James "Bonecrusher" Smith shows his stuff with Robert Hall Jr. (Trey Williams/Johnson City Press)
Whether he was punching muscular men or hitting the books, James “Bonecrusher” Smith made his mark.
Smith visited the Johnson City Athletic Club on Thursday, where youngsters – and some not-so-youngsters – were eager to hear about his improbable rise to a World Boxing Association title and ensuing 12-round loss to Mike Tyson.
But Smith appeared just as proud to announce that, according to him, he became the first heavyweight champion who had a college diploma when he defeated Tim Witherspoon in Madison Square Garden in December of 1986.
Smith had been in the Army and worked as a prison guard before he made money boxing. He was 28 for his professional debut.
But five years later, Smith, a late fill-in for Tony Tucker, was fighting Witherspoon for a belt. Witherspoon had beaten Smith in a lengthy bout the previous year, and Smith was fueled by the fact that no one was giving him a chance.
It was heavy fuel. Smith knocked Witherspoon down three times en route to the first-round knockout.
“I won the title – first-round knockout on a seven-day notice,” Smith said. “And when I won that title that night, I became the first college graduate in the history of boxing. … I knew it the night I won. I did some research and I found out no heavyweight had won the title and graduated college at that time.”
Smith’s unlikely triumph led to a fight with Tyson the following March in Las Vegas, and Smith couldn’t keep his edge. Smith was criticized for holding excessively while losing a 12-round decision.
“I had gotten mad with Witherspoon the fight before, and really I was mentally down when I got to Tyson,” Smith said. “And he’s not the guy to come up against mentally down. I was bigger, stronger and just as quick. So really, had I gotten mad with him … and turned loose a bunch of punches, I would’ve knocked him out.”
Indeed, Smith had 32 knockouts while compiling a 44-17-1 record. Among his knockout victims were Mike Weaver and then-undefeated Frank Bruno, and he did some damage despite losing to Larry Holmes.
“I didn’t knock him (Holmes) down,” Smith said with a smiling pause, “but I hurt him.”
But none of them had the look in their eyes that Tyson did.
“If you noticed Tyson, he was mad,” Smith said. “He looked like he was angry all the time. But that gave him that fire that he needed that was more than everybody else. Nobody else appeared to be that angry. I didn’t put it all together then, but that anger, being mad is what gave him that extra boost to turn it into something.”
That sort of controlled rage, Smith says, can be parlayed into excellence in or out of the ring. He has written a 52-page book – “M.A.D.: Make A Decision” – which he says will motivate and entertain.
“Part of my ministry is to encourage people to make good decisions – even though they get mad, make good decisions,” Smith said. “I encourage people to set a goal and work toward the goal. My goal was to become heavyweight champion of the world.”
Belts have seemingly inspired Smith all his life, or at least since he was a 6-year-old crying because he had to go to school. Consequently, he was whipped by his teacher with a fanbelt for disturbing class.
“Can you imagine Bonecrusher being little and/or a crybaby? But I was,” he said. “I wanted to go home to mama and daddy.”
At least until his teacher handed him a note to take his parents.
“The rule back then was if you got a whooping at school you were gonna get at least one more when you got home,” Smith said.
After reading the note, Smith’s mother, who called him by his middle name (Odell), told him to get a switch.
“And mama commenced to whooping me with that switch,” he said. “And then daddy came. Daddy whipped me with a belt. Y’all ever heard of a song called, ‘Love Lifted Me?’ See, I started learning and experiencing that song as they were putting that belt and switch and fanbelt back there on me. I was lifted up. Love lifted me.”
Smith added that he really had wonderful parents, and credited them with urging him to get an education. He went to community college before graduating from Shaw University.
Smith’s presence at the JCAC was appreciated by Robert Hall, Jr., an East Tennessee State student who is scheduled to make his professional boxing debut next month.
“It was an honor getting to meet him,” said Hall Jr., who is studying exercise science and wants to get in to physical therapy. “It does give me more motivation to become like he was – a world champion. He was the first heavyweight to have a college degree too, and I’m going to college. So it gives me more motivation that somebody like me can box and do that at the same time.”