Cleverly/Kovalev Undercard: Stephen Smith Interview
Scouse skilster Stephen Smith, 28, will be back challenging for major international titles if he defeates British Super-Featherweight Champion Gary Bukland this Saturday night at the Motorpoint Arena.
The former two time English ABA champion nailed medals at the Commonwealth Games (gold) and European Seniors (bronze) in 2006, then annexed British and Commonwealth titles at featherweight within a dozen pro starts.
However an unexpected knockout loss to Barry’s Lee Selby in September 2011 not only relieved him of his titles but ostracised him from the championship scene for two years of his prime.
He finally gets his chance to atone and remind us of his prodigious talent this Saturday when he travels to Wales to challenge Selby’s stablemate Gary Buckland for the British Super-Featherweight title. Speaking to boxing writer Glynn Evans, the lad they call ‘Swifty’ seemed in no mood to profligate.
Remaining tickets are available from the Cardiff Motorpoint Arena Box Office on 02920 224 488 or Eventim on 0844 249 1000 or www.eventim.co.uk
Watch the whole ‘Red Mist’ event – headlined by the unmissable WBO World Light-Heavyweight collision between Nathan Cleverly and unbeaten Russian KO king Sergey Kovalev, plus Gary Buckland’s British Super-Featherweight title defence against Stephen Smith and Commonwealth Light-Heavyweight Champion Ovill McKenzie’s rematch against Enzo Maccarinelli – live and exclusive in the UK on BoxNation (Sky Ch.437/Virgin Ch.546) from 7pm. Join at www.boxnation.com
Great things were mapped out for you prior to your title defence to Selby. How did that knockout loss affect you?
Not too badly, mate.
Fight wise, after the loss, I got to fight on the Klitschko-Chisora bill in Germany, which was an honour. Shortly after I won the WBO InterContinental belt (rsc1 Ben Jones) which I’d hoped would lead to something but then I needed an operation on my ear.
But while it’s been the worst period of my boxing career, on a personal level, I’m having the best time of my life. My little lad, Frankie, was born last summer and that gave me a far greater high than any professional boxing title or amateur medal. It doesn’t remotely compare.
For a year, I’ve been a full time dad. My girl’s an amazing woman – brilliant with my son – but I help out as best I can. Every day with Frankie is different, every day is a blessing. Every little smile he gives makes me so happy. Ironically, it’s his first birthday this Saturday so what better present to give him than a new Lonsdale Belt. Not many babies get them!
In fact, his arrival makes it far easier to go the gym, drives me to train even harder. I want the very best for him and the best way to go about giving him that is for me to do well with the boxing.
Coach Joe Gallagher’s gym – which includes your brothers Paul, Liam and Callum – has been busy of late. Has being on the outside of the championship picture yourself made it even more difficult?
No, No. Obviously I enjoy watching my brothers do well. We’ve always said; ‘We win together, we lose together.’ Our Paul’s regained his British (super-middle) title and Liam won the Commonwealth (light-middle). Callum’s flying since making his pro debut. Their successes, plus those of Scott Quigg, (Anthony) Crolla and others, just makes for a far better atmosphere in the gym.
Last summer the rest of the stable went to Los Angeles for a mini camp at Freddie Roach’s Wildcard Gym but it coincided with Frankie’s birth so I stayed home. But earlier this year, I spent time at (Matt) Macklin’s gym in Marbella which was a nice change of scenery.
Trust me, I’m in a really good place mentally at the minute and I’m really looking forward to Saturday night. A lot of people wrote me off after just one bad night and I’m determined to prove them wrong, remind them how good I am. A lot of people will be in for a shock.
Last time we spoke, just before your fight in Germany, you were adamant that you could still make featherweight. Is that still the case?
Possibly, if something really big was offered to me. But feather isn’t in my mindset right now. Over the last two years I’ve learnt more about my body. I make the weight far more comfortably at super-feather and enter the ring feeling far fresher and stronger at 130 (lbs). I’m a much stronger super-feather now than I was 18 months ago.
