Late last year, in the week leading up to Christmas, on the night Billy Joe Saunders won his world title and Liam Smith received what he called his “Christmas present from Frank [Warren]“, the life of Mitchell Smith was surprisingly spiraling out of control.
Earlier that night, I’d spoken to Mitchell in his dressing room as he prepared for the latest defence of his WBO Inter-Continental title. To the backdrop of booming tunes and support from his crew, Smith smiled, prowled and scowled. “I’m gonna smash him, I’m going to knock this kid out,” he promised. It was what most others similarly predicted; it was what we had come to expect from Smith both in and out of the ring.
Less than an hour later, the belt was wrapped around the waist of George Jupp as Smith fell deeper into his personal nightmare. I interviewed Jupp backstage for BoxNation, his delight pouring out quicker than the sweat still clinging to his body.
Minutes later, Mitchell came looking for me, cradling his right hand, eyes puffed and red from the tears that had come plentifully. “Can we talk?” he asked, with the cameras rolling, “I want to say how sorry I am, I made a mess of this, I feel stupid and humbled.” He repeated that word, “Humbled, but the better man won on the night—well done to George Jupp.”
That interview never got to the screen with time short and the evening long on live fights. And so fans were denied the chance to witness this confident—some say cocky—young man reduced to tears, the pain tearing much further than tissue or muscle, to the very heart of Smith and his being. It was painful to watch, difficult to see and yet the very fact Smith came to talk said more even than the significance of his words. Here was a young fighter being or perhaps becoming a man in his darkest hour.
Speaking to Britishboxers nine months down the line in the build-up to his anticipated ring return, Smith says the memories of that night are scarce. “I actually don’t remember much about that night,” he said. “I can’t remember talking to anybody; I didn’t even know how we got home and who drove until someone told me a few months ago.”
Smith does, though, recall breaking his right hand against a wall in a pique of fury back in the dressing room. Angry, frustrated and disappointed, now he had injury as well as insult to deal with. The North Londoner remembers too his preparation for Jupp being a spectacular shambles.
“I was drinking, depressed, eating shit and overweight. I needed someone to grab hold of me and get me to the gym but I’d make excuses, say I’d do the work on my own and never do it. I was overweight on the morning of the weigh-in—still dry and too big. I was completely under-prepared. I was lucky I wasn’t in there with a massive puncher because I could’ve got hurt the state I was in. But I definitely made myself look a prat.”
All of that is in stark contrast to this time last year when Smith was at the top of his game and loved. Three successive knockouts including a one round job on Dennis Tubieron, who’d just gone the distance with Josh Warrington, and that showreel flurry against Antonio Horvatic had put Smith up there as one of British Boxing’s hottest talents.
The British Boxing Writers’ agreed, voting Smith as their Young Boxer of the Year for 2015. Logged in the history books alongside stars like Nigel Benn, Hamed, Calzaghe, Hatton and Khan. This was an extraordinary nod to the talent as well as potential of Smith. It should’ve acted as a platform, a springboard to greater reaches but, in truth, it went to the young man’s head.
He said: “I was living the high-life, partying all the time, listening to the praise and not thinking about all the things I’d done to get there. I took everything for granted, I thought I’d made it.”
What Smith did thereafter was make himself deeply unhappy. In the two months in between the highlight of his career and its lowest point before Christmas, Mitchell threw himself headlong into descent, growing fatter and sadder by the day. At his worst, Smith was nudging on towards the cusp of light heavyweight, his waistline overtaking an ego and confidence slowly disintegrating by the day. Losing to Jupp sent this young talent hurtling over the precipice.
The year 2016 started where the previous year ended, with drinking and depression as well as a broken hand to mend. Smith was unwell.
As is so often the case in life, it takes a flashpoint or the bottom of one’s boots touching the ocean floor to precipitate swimming back towards the surface and so it was with Smith. “My Dad and I had a massive squabble and I picked up a shovel to hit him. I realized right there and then I needed to sort myself out. We had a cry and a cuddle and I thought: ‘I’m wasting my life here, my daughter’s life, ruining it for my family.'”
