On a personal level, fight week is a milestone of sorts because it marks 10 years since I was first credentialed for a fight. That fight was the rematch between Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley, and a few weeks before the bout, I was in Big Bear, Calif., for a media day at both men’s training camps. That was where I met a young Las Vegas-born junior welterweight prospect named Ishe Smith, who was sparring with Mosley.
I had no intention of covering boxing on a regular or ongoing basis. My intent was to write a book on boxing and Las Vegas, and to that end I focused on a number of Sin City-based boxing figures -- cutman Stitch Duran, referee Joe Cortez and ringside physician Margaret Goodman, among others -- as well as a trio of Vegas boxers at various stages of their careers. One of them was Smith.
For the previous couple of years, Smith had been a mainstay of Guilty Boxing’s Friday Night Fights, held once a month at The Orleans casino west of the Strip. But when we talked, he was moving up to the major leagues; he had been signed by Gary Shaw Promotions and had recently appeared for the first time on Showtime’s ShoBox series.
A good technician who was adept at working the body, Smith looked destined for a title shot, but things didn’t quite work out the way he planned. I was ringside in Santa Ynez, Calif., when he scored a tough, close win over Randall Bailey -- an impressive win for a young fighter, but one that wasn’t aesthetically pleasing or clear cut. Then his relationship with Shaw cratered acrimoniously, and Smith was a man without a promoter.
By this stage, my book project had foundered, but I had been bitten by the boxing bug and continued to write from ringside. And I stayed in close touch with Smith, who told me one evening at a Guilty Boxing card that he had been approached to participate in a reality show called "The Contender." He had some doubts about the project but went ahead with it anyway, and although he didn’t win the Contender title, he became one of the show’s standout stars.
Then it all slowly unraveled. He parted with the people behind the "Contender," was signed by Golden Boy, lost an ugly bout to Sechew Powell, was released by Golden Boy, signed with Lou DiBella, lost a few other fights, went a long time between bouts and was released by DiBella, who said he was having a hard time getting Smith fights and suggested he may find more success with someone else.
By this stage, Smith and I weren’t in touch as much. He was adrift, his family life in turmoil, his career stalled. For a while, his thoughts turned suicidal, and even when he emerged from that darkest of places, he had all but resigned himself to being finished with boxing.
Then, suddenly, everything turned around again. Floyd Mayweather Jr. hired him to spar prior to Mayweather’s bout with Miguel Cotto last year. Then Mayweather signed Smith to Mayweather Promotions and promised to get him a title shot. A couple of wins led to a bout with Cornelius Bundrage in Detroit earlier this year, and with Mayweather in attendance, Smith finally achieved his dream of becoming the first Las Vegas-born fighter to win a world title.
Now here he is, on hometown soil, about to defend that title against Carlos Molina on the biggest boxing card in years. Ten years after we first met in Big Bear, I interviewed him once more, in a packed MGM Grand lobby.
That book of mine? Never happened. But for Smith, everything finally turned out right. The path may have been much longer and more tortuous than either of us might have expected a decade ago, but the destination wound up better than he could ever have imagined.