Career wise, this is a real crossroads fight. There’s little margin for error if you’re to realise your goals of contesting the major international belts. Are you feeling added pressure?
No. If anything, I’m feeling less pressure. Gary’s the favourite with the bookies. He’s fighting in his home town. He has the chance to win the (Lonsdale) Belt outright. He’s mandatory for the European. He’s got the higher international rankings. For once, I feel no pressure on me.
August is traditionally a barren month for boxing so I’m sure you’ve monopolised your trainer’s attention. What specifically have you been working on together?
Actually all the lads are in the gym, ticking over. We’ve a great team spirit here and we all help each other out when there’s a big fight pending. But you’re right, I’ve been the priority. That said, I always get the attention I require and, if I felt that wasn’t the case, I’d move on.
Joe and me have been studying tapes of Buckland together. We think we’ve identified a lot of things that Garry does wrong and we’ve been practising the shots we need to throw to exploit his mistakes. Joe works really hard and I really think Saturday will prove a successful night for both of us.
Trust me, I’ve come on so much in the gym since losing to Selby. Today I’m a far better fighter than when I first held the Commonwealth and British (featherweight) titles. I’ve just not had the opportunities to prove it publically.
As an amateur you boxed in all corners of the globe and you won your first professional title by defeating Scottish Commonwealth champion John Simpson up in Glasgow. However, challenging Buckland in his home city must make your task more difficult, surely?
It’s really not a concern. Others might freeze but I’m not a nervous person. I boxed Indians in India, Poles in Poland. You either thrive in the lion’s den or you crumble and I showed in Glasgow that I wasn’t fazed. Besides, beating him in his backyard will just make the glory of my victory all the greater.
Buckland’s mentor Tony Borg masterminded your downfall against Lee Selby. Will it be unnerving having him in the opposite corner again on Saturday evening?
Not one bit. The Selby defeat had nothing to do with Tony Borg’s masterminding and everything to do with how bad I was. Buckland’s last loss was to John Murray and, that night, my trainer Joe Gallagher was working Murray’s corner.
I’ll not be going into this fight thinking about the loss to Lee Selby and I’m sure Gary wouldn’t be going in thinking about his defeat to John. I know my head will be 100% on the job at hand.
What’s your assessment of the champion? Stylistically, have you ever encountered anyone similar?
Given that we’ve been around at the same time, at the same weight, I’d studied Gary a lot when he was fighting on undercards, coming through. It was always in my mind that one day we might meet.
To be honest, he’s never changed too much. It’s the same old ‘Dynamo’. He’s a very fit lad who always tries very hard and throws a lot of shots. He’s a very good British level fighter, a very worthy champion. He has to be considered the toughest that I’ve faced as a pro. But challenging for a title, I’d not want it any other way.
But I’ve been in the ring with stacks similar to his style, yet even better, in the amateurs. The pressure he’ll undoubtedly apply should bring out the best in me.
What type of fight do you envisage and why are you so confident that you can upset the odds and get your hand raised once the dust has settled?
I can’t see Gary Buckland being in a cagey fight. It’s not his way. I expect it to be very exciting for the fans to watch with a lot of punches thrown and landed. No doubt Gary will give his best but skills pay the bills and I’ve got better all round ability.
What would you hope that a comprehensive victory on Saturday will lead to? You’re 28 now and need to be challenging for the major international belts, surely?
That’s up to Frank (Warren) but, though I’d probably assume Gary’s number one (contender) slot for the European, I’d actually love to own the Lonsdale Belt outright.
The winner of this has to entertain (mandatory challenger) Gary Sykes quite quickly. I’d be very confident of beating him but I daren’t look past August 17th.
I’m really looking forward to Saturday. This is the perfect opportunity, perfect opponent, to deliver the kind of performance to get everybody talking about me again. Then people will realise that the Selby defeat was just one bad night.