot of my shots were going over his head. I was amazed at how short he was and how fast he was. I tried to keep close to him because he had a knockout reputation too [laughs]. I could have knocked him out but he could have knocked me out too.
I read that since you retired from boxing you have become an ordained minister. Briefly describe your work.
Since 1999 I have been preaching, teaching and networking. I began noticing that a lot of my friends were dying and I wanted to make sure that I had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I just wanted to make sure that I devoted some of my life to the ministry. Just like when Jesus walked the earth there was some people ready to receive and some people that rejected him.
In 2004 I set up my Champion for Kids non-profit national and international mentoring programme designed to encourage kids and their parents to make good decisions. I wrote a book three years ago called MAD. It stands for mum and dad Make a Decision. I try to encourage families to stay together, work together and pray together. It’s hard sometimes because if there’s a break-up the children fall down through the cracks. They suffer and that creates a generational curse. Part of my programme is counselling and to encourage kids and people to make good decisions. We carry out our work inside churches and in schools. My goal is to help children set their goals and what they’d like to be when they become an adult. I bring it up, I put it all in together and I do a little shadow boxing sometimes! Right now, One Life One Coin [a world leading cryptocurrency provider] is helping me fund my ministry and the Boxing Legends Hall of Fame part.
I am giving fans the chance to be part of it as well. They can have their name on a wall, in a room or on a brick which we are going to use to build a Boxing Legends Hall of Fame museum. Another reason I started the Hall of Fame is to give kids a chance to be trained by champions. Champions like me, Ray Mercer and Kelvin Seabrooks have a chance to leave a legacy in their community. To become a champion is one thing, but can you teach somebody else to become a champion? That’s the challenge.