Ishe Smith hangs on for big hurrah

This was not how it was meant to be, not how Ishe Smith had imagined things ending up. He had been married, with beautiful kids and a boxing career that was in the ascendant -- had even, thanks to his leading role in a TV reality show, enjoyed fame far beyond anything that a young prospect could normally dream of.

Now, here he was, in his early 30s. His marriage had disintegrated and ended in divorce, and he was battling for joint custody of his children. He was broke, he was piling up more losses than wins, and on those occasions when he did fight -- which were becoming increasingly rare -- he was now the opponent, not the attraction. And so he sat in his home in Las Vegas, contemplated his gun collection and wondered whether he should quit. Not just boxing, but life.

It was a far cry and a long road from where he and I had first met, in Big Bear, Calif. In 2003, I decided to decamp for a while to Las Vegas to write a book about Sin City and the sweet science. As a key part of that, I wanted to focus on three Vegas-based boxers in various stages of their careers. One of them was young welterweight Ishe Smith.

For all its long involvement in the sport, Las Vegas has never had a world champion to call its own, and back in 2003, Smith hoped to be the first. He had made his bones fighting at The Orleans, west of the famed Strip, where local promoters Guilty Boxing put on monthly "Friday Night Fights" cards that were a staple of the Vegas boxing social calendar. The fights, booked by Top Rank matchmaker Brad Goodman, were almost invariably competitive, and one of the series' early standout stars was local boy Ishe.

Smith fought at The Orleans eight times in a row, running his record to 10-0, until he came to national attention courtesy of junior middleweight titlist Fernando Vargas. In 2002, "El Feroz" revealed on HBO that "Sugar Shay" had given him solid sparring for his upcoming grudge match with Oscar De La Hoya, which led to interest from Vargas' promoter, Gary Shaw, who ultimately bought out Smith's Guilty Boxing contract. Soon, Smith was making his first appearance on Showtime and had garnered a reputation as a top-notch sparring partner -- and particularly, it seems, the perfect preparation for De La Hoya opponents. When we met, it was at Shane Mosley's training camp prior to Sugar Shane's 2003 rematch with the Golden Boy.

"When Vargas did that, it blew me up," Smith told ESPN.com. "Everybody wanted to know, Who is this guy? I saw him in Vegas last year and I told him, 'Thank you.' I appreciated that; he got my career started."

In January 2004, after televised wins against Sam Garr and David Estrada, Smith took on hard-hitting former titlist Randall Bailey. The prospect emerged victorious, but it was a close decision and the fight wasn't the most aesthetically pleasing to watch.

"Bailey had more knockouts than I had fights," Smith said. "You see what he's doing now; he's still around, still knocking people out. I don't think I get enough credit for that fight. You don't get guys with 13 fights fighting a guy like Randall Bailey."

Shortly after the Bailey fight, Smith declared bankruptcy to secure an exit from his contract with Shaw, and although he maintains that it was the right decision for him and his family, he took a lot of heat for the move in industry circles. After an unimpressive win and an ugly break from his promoter, it wasn't clear where Smith could go next.

And then one day, as we both sat ringside for a card at The Orleans, he told me about an approach from the TV production company responsible for the smash hit "Survivor." They were putting together a boxing-themed show along similar lines called "The Contender," and he had been recommended to them as a possible participant.

He seemed skeptical.

"I thought it was a gimmick," he said. "They called, and I kind of told them on the phone, 'You guys aren't looking for me. I'm way too experienced.'"

Still, Smith went ahead with the process, and he was ultimately selected to be one of the 16 boxers featured on the show. He soon became one of the standouts, although he didn't progress as far as he had hoped: After defeating Ahmad Kaddour, he lost to eventual champion Sergio Mora.

When the series ended, Smith fell out with the producers -- a development he says he now regrets -- and entered several years wandering the boxing wilderness. He signed with Golden Boy, who ultimately released him. He signed with Lou DiBella, who also released him when he couldn't get Smith enough fights.

"Working with Lou was great," Smith said. "Lou went to bat for me a couple times, he had my back, and when he couldn't get me fights, he said, 'I'm not going to do the typical promoter thing and hold you back. I'm going to release you.' Any other promoter would have just held on to me, so I love Lou for that."

But by then, Smith's interest in his career, and in pretty much everything, had petered out. He was fighting irregularly, and his lack of in-ring action led to a loss of confidence in his stamina. So he would often hold back, turning winnable fights into ugly losses. That didn't exactly make him must-see TV, but he remained dangerous enough for potential opponents to think twice about fighting him, thus adding to his inactivity and perpetuating the cycle.

Money became tight, and his personal life, too, began to crumble.

"It was just spiraling out of control," he said.

His own personality, he says now, wasn't helping things.

"Those post-'Contender' years, I was kind of my own man, kind of hard-headed." He paused. "Just kind of an a------."

Smith became divorced from his wife, Latoya, a wrenching break made all the more difficult by the fact that, he says, "we had been together so long. We kind of grew up together." He had lost everything. The only thing that he still had was life, and he began to wonder whether he even still wanted that. What held him back, he said, was remembering his own fatherless youth. It wasn't something he wanted to bequeath to his own children.

"So whenever I would sit in a dark house, looking at my guns, I would always think of my kids," he said. "I wouldn't even think of myself. I would always think of my kids and the way I felt not ever having a dad, and I didn't feel I could do that to them. It just came to a point where I thought, 'Let me just get rid of these guns, get them out the house.'"

He had all but given up on boxing, was focused more on coaching youth football. But a final shot at the brass ring emerged, courtesy of an unexpected source. Smith was coaching a game last year when he received a phone call from Cornelius Boza Edwards, the former junior lightweight champ who is now part of Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s Money Team. Would Ishe be available to help Floyd prepare for his upcoming bout with Miguel Cotto? Oh, and by the way, Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe wanted to put Smith on a card to be held the day before the Mayweather-Miguel Cotto fight, at the Hard Rock Casino in Vegas.

"I was just happy to go to camp because, to be honest, Floyd pays great," Smith said. "Floyd is the best-paying guy in camp ever. So I thought, 'Great, I can make a couple dollars.'"

That Mayweather and Ellerbe provided him with a fight, which Smith won, was an added bonus. Then they set him up with a second bout, which he also won. And now, on Saturday, in his third fight working under the banner of Mayweather Promotions, Smith finally gets his chance to be the first-ever Vegas-born world titlist when he takes on junior middleweight beltholder Cornelius "K9" Bundrage in Detroit (Showtime, 9 p.m. ET).

"Floyd told me personally, 'I'm going to take you under my wing, and I'm gonna get you a title shot. You're too good of a fighter not to even have a title shot,'" Smith said. "He even sent me some letters while he was incarcerated [last year], to keep me motivated, to let me know, 'I got your back. Don't worry about a thing, I got your back. I promise.' He just kept reassuring me."

But Floyd could promise him only so much. "I'm gonna get you your title shot," Mayweather told Smith, "and it's up to you to win it." And so it is -- just as it's up to Bundrage to prevent him from making it happen.

It has taken a lot longer to reach this point than either of us could have imagined when Smith and I met that California day almost 10 years ago. But that the opportunity has arrived at all means that, win or lose, the future is brighter than it appeared on those dark night in Las Vegas, when Ishe Smith looked at his guns and wondered if his journey was about to reach a permanent end.