There and then, Mitchell wasn’t thinking about boxing, rather just the fundamentals of being alive, healthy and well. “I needed time out away from the sport to see where I stood. There was no chat about boxing and no mention of that defeat.”
By March of this year while his peers Stephen Smith and Josh Warrington were opening doors, Smith saw the light once again. You can imagine that must have been a beautiful sight.
“I wanted to train again, I really missed it, I had that buzz for boxing back in me,” he revealed. “I’d briefly gone back to the gym after the Jupp loss but it felt different. Everyone who knows me knows if I’m happy in the gym then I’m happy in life and I wasn’t content.”
Smith realized then that his partnership with Jason Rowland couldn’t continue so when he wanted back in the game two months later he was in need of a new trainer. Imagine his surprise, then, when a direct message came through on Twitter from none other than Adam Booth.
Adam was concerned for me, wondering how I was. I said I was coming back and needed a trainer, would he be interested?”
A visit to Booth’s home and gym sealed the deal for both men and they’ve been working towards this weekend ever since. “It took a while for us to click in the gym because everything was so different to what I was used to, but we clicked right away as people. I trust Adam completely, I think he’ll be the making of me.”
Booth of course guided the 2011 Young Boxer of the Year George Groves to a British title while their tearful reunion after the first Froch fight underlines how significant the bonding between Booth and Smith might prove to be. Certainly it is a huge commitment by Smith who commutes more than and hour and a half both ways around the torturous M25 five times each week to train with Booth.
Much of their early work was almost physio, getting Smith confident in using the right hand again before some excellent sparring with stable mate Ryan Burnett.
The question of weight and where the boxer will operate at is still to be finalized. I know my BoxNation colleague Barry Jones always hoped Mitchell could come down to featherweight while Smith’s return to action will be around or just over 135lbs.
It seems Booth will decide between the 130lb and 135lb divisions once the train is back on the tracks, but when I asked about the rivals he’d been watching Smith mentioned the recently crowned British Super-featherweight champion Martin Ward. “He didn’t star or stand out, but I thought he looked okay” and Andy Townend “He’s a big puncher, but I don’t rate him technically.” Enough of the appealing, cheeky devil still inside Smith it seems.
While some have in the past mistaken that confidence and charm as something different, it is one of the reasons Smith was always popular with fans generally, along with of course oozing natural talent when in the ring. It’s something also to do with the extraordinary support he has received in so many ways on this incredible return journey.
“It’s been tough. I saved a bit of money but I’ve had so much support from friends and family, from my sponsors. I’ve got mates driving me to training and back while Frank (Warren) has been good, he’s been loyal, helped me out a bit.”
Smith has come such a long way this year; personally, physically and emotionally, but get ready, folks, because ‘The baby faced assassin’ is nearly back. He knows Saturday night is not a test, rather a momentous celebration of his return from the brink and the first step towards resuming the career he promised, and perhaps too the redemption he deserves.
“I’m so excited, I can’t wait,” he enthused. “There were so many times when I felt this would never happen again but it’s here, I’m starting to get the butterflies and I’m ready.”
What of that swaggering Mitchell Smith confidence: “Its still there one hundred percent, one million percent. But I don’t want to shout my mouth off, be a bit more humble. I know I can be the best but I’m going to let my boxing do the talking, leave my swag for the ring.”
I’m still hoping there is plenty of the fun and swagger left in Smith and more besides for it is the stuff of boxing and maybe the essence of him. I miss the backwards baseball cap and the bright shades, wondering if they’ll make a comeback too. “I’m not sure Adam would like that,” Smith laughs as we bid our farewell. There’s substance to this young man: talent, style and maybe swagger still. I’m grateful and glad he’s back.
A few years ago, my new colleague Terry Dooley wrote a piece about depression and boxing. It was pertinent then, and is still relevant now so give it a read by clicking here to read about depression, concussion boxing and the truth we may not want to heed.