This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's June 12, 2000, issue. Subscribe today!
THE RHYTHM OF THE ROAD is hypnotic: the thump of the rented Malibu's wheels, blurred lights on the horizon, the rumble of 18-wheelers, the whoosh of windshield wipers. Blue-green hills roll by like waves. Mile after mile, signs reveal towns and milestones you've never heard of. After a while, there's little talk save the language of the road: "Supersize," "Pay at the pump," "Moons Over My Hammy." The drive is grueling, deadening the senses, killing the spirit. Curled up on the passenger seat, Jerry Lynn Smith sleeps restlessly, hands cradling his chest. They're big for his size, with long, gnarled fingers, wide knuckles and deep crevices. They're fighter's hands, and they're taking Smith to Greensboro, N.C., on this spring night, but it could easily be Biloxi or Atlanta or Raleigh or Pensacola or Vegas or New York City. In less than 20 hours, right after the Carolina Craftsman's Show, Smith will fight Shakir Ashanti, a promising junior middleweight from Greenville, N.C., with an 11-2 record.
But getting out of the car and shuffling across the motel parking lot, Smith is thinking about unpacking, about the sweats he forgot at home, about buying a new mouthpiece. He's wondering if they have HBO in the Super 8. Ashanti doesn't cross the 34-year-old Smith's mind. He's done all this before, in 51 fights, 15 states, four countries. And he's seen the best. Ashanti's no Charles Murray. No Buddy McGirt. No Pernell Whitaker. Could this guy from Greenville go the distance with a former world champion like McGirt? Smith won't get nervous until tomorrow night, Friday, when he starts to loosen up and his gut starts to feel heavy and he goes to the bathroom again and again. He'll walk through the crowd and won't know a soul and he'll tell himself over and over that he's gonna win, believing it. And when everyone starts screaming for Ashanti, Smith will believe the guy might be good, but experience will make the difference. The bell will ring, and within 30 seconds he'll get hit, and the nervousness will disappear. Then he'll know for sure if he can lick this "kid."
He isn't expected to win, and he knows it. Smith's a journeyman, and while people will tell you he's a good fighter, Ashanti's manager has put this bout together because he thinks Smith's a little too old, a little too slow, and doesn't have the stamina to win. He expects Smith to lose with courage and dignity. If he does, there will be more fights in his future. If he happens to beat Ashanti, he may be deemed too dangerous, not worth the risk for other prospects. His life is a paradox -- victory in defeat, defeat in victory. And like all journeymen, he's just looking for another fight.
Birmingham is a city with the pace of a town. There's no real rush hour, because there's no real rush. It's a gritty Old South city, where freight trains chug along the tracks that cut through the heart of town like veins of steel. It's a place where people work with their hands and make things for other people who work with their hands, at places called Reliable Tin Shop and Sloss Furnaces.
It's the Monday before the Ashanti fight, three nights before Thursday's 480-mile drive to Greensboro. Smith lives on 52nd Street off First Avenue North in the northeast section of town. The neighborhood is dotted with row houses colored peach, mint, tangerine, cobalt. Pecan trees in adolescent bloom line the streets as mockingbirds, doves and robins chatter. But like the swelling midday heat, a sense of desperation and despair seeps in, a barrenness spread over miles of crumbling porches, collapsing roofs and rusting cars.
Smith turns right off 52nd and into the parking lot of his two-story apartment building. He's got the Malibu's seat leaned way back, making room for Jay-Z's booming voice, talking about "da cheese, da cheese." First stop this evening is Al's, a clapboard shanty with cheap beers and "the finest sisters dancin' on stage." Smith's still got some "cheese" left from Friday, from his day job over at Church & Stagg. Journeymen don't just box for a living, they carry cement or manufacture garbage bags or wash dishes. In Smith's case, they deliver office furniture. Nine bucks an hour is pretty good, but hours have been long lately -- 60, 70 a week. It hurts his training. He'd like to run every other morning, but sometimes he's too tired. Not just from the job, but from life. "I feel safe, protected in the ring," Smith says. "It's outside the ring where the problems are."
It's different for the champion, the top contender, even the prospect. Accountants, managers, promoters and hangers-on keep them afloat on the swelling tide of bills, blown carburetors, school pickups. Distractions like those are death for a fighter; they make you soft, lazy and careless. Smith's got them, and more. He's always getting paged -- by his girlfriend (Tenita, who lives with him and their 7-year-old, Tevin), his boss, his close friend (Wendy), his mother. "I got to turn this thing off, before I go crazy," he decides, pulling into Al's. Nobody's there except a couple of ladies getting ready for the long night. As he walks back through the parking lot, a white Corolla pulls up.
