Over the course of a nearly two-decade-long career in professional boxing, Magnolia native James “Bonecrusher” Smith fought the cream of the heavyweight-division crop in the 1980s and ’90s, including the legendary figures Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson. In 1986, Smith became WBA heavyweight champion with a shocking first-round knockout of Tim Witherspoon (see above), the highlight of a storied career that also featured wins over such top-flight competitors as Frank Bruno, Mike Weaver, Rickey Parkey, and Jesse Ferguson.
Since retiring in 1999, Smith has devoted himself to community service. An ordained minister, Smith founded the charitable organization Champion For Kids in 1994 and travels throughout the Carolinas providing mentorship for at-risk youth. Known inside the ring for his awesome punching power and fierce demeanor, the retired Smith is an affable and kind conversationalist with a gentle manner and a robust laugh. For the first installment of a series devoted to catching up with celebrated North Carolina athletes, we spoke to him about his career and legacy, his reflections on boxing, and his current mission in the community.
INDY: You started your career later than most fighters, at the age of twenty-eight. What attracted you to the fight game at that advanced stage? Bonecrusher: I spent some time with Joe Frazier. I started boxing in Philadelphia in his gym. And in his gym, I got to see fighters like Larry Holmes, Tex Cobb, and a bunch of other tough guys who became pros. A lot of guys came through Frazier’s gym, and I saw them work out. I saw Sugar Ray Leonard. I used to spar with Marvis Frazier and Michael Spinks all the time. And I realized that I was just as big and just as strong and just as fast as these guys. They just had a lot more experience than me. Michael Spinks and Ray Leonard were in the Olympics. I basically just walked into the gym and started working out and started training and started fighting.
You shared the rings with greats like Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson but also faced an incredibly high level of competition that included top-flight heavyweights like Tim Witherspoon, Frank Bruno, and Mike Weaver. Do you ever have any occasion to see some of your old opponents nowadays? [Laughs.] Not really. I see those guys from time to time, and we’re on speaking terms. I’m trying to bring a bunch of them here for an event in December which recognizes boxing legends. I like all of those guys, but we don’t see each other too much.
I always thought Tim Witherspoon in particular had the talent to be an all-time great. You faced him twice, with both of you winning once. Do you have any thoughts on Witherspoon’s career? Well, he was involved in lawsuits with Don King and he seemed to get distracted by those things in his career. I understand. That can happen. For my first two or three fights of my career, I dealt with Bob Arum. I eventually made the decision to do business with Mr. Don King [laughs ruefully].
You were the first heavyweight champion to hold a college degree, as a graduate of the business school at Shaw University. I imagine your business background helped you navigate the often unsavory world of boxing finance?
You faced Larry Holmes in his prime. I always thought his greatness was overlooked, owing to the impossible task of having to follow Ali. Is that fair?
A: Oh, he’s all right. I fought him twice. He’s OK. (Laughs.)
When you fought Mike Tyson, when he was all of twenty or twenty-one, you lost a decision but were able to neutralize a lot of his power at a time when he was knocking everyone out early. I think, in retrospect, using your size advantage to frustrate him provided a blueprint for exposing his limitations. Does that ring true to you?
I think so. I think the way I fought him, guys like Buster Douglas and even Evander Holyfield were able to use their size and that was really the way to beat him.
Tyson seems to have gotten his life together in a way that didn’t always seem possible. Have you followed his trajectory at all?
Well, we often need to make changes. Change is the biggest part of it. So if we’re willing to listen and to learn, then we’ll be OK.
Boxing is tricky. It’s a brutal way to make a living, but it has provided opportunities to so many who might not have otherwise had them. Can you explain a bit about the work you’re currently doing in the community?
What I’m doing with the Boxing Legends Hall of Fame is to try and get fighters more involved in the lives of the young people. A lot of the young kids can fight very well, they just don’t know it yet. My current plan is to work with sponsors to buy an RV. We’re going to turn that into the Boxing Legends Hall Of Fame mobile unit. We’re going to travel to cities in North Carolina and South Carolina and do a little talent search and some ministry out there. I’m hoping to inspire young kids and let them know my story.
Your career has taken you all over the world. When you think of North Carolina do you still think of home?
[Laughs.] Oh yes. That’s where my roots started.