THE worst thing about losing is it hurts. That can be physical, look at the damage to Callum Smith’s nose and his grotesquely swollen arm after his tortuous 12 rounds with Canelo Alvarez in San Antonio in December. But it exacts a mental cost too. That’s where losing a boxing match is especially painful.
Callum Smith was not accustomed to defeat. Before Canelo he had been unbeaten in eight and a half years. You have to go back 27 professional fights, back to 2012, to Trabzon, a small town on the Black Sea coast of Turkey to find the last time Callum Smith lost. A callow 21-year-old then, boxing an Azeri for a place at the London Olympics, Callum experienced what can only be described as a boxer’s nightmare. He was landing punch after punch yet his points were not being registered on the scoreboard. The result of that semi-final and his place at the Olympics was stolen from him.
The next day, a quirk of the qualifying system meant that whoever had lost to the gold medallist in that tournament would also be granted a quota place at London. So Callum sat ashen-faced in the stands of a sport centre in Trabzon staring down at the ring where the host nation boxer, Turkey’s Bahram Muzaffer moved about with Vatan Huseynli, the man who’d ‘beaten’ Smith. Callum watched them shuffle round, neither putting in much of an effort. Both had what they wanted, and of course the home fighter won. Callum watched it all and tears welled up in his eyes.
“It was hard because they kind of went through the motions in the final yet they were fighting for my future basically and my Olympics. Yet they didn’t care, they’d both qualified,” Smith said. “I never expected him to win. My world crashed down in the semi-finals, that was just a little added kick while I was down. They went through the motions, it was like watching a spar with two mates.”
“It was just a little bit harder to take because there was so much at stake for that one,” he continued. “The loss in 2012 I didn’t know where my career was going to go. I was about to turn professional, not an Olympian, I wouldn’t get the platform that they were going to get. I’d have to do it the hard way, go through the ranks the long way but, again, now and then I was always confident in my own ability and confident that I could achieve what I set out to do. I still believe that now.
“I didn’t go to the Olympics but I went on to become a world champion.”
When you’ve lost unfairly but then go on to rack up win after win, you build up a sense of invincibility. Canelo Alvarez savagely stripped that away from him, along with his world title, with the dominant points win he exacted on Smith in December.
“Very few retire undefeated but when you’re actually in the moment and you’re going through your career you never believe it’s going to be now. You go into every fight believing you’re going to win and as you’re winning for so many years you build up this invincibility thing where you believe – I know there’s better fighters out there than me, pound for pound I don’t put myself anywhere near the top of the list – but I always just believe on the night I’ll get it right and beat anyone. I’ve always believed that. I believed that this time [against Canelo] and obviously I didn’t. I think not losing for so long probably makes it a little bit harder. You forget what it feels like and to have it happen, it was tough. But I’m 30 years of age now, I’m not 21, ” the Liverpudlian said. “You build this invincibility. You become used to winning and every time you walk to the ring you believe you’re going to win.”
Alvarez was both brilliant and cruel. Smith may have been the world’s leading super-middleweight before the Mexican moved back down into the division, but Canelo dictated the pace of their fight and exerted control throughout. He measured out Smith and ripped through merciless shots, targeting his left arm, smothering some of the Briton’s strongest punches. “It’s his intelligence. If you had told me he was going to do it beforehand, I still wouldn’t have believed it would work. By the time it starts to take its toll, the fight’s over. It played a part in the fight and fair play to him,” Callum said. “You hear of the old time fighters doing it. In the amateurs when it was the tight guard system a lot of the Uzbeks and Kazakhs used to do it but in a three-round fight I don’t think it pays what it’s supposed to. In a 12 round fight you’ve obviously got a lot longer to chip away at it and a lot longer to fight with a sore or a tired arm… I’d never seen or been on the receiving end of it until that fight.”