"How you doin', dawg?" asks the driver.
"All right. Whatchabout you?" Smith replies.
"Just droppin' off my sister."
Out of the car steps the 19-year-old. "You still fightin'?" she asks with a smile.
"This Friday. Out in North Carolina."
"When you gonna be champion?"
"Shoot," Smith mutters. "I don't know."
Wednesday, and Smith has two days to make weight. This fight he was lucky: They gave him two weeks' notice. Usually it's less -- a week, three days, a couple of hours. It's tough to keep weight down if you don't know when you're fighting next. Today the scale tipped 157; five more pounds to go to make 152, the agreed-upon weight for the fight. In 1985, Smith fought at 140, junior welterweight. But with all fighters, the weight climbs with years. Eventually it takes too much to keep it down, so you work with it, like the burden of age. Smith is tucked away in a dark corner on the top floor of the downtown Birmingham YMCA. Joggers and walkers, arms pumping, circle the spongy track and watch the short (5'6''), stocky little man with the braided hair stalk the swaying bag. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! There's little grace in his lunging, ducking and throwing; he's a puncher, a laborer in a sport of many craftsmen.
Thwack, thwack! Sweat pours out from under a black garbage bag that Smith wears beneath his frayed sweatshirt. He's pummeling the heavy bag, which he tries to work three times a week, but lately he's been too tired, too distracted. "I could beat any of those champs if I was in shape," he huffs. There's some truth in his boast: Despite a 13-38 record, Smith is dangerous. As age erodes skills, veteran fighters learn to use their heads. "You put a Jerry Smith in with a guy coming up before he's mature, and he's dead," growls New York matchmaker Jim Borzell. "He'll do everything it takes to make that young guy lose."
Which is why the road to world titles runs through guys like Jerry Smith. Journeymen are boxing's first real test, frustrating young fighters by clinching, crowding and waiting, moving with a head punch, anticipating a body blow, conserving precious energy. Journeymen don't go down. The prospect must make adjustments. He must stick and move, parry and weave, bury his ego and run, even if the crowd gets on him. If he makes it through, he'll be a better fighter. If he panics and loses, his handlers will rethink his future. Smith is the blue-collar underbelly of a blue-collar sport, and without him and others like him there are no champions. "Guys like Jerry are a litmus test," says ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas, who has trained former IBF and WBA heavyweight champion Michael Moorer and ex-WBA featherweight champ Junior Jones. "They are barometers."
Smith breaks from the bag. He can hear the b-ballers downstairs. "Pass it up!" "Yo, yo, yo, right here!" "Damn, boy!" There's no hollering in his corner of the Y, no sparring, no one yelling to go another round, do the third set of crunches, run the extra mile. "It's lonely as hell up here," he says. "All I have is me." But he keeps punching and weaving, headphones on, because of that number, that 152. He's a professional, and professionals get more fights than guys who slack off, who get fat and say they're lighter than they actually are. He's going to make money on Friday, about a grand. Sounds like nothing, with guys getting $20 million for a fight. But at 52nd and First, where you pay $170 a month for a dark two-bedroom apartment and dinner for two costs $12, a grand goes a long way. It gets you that big-screen TV or fixes the busted windshield on your '83 Camaro. And who's to say everyone has to have the same version of the American Dream anyway?
But it's not just about the money. It's about stepping through the ropes and doing something most people never have the courage to do. Then, you're not just a guy who delivers office furniture. Ten years down the road you can open the record books and see your name there, no matter how many times you lost. A boxer is somebody, and in Birmingham or any other town where there's not much else, "somebody" is something. "I'm doing something a lot of people can't," says Angelo Simpson, a 6-21 cruiserweight from Montgomery and a friend of Smith's. "I know Im special."
After his workout, Smith is in the steam room when a heavyset guy sits next to him.
"You got something coming up?" he asks.
"Yeah. Fightin' in North Carolina this weekend."
"Really? All the way in Carolina, huh?"
Later, at his locker, a friend taps Smith on the shoulder. "I still want to shoot those pictures of you shadowboxing. Cool?"
Smith smiles. "No problem."
