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Boning Up for a Battle
Clive Gammon
March 02, 1987
Bonecrusher Smith won the WBA heavyweight title as a last-minute fill-in for Tony Tubbs. Now the 33-year-old upstart sets his sights on WBC champ Mike Tyson
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March 02, 1987

Boning Up For A Battle

Bonecrusher Smith won the WBA heavyweight title as a last-minute fill-in for Tony Tubbs. Now the 33-year-old upstart sets his sights on WBC champ Mike Tyson

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Nevertheless, when Smith got out of the Army three years later and took a job as a prison guard in the North Carolina Correction Department (and moonlighted by teaching high school equivalency courses in adult education classes), he had no thought of turning pro. But when he started seeing fighters he had beaten in the service appear on TV, "It made me think," he says. "I'd get up and run in Magnolia, then drive 25 miles to be at work by 6 a.m. When I came off in the afternoon, I'd head home, change, then drive 50 miles to Fayetteville and work out in the gym.

"Then one day a boxing coach asked me out of the blue if I would be willing to fight James Broad—he was hot then—on ESPN in Atlantic City. So that was when I went pro, in 1981. I was 28 years of age, which must be some kind of record, though I told everybody at the time I was 26. I'd had no pro training. Broad stopped me in the fourth. 'Oh,——,' I said, 'no more fights.' "

But more fights did follow, often short-notice matches that brought the Crusher purses of $300 to $400. In Atlantic City on Sept. 11, 1982, when he beat Chris McDonald, who was 8-0-1, Bonecrusher was noticed by a New York Realtor named Alan Kornberg, who signed him up. Until then, Smith says, he had never felt the need for a manager. Kornberg's first act was to bring Smith together with Emile Griffith.

Yes, that Emile Griffith, the five-time world champion with the melodic Virgin Islands accent. Now, in Fayetteville, Griffith is still the Bonecrusher's trainer, though at 49 he does not head out at 6:30 a.m. with the Crusher when he runs. "Them hard old roads don't love me no more," the trainer says. In the gym, though, Griffith gives spectacular value, as acid as a fishwife, as harsh as a parrot, when he wants to get Smith moving faster against a sparring partner. "Cop 'im! Cop 'im!" Griffith shrills. "Why you waiting? For Christmas coming? Whup 'im! He ain't King Kong!"

Together they resemble a vaudeville act. The Crusher waits patiently until the end of the round, then says, referring to his trainer's baldness, "You're outgrowing your hair, Emile." The great former boxer crackles like an electric storm for a little while, but later, seriously and judiciously, he weighs up his charge's chances against Tyson.

"He come to me very late in life," Griffith says. "He was heavy, sort of square-shaped. I made a mistake at first. I teach him to box and he like to box too good. He forget about punching for a while. Even when he fought Larry Holmes [the IBF heavyweight champion knocked out Smith in the 12th in 1984] he wasn't right where I wanted him. But in the Witherspoon fight, when we only had a week to get our mind on it, I had to say, 'Get him in the first round, then we go home.' I told him, 'I have this safety pin. If you come back to me before you win, I stick this in you.' He think I'm crazy. But it works.

"The Tyson fight will also be one or two rounds. We will see two mountain goats. The one who takes the best punch, that's it. Bonecrusher, he can knock Tyson out in two rounds. He could do it in one, and make me a liar. He's one of the heaviest punchers I've had."

Between the lines, of course, all that Griffith was giving Smith was the traditional puncher's chance—on the perfectly viable theory that the Crusher's terrifying right can do the job before his aging legs let him down.

And maybe this is the way that Smith himself is thinking. "Listen," he says, his voice growing louder as the Bonecrusher side of the man takes control. "Mitch Green would have been a better fight than Witherspoon because Mitch would have run. I do better against punchers. Bruno and Weaver were punchers [trailing badly in the final round, Smith knocked out Frank Bruno in 1984; last year he KO'd Mike Weaver in the first round]. And remember, all the guys that Tyson has fought, even if they'd hit him flush in the face, they wouldn't have hurt him. I'm going to hit him flush and this 20-year-old is going to have a lot on his mind."

Then, just as suddenly as the Bonecrusher persona has appeared, J. Odell reasserts himself. "I'm simply furnishing you with the facts," Smith says. "I can't afford to let Mike Tyson be great right now. I'm 33. He has plenty of time to be great later on."

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