A Gray-Blur haze drifts over Magnolia, N.C., aromatic and powerful enough to be detected 10 miles away in the town of Turkey. It ascends, hissing, from enough barbecuing, fat-dripping hogmeat—400 pounds of it—to send the American Heart Association into instant trauma.
But the folk of Magnolia, which is a wide place on Route 117, are into hearty, not healthy, this particular weekend. Seemingly, all 617 of them have assembled in the ballpark, decked out in their Sunday best and intent on honoring the man their mayor has just called "our most famous fella." And they're doing it in the way they know best—with a Homecomin' Pig Pickin'.
The king of their hearts is none other than Magnolia-born-and-raised James Odell (Bonecrusher) Smith, 33, the World Boxing Association's heavyweight champion. This festive afternoon Smith has only one problem, how to maneuver his 6'4" frame through the offerings of congratulations so he can grab himself a plateful of that spicy meat without appearing to ignore any of his old friends. Meantime he is relishing this highlight in his totally unexpected but plainly happy reign.
The cold-eyed bookmakers in Las Vegas would have us amend that last phrase. The short happy reign of Bonecrusher is what they foresee, and they've set the odds at a remarkable 7 to 1 against his retaining his title when he meets World Boxing Council champion Mike Tyson in Las Vegas on March 7.
That cuts no ice with the Crusher. "O.K.," he responds at the pig pickin', once the speechifying is done, "I know I'm not supposed to be here. I know Tony Tubbs thinks he should be here. And it's a hell of a feeling, being discovered at 33. But all the same, I am a little tired of being called a lucky person. When Tyson won his title, the media yelled 'Awesome!' But when I put Tim Witherspoon away, the first reaction was that he must have been on drugs. That's all I got for my accomplishment."
The Crusher, of course, did get a little lucky. Last December he was in training for a bout with journeyman Mitch Green when word came that Tubbs was pulling out of his (take a deep breath) HBO/Don King-Butch Lewis Heavyweight Title Elimination Series fight (exhale) with Tim Witherspoon. What was needed, quickly, was a warm body, size heavyweight. Smith was delighted to oblige; he would get $230,000 for the Witherspoon fight against the $35,000 he would have picked up for meeting Green.
The fans were not so thrilled. The Crusher's 18-5 ring record was, to put it courteously, uneven. Among the wins were 13 knockouts, but among the losses were defeats by both Tubbs and Witherspoon. And so only 5,042 diehards showed up at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 12 to become witnesses to a major upset. Smith quickly and comprehensively destroyed Witherspoon in the first round, sending the WBA champ down four times following a series of massive rights to the head.
Now against the 20-year-old Tyson, the Crusher is again the heavy underdog. "This coming fight is a rare luxury for me," says Smith, "because I've actually known for weeks whom I'm fighting." Wryly he says, "Tyson and I have taken different routes to the top, and that's an understatement. I've had my breaks and my opportunities, but this young man has never faced adversity. Everything has been programmed for him, everything has been projected...."
Hold it. Just who is this talking? Do heavyweight champs use trisyllabic words these days? And how does a man called Bonecrusher, and who likes the name, get off properly using the pronoun "whom"?
Bonecrusher, in fact, is not your archetypal champ, as he himself might put it. That was immediately obvious to a visitor when, at a Fayetteville motel a few days before the Magnolia pig-in, this tall, serious-looking fellow with the attaché case and the conservative suit was introduced as Bonecrusher. The visitor was so flustered he asked the fighter, abruptly enough to upset Miss Manners, just what he was doing in a business suit.