Yusaf Mack, a tough Philly fighter, always knew that he had enough natural talent to become a world champion in boxing. Maybe he relied upon it just a little too much during his run through the super middleweight division.
Mack ate the wrong foods, never really focused on training properly and gained the reputation of a boxer who didn't have the stamina to go the distance.
It cost him twice -- most recently against Librado Andrade last October. Mack dropped Andrade in the first round, but ran out of gas and Andrade stopped him on a seventh-round TKO.
It was shortly after that fight that Mack's father, Terry Smith, told him that time was running out on his career and if he wanted to get the most from all that natural talent, he was going to have to apply himself more fully to his profession.
Terry Smith died of cirrhosis of the liver in February, but those words still rumble inside Mack's head every day he steps into a gym to prepare for a fight.
"Before he passed away he said, 'Win a title for me,'" Mack said. "That was a lot of motivation for me. I'm still going through some stuff [from his death]. But he's feeding my fire right now. What he said is really making me work harder than ever."
Mack (24-2-2, 15 KOs), who is now campaigning at light heavyweight, will take on Daniel Judah (20-2-3, 10 KOs) in a 12-round match at the Aviator Sports Complex in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the main event of ESPN2's "Wednesday Night Fights."
The clock is ticking for the 28-year-old Mack. He fought at super middleweight for eight years, but fell short in his bid to fight for a world title. Mack isn't exactly starting over by moving up, yet he can't afford to waste time and he can't afford too many setbacks.
"This is a good fight to let Yusaf know that there are no walkovers anymore, so when you get the next shot you'll be prepared," said promoter Tommy Gallagher, who used to train Mack.
Memories of his father might light a fire under Mack. When he steps in against Judah on Wednesday, Mack will wear trunks that honor his father, who was only 56 when he died. Mack said his father was instrumental in keeping him and his brother, Steven, focused on boxing. Mack's brother was shot and killed by a robber in Philadelphia in 1995.
"Yusaf plays the part of the tough guy and he doesn't really want to show it, but there was a lot of love there with his father," Gallagher said. "His father and his mother really took care of him. He came from a tough environment [West Philadelphia], but the kid has some great qualities, like loyalty. When his father passed I think that's when he said now I have to stand on my own legs and go forward."
Mack appears to be making the kind of changes that his father implored him to make before he died. He is working with a new trainer, John Tandy, a Brit whose specialty is building stamina in his fighters.
Before the Andrade fight, Mack's manager, Rory Donadio, contacted Tandy in England and asked him to draw up a fight plan. Tandy came up with the plan and forwarded it to Mack.
"Obviously he didn't follow it," Tandy said.
Well, Mack followed it for one round, but he ran out of gas before he could complete the plan.
With Gallagher busy with some family obligations, Donadio decided to ask Tandy to train Mack full time. Tandy moved to the U.S., setting up training camp in Newark, N.J. Mack moved from Philadelphia to Newark. It was just another indication that Mack was serious about his commitment to fulfilling his potential.
Mack had been straining to make 168 pounds for a few years, getting down to 171 pounds and then killing himself to trim the last three pounds.
"I'd be so weak when I got down to 171 it was crazy," Mack said. "I couldn't make the weight anymore, but I kept fighting it."
The first change Tandy instituted was moving Mack up to 175 pounds. Then Tandy changed Mack's diet, which Mack said consisted primarily of cheesesteaks, cheeseburgers and fast food, and Tandy added a heavy dose of running.
At first, Mack bristled at the changes. But after he stopped Ernesto Zamora on a second-round TKO in his first fight under Tandy, Mack began to buy into the program.
"It's getting better," Mack said of his training regimen. "JT's got me feeling like a new man."
Donadio said he has noticed a change in Mack's attitude since his father died and Tandy began working with him.
"All boxers have big egos, but there's something more humble about Yusaf now," Donadio said. "You don't even have to ask him to run anymore. He takes it upon himself to get in his running. It's like he's become a man now. Like he's grown up."
Time will tell if Mack has matured. If he can navigate through the early waves of the light heavyweight division, he could make some compelling matches with the men at the upper echelon like Antonio Tarver, Glen Johnson, Roy Jones and Chad Dawson. Chris Byrd, former heavyweight champion, thought he could make a name for himself in the division but was ambushed by Shaun George in a ninth-round KO in May.
"I feel like I could fit in there," Mack said. "I didn't win a world title at super middleweight, but I did get the USBA belt. I feel like I have all the talent to be a world champion. All I need to do is to train to get the best out of my talent."
And if he ever wants to slack off, he will have his father's words rattling inside his head to keep his motivational fires stoked.
Tim Smith is the boxing columnist for the New York Daily News.