Growing up, Smith was smaller than all the rest of the kids in Birmingham's Kingston projects, so he learned to fight. He put on his first pair of gloves when he was 8. The shortcut to school through giant log piles at O'Neal Steel was full of addicts and bullies. "Give 'em some gloves and ask them to fight," said an uncle. Carol W. Hayes High wasn't much better. He had his family -- three brothers, a sister, Mama, Grandma Annie Lee. That's it. The rest was trouble -- a Jay-Z riff of life, the words specific to Smith but the beat familiar to every journeyman. Smith finds his own rhythm in the telling:
Mama married again, to a soldier, and the Army scooped us all up. Germany first. Then Kentucky. Back to Birmingham at 16, to football, tailback for the Hayes Pacesetters. Girls, too. Sometimes seeing four, five at a time. They liked my swagger; I liked their shake. Hit the streets at night with the Disciples, drinking, smoking weed, fighting. No future plans. Nothing. But had this cousin -- Larry -- who fought Sugar Ray Leonard in '75, the Olympic trials. Saw the strength, respect, the girls. Saw a way out. Picked up boxing in '82, built a 25-3 amateur record. Turned pro in '85. Four fights, four wins. Got on the USA Network. Gonna be champ. Then a loss, robbed, on the guy's home turf. Then another loss. Going into somebody's hometown ain't fair, deck stacked against you. It's what happens when you got nobody behind you. A couple more wins, a 9-3 record. But where do you go with that? Split to Atlanta in '88. Opportunity: Doraville Boxing Club, good sparring, good trainers. Lot of guys wanted to manage me, but all they were looking for was a cut. No choice. Loved the game, that rush going through the ropes. Got married. Had a daughter. Not too late to be champ. Back to Birmingham in '96. The bad stuff. Uncle in Joliet. Annie Lee dies. Little bro put away for life. Now I'm 34, with three kids, Mama, big brother, couple of girlfriends, a job. Still fighting four times a year, but need a little more cheese -- something to show from this game. A house, maybe. Just need a break.
Thursday. All day Smith's been trying to get out of Birmingham. The fight's tomorrow and it's a long way to Greensboro, but he's running all over town. "I've never lost," he explains, as we drive to return some money he borrowed from his mother, who looks after kids during the day. "I've pretty much beaten myself a lot." It's like he's been saying all week: "I feel good." "I know I can win." "Sometimes I don't feel as good as I do now." Smith thinks that if you tell yourself something enough times, you'll start to believe it, and only then can it happen. "I tell everyone what a good fighter he is," says Smith's mother, Roberta, smiling, with frosted brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Jerry tilts his head, bashful. "Here's the money, Mama. We got to get going."
"All right, baby," she says, hugging him. She yells to a visitor as her son gets in his car: "I don't like him to get his face beat up -- even though I want him to be champ one day!"
"I had dreams of being champion every night," Smith says, pulling away. "Dreams of waking up and finding all three belts lyin' in the bed with me."
Nobody goes into boxing wanting to lose, but sometimes the reality of the sport is more nightmare than dream. If you're good, in the right place at the right time, somebody will take care of you. You get a good trainer, fancy outfits, all the breaks. But if you're from nowhere, and you've got nobody around to teach you properly and nobody to give you a couple hundred bucks a month so you can train right, and no one really cares about your future, it doesn't matter how much raw talent you've got. You may love boxing more than life itself, but if you're not one of those lucky ones, you're out in the cold with the wolves.
"A lot of these guys can't get anyone to represent them," explains Atlas. "And if they do, they're not looking out for them. Early in their careers they get put in tough fights, fight out of their weight class, and they get a lot of bad decisions. It's the nature of the business." Smith was 4-0 when his manager accepted a fight against Clifford Gray, a former national amateur champion from Boynton Beach, Fla. They fought in Florida, in Gray's backyard, and the fight was stopped in the third. Ref said Smith was hurt. Smith says he "got robbed." His career wasn't over, but the difference between 5-0 and 4-1 is enormous, not only because a perfect record is lost, but because a first loss can be a life-defining event, like losing your virginity or losing a parent. There's no next game, no next season. It's a permanent condition of existence, like a prison record, immutable and never forgotten. "I couldn't believe what they took from me," Smith says.
