Owner of arguably the most enjoyable and memorable nickname from modern-day heavyweight history, James “Bonecrusher” Smith also holds the distinction of being the first-ever college graduate to become world heavyweight champion. Smith, of Magnolia, North Carolina, was a heavy-handed, impressively built heavyweight who took up boxing at a relatively late age; this after serving in the US military and working as a prison guard. During periods of his career, Smith could boast greats, Emile Griffth and Joe Frazier as his trainer. As an amateur, Smith compiled a 35-4 record, before he went pro in 1981, at the age of 28. Matched tough, Smith was stopped in the fourth round by amateur standout James Broad. Already, it was back to the drawing board for “Bonecrusher.”
But Smith – who today celebrates his 68th birthday – was a determined man, and he was able to bounce back. In the early months of his career, Smith picked up wins over good names Ricky Parkey and Leroy Boone. Then, in May of 1984, “Bonecrusher” travelled to the UK to score his breakthrough win. Smith was being handily outpointed by unbeaten British hero Frank Bruno, losing each of the first nine sessions of the ten-round bout in London. But then, in stunning fashion, Smith completely turned the fight on its head as he cracked Bruno with his heavy shots, Bruno being knocked out with just seconds remaining in the fight. British boxing was in shock. Smith’s next fight would see him challenge for the world title.
Challenging the great Larry Holmes, a still too green Smith gave it his best shot but he was stopped on cuts in the 12th round, Holmes way ahead on the cards at the time. Smith continued to get good work courtesy of fighting on Don King’s cards. Still, the losses began to mount up, with Tony Tubbs, Tim Witherspoon and Marvis Frazier winning decisions over him. It got so bad, Smith reportedly sought out the advice of a shrink. It seemed to work, with a confident “Bonecrusher” crushing ex-WBA heavyweight champ Mike Weaver in a single round in his fight after losing to Frazier. Smith followed this up with points wins over Jesse Ferguson and David Bey.
Then Smith got the fight he is perhaps best known for. Facing Witherspoon in a rematch, this time with Tim’s WBA strap on the line, and this time at short-notice, Tony Tubbs having pulled out of his own rematch with Witherspoon, “Bonecrusher” ruined the defending champ inside a round. Unfortunately, Smith’s reign did not last long – just under three months in fact. If the Witherspoon rematch is not the fight Smith is best known for, then it is the Mike Tyson fight of March of 1987. Fans braced themselves for an action affair, with bombs on both sides. “Somebody’s going to sleep,” Smith said going into the two-belt unification showdown. Unfortunately, as one boxing magazine of the day later reported, “it was the fans who went to sleep.”
After 12 unimaginably tedious rounds in which Smith did virtually nothing but hold and run, “Bonecrusher” had a new, unofficial nickname: “Boneclutcher.” Who knows what might have happened had Smith not been so terribly intimidated? Smith did let his hands go for a brief spell in the final round, and he did, for a millisecond, wobble Tyson. It was far too little, far too late. Amazingly for a man who seemed to have no desire to fight against Tyson, Smith carried on with his career for a further 12 years. “Bonecrusher” engaged in some pretty big fights during this period – decking Razor Ruddock before being stopped in seven, winning a return with Weaver, this time via dull 12 round decision, dropping decisions to Greg Page and Michael Moorer, Smith also showing up in the “People’s Choice” heavyweight tournament in 1993. But Smith’s stamina was generally poor and his speed and movement were also compromised at this advanced stage of his career.
Smith lost a bizarre fight with the old as time Joe Bugner in Australia in 1998, with Bugner getting the 1st round retirement win when Smith suffered a dislocated shoulder. In his final fight, Smith was stopped by a nearly 50-year-old Holmes in a needless rematch. Smith exited with a 44-17-1(32) record.
So how good was “Bonecrusher?” Smith had an eventful career, no doubt. Capable of hurting any man he fought if he was in the mood, and the condition, to let his hands go, Smith also had a good chin and immense physical strength (his power and impressive physique attributed to chopping down trees and eating fresh fruit and vegetables). But Smith often looked to be either uninterested, bored even, intimidated (against Tyson most notably), or out of shape in fights. Smith got the big breaks, but did he really give his all in trying to take advantage of them? “Bonecrusher” made an impact on the heavyweight division and he was champion for a short while. But Smith was no great. Or perhaps you disagree?