IT’S gloomy inside the master bedroom of this little house in Harrow. The curtains are closed permanently now; they used to be peeled open gently before sunrise, an indication of impending roadwork. That was when things were different. It was dark in that room at that time. And even darker in Mitchell Smith’s head.
A tiny, most unwelcome pencil of light breaks and enters, generating heat on the chest of the room’s sole occupant. It’s like a sniper’s target, that sunshine, trying desperately to find a man who needs it in his life.
Everybody outside of that little cave remembered Mitchell Smith, 15-1 (8), even if he couldn’t recognise himself at that lowest ebb. “I remember sitting in that room for about 13 days, eating takeaways every single day, I didn’t even get in the bath. I f**king stunk,” Mitchell told Boxing News, breaking the silence on his once unlikely, but now-promising return to the ring. “My missus said to me, ‘Mitchell, you need to get up and get out of the house’. I did not move. I was just, I don’t know, I was just feeling sad. Like 24-7. I didn’t really have a reason to be sad. It was a strange one. It’s important that people talk about this. That’s what I’d say to my wife, it’s like this black cloud hanging over your head. “I was getting to the stage where I couldn’t get off the sofa without getting out of breath. I was like 18 1/2 stone, and I’m only five-foot-five. I looked f**king huge. I started training just to lose weight, but the next thing I know, I’m back in love with the sport.
“Over the past six months, that’s when I really, properly decided: ‘I’m gonna come back.’ I loved boxing back then, but I started living a lifestyle that doesn’t go hand-in-hand with it. I wasn’t dedicated. I enjoyed the other side of it; earning loads of money, going out with women, drinking alcohol, and visiting nightclubs. I didn’t take that full opportunity, so then naturally I just fell out of love with it all.”
The story of Mitchell’s brush with the law wasn’t exactly hot off the press. That sentence has been satisfied. In fact, he’d been talking about a return to boxing over two years ago, telling the sport’s press he’d learnt from his past mistakes, and vowing to fans that he was ready to fulfil that dazzling potential.
Last year, the same again, but promises of comebacks were regularly derailed as depression smothered the former domestic standout’s ambition. One could say this latest attempt, in a way, should be handled with kid gloves. But Smith and his team know that. They aren’t waxing lyrical about a return to former glory; they’ve opted to do their work in boxing’s shadows, hunting for redemption against the odds; they’ll let fewer people down that way, should Smith stutter and stammer when stepping through the ropes.
Mitchell Smith still hasn’t fought. And it’s now been over 1,200 days since he beat experienced journeyman, Lee Connelly, over six rounds.
The former Southern Area and English super-featherweight champion, still remarkably only 27, explained: “I’d put certain things up on social media before, but I’ve not done many interviews. I wanna just turn up and say, ‘Right, anyone who thought I couldn’t do it, here you are, watch this’.
“We all sat down as a team and thought, ‘Let’s not put too much pressure on ourselves this time.’ Because, I suppose, it may never happen. We can see where we are in six months’ time. Here we are now; I’d like to fight at 65kgs. I’m knocking on the door; it’s just a waiting game now.
“The thing with boxing is, there are so many highs and there are many lows. I don’t think the human body is designed to take as much punishment as it does in the boxing gym. When you get a high, the chemicals in your body go off. You’re up and down like a f**king yo-yo, and it’s not healthy. But I really love it.”
The headlines weren’t always tabloid-worthy – not at the beginning. Mitchell Smith was an exceptional talent. I’d spoiled many boys’ nights out, demanding the undercard was televised in pubs or at house parties, so enchanted was I after his debut opposite James Ancliff eight years ago. The Harrow man was beautiful to watch – truly majestic at times – but just as gifted stars grace other sports for short periods of time before suffering under the spotlight, Smith would succumb to the trappings of the high life. Dropping a 2015 unanimous decision to the largely unfancied George Jupp in what should have been a routine victory signalled a clouding of previously clear, blue skies. He wasn’t focused that night when making the walk in Manchester Arena. He didn’t care as much as he did when beating Mark Evans or Peter Cope in smaller venues. Money was burning a hole in the pocket of a fighter tipped for multiple world titles, but to a punishingly young and naive Mitchell, there was always “plenty more where that came from.”
After losing to Jupp, his personal slump worsened, and as covered extensively at the time, issues with alcohol and depression dominated. Wins over Norwin Gallo and Lee Connelly should have stirred excitement amongst the boxing community, but Smith wasn’t the same man, or even a shadow of the same talented fighter. Big promoters aren’t queuing up this time around, but that suits Team Smith. He is working with London-based coach Barry Smith (no relation), basing himself at West Ham’s boxing gym and training with various strength and conditioning specialists. Living conditions have worsened though, to ensure measurable and (more importantly) disciplined progress. “I want my kids to be proud of me,” a reflective Smith explained. “I don’t want to be known as a fk-up by the time I’m 40 years of age. I don’t want them to look at me and say, ‘You’re a mess – you fell apart.’ My missus has given me the opportunity to live away from home, Monday to Friday. During the week, I literally live on a mattress on the floor at my dad’s place.