Some fighters can't accept this loss. They either quit or go on to greatness. But many find that the world hasn't come crashing down, that their lives are the same, and there develops a measure of acceptance. Then another loss, and a little more acceptance. It gets easier. "After a while, it doesn't bother them much," explains Max Kellerman, a boxing historian and ESPN analyst. "There are lots of good fighters who develop an opponent's mentality. They do everything it takes not to win." There isn't a defining moment when a fighter becomes a journeyman, but it begins with this acceptance. "Reality set in a long time ago," says Smith. "I know the opportunity for a title shot is far-fetched." The hunger, the urgency, the arrogance of a champion -- they all begin to wane.
"I enjoy working with journeymen," says Borzell, the matchmaker. "They're the nicest guys in the sport."
Friday night at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex -- fight night. The ring stands in an enormous hangar of an auditorium, all lavender and sea-green with matching chairs. It's a loud, working-class crowd on hand, a far cry from the designer-suit, pinky-ring, leggy-blonde audience of big-city fights. "Atta boy, Larry!" they shout. "He's right there! Git 'im!" "That boy ain't got nothin'!" There are seven fights on the card, all four- and six-round bouts except the eight-round main event, Ashanti vs. Smith. Smith hates fighting last. It's so hard to keep warm, stay loose, remain focused. The waiting is when the nerves, the doubts and the fear creep up on you, and the only thing you can do to keep them at bay is to keep moving. In a barren concrete room adjacent to the main auditorium, Smith starts to shadowbox, slowly, methodically. There's a makeshift dressing room against one wall where black curtains are draped over a metal frame, concealing other fighters putting on cups, taping hands and talking strategy. Ashanti is 30 yards away, with his headphones on and his eyes closed, his feet tapping as he dances in little circles. Both fighters number at 155 -- three pounds over the limit but good enough.
"How do you feel?" Smith is asked.
"Real good," he says, throwing imaginary hooks.
"You going to win tonight?"
"Oh, I'm gonna do it," he assures, looking somewhere else.
His manager, coincidentally named John Smith, walks over. He's a lean ex-lightweight from New York, but he's been in Atlanta for 14 years now and he's got a cool-water Southern voice.
"Lots of feinting," says John. "He's nothing special."
"I know," Jerry replies.
The two stand silently, the boxer's head bobbing back and forth until a harsh voice calls out.
"Ashanti! Smith! Let's go!"
Smith enters the ring inconspicuously, clad in a white T-shirt, black satin trunks and red gloves. Shakir "The Assassin" Ashanti wears a leopard-pattern tribal skirt and shimmies through the crowd to a roar and the beat of drums. As he enters the ring bouncing on his toes, Smith slips into a corner, looking just as he did tucked away at the YMCA. He closes his eyes and whispers to himself.
The bell rings, and Smith comes out crouched and compact. Ashanti is on his toes, light. They circle, feeling each other out, neither face with a hint of worry. Ashanti flicks a light jab, then another. Smith slips left, steps in and clinches. They break. Ashanti throws a quick combination. There's nothing behind it, so Smith starts throwing jabs of his own. But he looks leaden, sluggish, as if he's fighting underwater. Ashanti easily slips away. Round 1 to Ashanti. It's the same in the second. Opportunities arise, but Smith just lumbers forward, missing punches. Ashanti fires -- Pap! Pap! Pap! Jerry clinches, leans on him, until the ref breaks them apart. Pap! Pap! Pap! Another clinch. There's no rhythm tonight; they look like two dancers, one of whom forgot the steps. Round 2, Ashanti. And Round 3. And soon enough it becomes clear that Smith's not just off to a slow start. He's in there with a fighter who's just too quick, who's got too much stamina. But it also becomes clear that Smith will do his job. He'll go the distance -- and lose every round.
More than an hour later, all of the ravenous fans have gone home, and long-faced men in lavender and sea-green shirts slowly fold chairs, disassemble the ring, sweep the floor and take down the lights. It's not just quiet; the room is devoid of energy and life. Behind one of the black curtains in the adjoining room, Jerry sits alone, wearing a pair of boxer shorts with a motel towel over his shoulders. There's $1,000 in cash on a wooden folding table beside him. He's expressionless -- no joy, no sadness, no bewilderment, no relief, nothing.
"Didn't turn out so good, huh?" he asks a visitor.
"I wasn't so comfortable at the weight."
"You could tell."
"Next time, though, I'll be 140. I know I can still do it."
Standing up, Smith starts packing up his gloves, mouthpiece and clothes for the early ride back to Birmingham tomorrow.