Larry Tornambe catches up with James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith, who captured the WBA heavyweight title in December 1986 by knocking out Tim Witherspoon in a round.
By Larry Tornambe: James Smith began his climb to the heavyweight championship with a defeat. On his pro debut on November 15, 1981 James Broad stopped him in four rounds to leave most believing that his future was limited. Fourteen straight wins and three years later, however, and ‘Bonecrusher’ stepped up to challenge the far more experienced Larry Holmes for the IBF belt, even if he did run out the loser by way of a unanimous decision.
He also lost three of his next four fights. His return to the ring in March 1985 saw him drop a ten round decision to Tony Tubbs and whilst he won next time out against Jose Ribalta he subsequently went down Tim Witherspoon and Marvis Frazier in a serious career stumble.
Thankfully, though, Smith was able to rebuild and found a big part to play in the changing heavyweight scene. Tim Witherspoon started 1986 by grabbing the WBA title against Tony Tubbs and a kid named Mike Tyson was getting noticed because of his pugilistic savagery. ‘Bonecrusher’ meanwhile built up his claim with wins over Jesse Ferguson, David Bey and Mike Weaver and earned himself a second title opportunity, in a rematch against Witherspoon.
Smith, who became the first college graduate to earn a top heavyweight prize, made surprisingly fast work of winning, knocking out Witherspoon in the very first round. A month earlier, however, that Tyson kid had also made his own piece of history by brutalizing Trevor Berbick to become the youngest ever heavyweight champion and their paths were set to cross.
In a rare unification agreement, aggressive managers agreed for Tyson and Smith to make the first defence of their titles against each other in March 1997. Tyson was forced the distance but he walked away with ‘Bonecrusher's’ WBA strap, despite a huge right hand in the final round that shook Tyson for the first time in his professional career.
James continued to fight but his win streak never sustained against top competition. He would not again challenge for a major title. After losing to Larry Holmes in the summer of 1999 because of an injury, ‘Bonecrusher’ hung up his gloves, finishing at 44-17-1 (32), and looked into other ventures.
Today he lives in Lillington, North Carolina and at 48 looks in good health, if a few pounds over his fighting weight. His efforts at the moment are concentrated on: promoting a tough-man contest in Wilson, North Carolina at the convention center on February 23rd.
He does, however, have an involvement in a longer-term project: ‘Bonecrusher’s Barbecue Sauce!’ We got a hot and a mild and it's real good, he explains. It is in some Piggly Wiggly stores, but we are trying to get it into different warehouses.
Boxing still has a firm place in Smith’s heart. His clear eyes lit up a bit when our talk turned to the sport, his fondest memory coming when he was crowned world champion. Winning the title was very big, you know, against Witherspoon.
He is an active fan and most recently was at ringside in Raleigh for a recent boxing event, along with pals Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney. We like watching now, he smiled when asked about a potential comeback, "oh no! We're just watching.
Most off all he likes following the current recognised champion, although he respects all fighters. Lewis, he looks good, I mean I like all the guys. It is hard work to be up there (in the ring) fighting on TV, Pay per view, whatever. I just salute them.
And we salute James "Bonecrusher" Smith for his accomplishments and for leaving the ring with a sharp mind and eagerness to pursue new endeavours.