“All I have to do now is wake up and train. That’s all I do. Yeah, it was boring at the start, but you get used to it. I want to get to the stage now where I look like I’m ready to get back into the ring, and that will happen over the next eight weeks, for sure.
“People need to talk out a lot more about their issues. I recently lost a friend to mental health issues; he was in the boxing game. Sam Bezzina. My next fight will be dedicated to him, but we need people talking out, and I would quite happily pick the phone up to anybody that’s struggling.”
Bezzina, sadly and suddenly stolen from the sport in August, was a shining light. He was a young father, and a very talented trainer. I’d spent time with Bezzina at an event two years ago; we exchanged thoughts on small hall boxing, laughed about fighters’ use of social media and pondered the future for him and his burgeoning stable. Boxing remembers him.
Smith has a chance to make up for lost time, and he has an opportunity to defeat his own demons. Not everybody comes this far. His story isn’t too dissimilar to that of heavyweight kingpin, Tyson Fury. Their profiles are gulfs apart globally, but the narrative is the same. Blowing up to 118kgs, locking himself away from his children and suffering in silence, help never seemed easy to come by.
Smith had become something of a ‘boy who cried wolf’ after multiple failed attempts to return to the gym. How much does he want it? How easy or tempting will it be to slip treacherously off course again?
“I ain’t touched a drink for 18 months,” Smith confessed, proud and centred at last. “It’s just not for me anymore. Alcohol can be good for some people, because it makes them come out of their comfort zone. But for me, it sends me to a place I don’t need to be. I’m a good guy. I get on with people, I don’t need it to socialise.
“The main thing in boxing now is to make as much money as I can; walk out with my health intact. I wanna make sure I walk out of boxing with a house, at least. I’ve been in the game for 21 years, and I’ve got f**k all to show for it. It would be sad to think that somebody with my talent could walk out with nothing. I was too young to look after everything – or anything. I never saved a penny of my boxing money; every time I made money, I spent it. Now I just want to save, save, save. I just wanna give my kids a better future. “I’ve got a goal, and I haven’t told many people this, but I want to buy a house where I can build a fishing lake onto the back of it. If I never lift a world title, but I can do that, I’ll be a happy man. Fishing just chills me out. Fishing for me is just to get away; it relaxes me. Nine times out of 10, I catch f**k all, but it’s still good for me, I think,” he laughed, although his social media tells a different story after a successful trip spent with folding chairs, tents and plenty of nature.
Smith caught six fish during his break at White Lakes in Essex, including a massive mirror carp weighing 29lbs. They were big fish in a little pond; and that felt strangely familiar. There is something calming about that image. Mitchell Smith, resting as the tide comes in, maybe as a silhouette during sunset, bathing in the peace and quiet a life after boxing has afforded him. I could see him teaching his kids the intricacies of casting out and instilling patience as a virtue. Not everything happens when you think it will – or when you think it should. But it happens.
Offering Smith the chance to spend three days fishing and soaking in the sunshine would never have appealed previously. It seemed ironic; the thin, intrusive slither of light that warmed his skin and interrupted kebabs and self-pity was now his source of energy. Things change – as people do.
There’ll be plenty reading this who dismiss this latest comeback and that’s their prerogative. I’m invested, based solely on Smith’s tone and the sacrifices made to return to this healthy shape. But how would he like the sport to remember him, when it’s all said and done?
“As a mad b*****d,” he exclaimed, chuckling and almost hoping that wasn’t actually his lasting legacy. “I’d like for people to recognise that no matter how bad things get, they can be turned around. I had the whole world at my feet – and I f**ked it all up. I’d like boxing people to realise that even though I messed it all up, I got it all back.
“I want them to think, ‘Fair play to the kid.’ It’s an incredible story; the writing was on the wall. I can remember thinking about getting rid of myself. I don’t really like talking about it, but I’ve got kids and I just couldn’t do it. I’d wake up and think, ‘I can do without this.’ I just hope they’d respect me, that’s all. I’ve been in this game so long, I deserve something, surely.”
It’s dark and gloomy here, in the pub that I’m writing in. And there’s a certain comfort in the lack of flashing, focused or scattered light. Sitting in a corner, hidden from prying eyes or any misunderstandings, free of questions and the pressure to provide answers, it’s easy to see how it could become a safe place. But I trust Mitchell when he talks of his renewed love for the sport of boxing, and of his strict control over those bad habits. More fool me, you think? Maybe. He’s gone from causing havoc in local bars, to peering through them, searching for a second chance from a concrete cell.
It seemed that eventually, that pencil of light had crept in. Mitchell is finally accepting change and pinning his struggles with boxing firmly on the ropes. He’s opened those curtains and hit the pavements again, embracing happiness after formerly slicing his feet on a path beset with sharp obstacles. Now, it’s time to get up, get moving and get earning. If it happens, it happens. But if it doesn’t, the world keeps spinning anyway. If his return flatters to deceive, or if he splutters and struggles to compete, he is more than just a boxer; he’s a father, a husband, a man at peace. Those things matter more now – after eventually letting the light back in.