Canelo didn’t put him down, no one has amateur or pro. But Smith takes little pride in that. “Regardless of whether I lost in one round or lost on points, a loss to me was a loss,” Smith said. “He is explosive, he springs out with one-two-three punch combinations. But I think going into every fight, you kind of over-expect the power. I remember when he caught me a few times early on thinking he’s not going to put a dent in me. It’s more just his accuracy, he was landing. He was throwing a lot of right hooks to the arm and when I was expecting that he was turning it into the right uppercut which was hard to defend against and that’s what done the damage to my nose. The thing what surprised me was his intelligence and defence. He was so hard to hit clean himself.”
That was unnerving. Smith thought he’d be able to catch Alvarez. When he struggled to do that, he hesitated. He grew reluctant to throw power shots of his own. Alvarez negated the Briton’s offence and stifled Smith’s own gameplan. “Being in with him I was landing jabs and stuff but anything coming off it, any of the shots you put your power in or have an effect with just couldn’t seem to catch him clean and even the ones I did land, he was kind of riding them and taking the power out of them. So I think that’s something he’s mastered over the years. So if there’s one thing I’d say was his best asset, I’d say it was defence,” Smith explained. “It takes what you do good away. Because as the fight’s gone on I was feeling, because I was missing with a lot of my power shots, you kind of stop fully committing to them because you’re not sure if they’re going to land… When you’re hitting thin air, you’re kind of hesitant to throw so it kind of takes away your offence which then you’re playing to his type of fight. He’s intelligent.”
“It could have been a better version of me, that’s something I’ve got to accept and I’ve got to live with but on him, he’s a good fighter and it’s hard for me to look good against someone who’s taken what I do good way from me. I’m not a sore loser,” he added. “I got in there, he got in there and he was the better man on the night and sometimes you’ve just got to accept that and move forward. I’ve got to look at why it wasn’t the best version of me in there, what did I do wrong, why was he better on the night and just try to become a better fighter.
“You’ve got to accept it and move on. When I lost in 2012, I’d just lost the Olympics which I’d built up for so long. I felt like my whole career had just come crashing down. This time I lost my world title but I kind of learned from 2012 where I thought it was the end of the world and I went on to achieve everything I had done. Whereas this time I know that I can come back and achieve more. You just take it different but at the time I probably cried just as much as I did in 2012. I don’t like losing … It’s part of sport, it’s not nice, you’ve just got to get on with it.”
He has had to let his arm rest and recover. It finished with damage all over and a tear in the deltoid, that caused the worst of the swelling to come up but did not require surgery.
Callum will also move up and move out of the division. He believes he can become a world champion again at light-heavyweight. The aim now is to be a two-weight world champion. “We haven’t had many. I don’t think Liverpool’s had one,” Smith said. “I’ve always had aspirations of being a two-weight world champion, it’s always been a goal. I always knew I was big enough, I had the frame to do it.”
“I believe I’ll adapt to it well,” he continued. “I believe I’m good enough to compete at the highest level and win a world title.
“We don’t all get there as undefeated world champions but as long as we get there that’s the most important thing.”
There are exciting fights to be made at light-heavy and paths back to a world title fight. “I’ll sit down with my team and they’ll plan whatever route is best for me. At light-heavy there’s a few different routes, obviously the belts are kind of split up. So we’ll look at what route’s best for me, I’ll follow that route and I believe I’ll get there. I know I’m confident in my own ability, I know how good I am and I believe this time I’ve got a bit of a point to prove. I believe we’ll see a better more improved version of me,” he said. “To leave the ring and sit in the changing room after as a loser, through not doing it for so long, it was hard to take at the time. But time’s a healer, as they say, and as the weeks gone on it’s just made me more determined to get back to where I was. To get back to being a world champion.”
“I’ve always said if I was to lose I believe it would take a special fighter to beat me and I believe it did; he’s the pound for pound probably number one,” Smith continued. “I’ve always said I’m in the sport to see how good I really am.
“I can accept losing to him although it still hurts. I still wish I could go back in time and do it again but I can’t. You’ve got to just accept losing and move on.
“I’ve lost my world title. But I believe I’m good enough to win another one.”
Smith is adamant that he has something to prove, that he should not be written off. That he will be back. Bigger, stronger and a touch wiser too.