One Ballsy Irish Kid: Kevin Smith

By Robert Mladinich on January 6, 2015
One Ballsy Irish Kid: Kevin Smith
“I think he could have followed Mike Rossman to a championship. He became that good.”

He had come within punching distance of the Holy Grail, only to be turned away by fate, which is always the most formidable opponent of all…

It was May 14, 1976, three months before the United States Olympic boxing team would win a then unprecedented five gold medals and transform Sugar Ray Leonard into a mainstream superstar, and six months prior to the release of the Academy Award winning film “Rocky,” which created a generation of diehard boxing fans.

On that night, Kevin Smith, an 18-year-old Jersey City light heavyweight, made his pro debut at nearby Weehawken High School.  Future light heavyweight champ Mike Rossman was the headliner, and Chuck Wepner, who a year earlier had fought Muhammad Ali and become the muse for the “Rocky” character, was on hand to sign autographs.

Nobody knew it then, but club boxing, which flourished in the area at the Embassy Hall in North Bergen, the Jersey City Armory, Ice World in Totowa, and the Park Oval in Nutley, would soon be gone forever.

A year later gambling would become legalized in Atlantic City, which was about 120 miles to the south. With live boxing being televised from the newly constructed casinos several nights a week, the small and intimate clubs would be eviscerated.

Along with those storied venues, Smith would also become a victim. His meteoric rise as a local attraction would be overshadowed by his mysterious passing in August 1978, when he purportedly shot himself to death outside of a local restaurant called the Gridiron.

Smith was born into a strong Irish family that consisted of eight children. Despite having only one arm, his father held down two jobs as a truck driver and mechanic. Young Kevin learned early on that nothing came easy, and hard work was tantamount to success in any endeavor.

Developing an early affinity for athletics and competition, he went 17-1 as an amateur. When he turned pro, scores of local stars like Wepner, Randy Neumann, Brian O’Melia, Scott Frank, Mustafa Hamsho, Rusty Rosenberger, Lou Esa, Nino Gonzalez, “Irish” Pat Murphy, Richie Villanueva and Conrad Tooker drew big, enthusiastic crowds to local venues.

Rossman, a future champion, and Wepner, Frank and Hamsho, all of whom were world title challengers, received their training at these gutbucket arenas. Occasionally, promoters such as the Duva family would import established names to provide stern tests to the local guys.

It was in this environment that Smith thrived. Despite being stopped in his fifth fight by Otis Gordon on the undercard of Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton III at Yankee Stadium in September 1976, he amassed a record of 11-2-1 (10 KOs) in just over two years as a pro.

In June 1978 the Duvas flew Mike Quarry in to challenge Smith at Ice World. At the time Quarry had compiled a 60-9-4 record against world class, international competition. A standing room only crowd of 3,180 was on hand to witness the seesaw battle that ended in a draw.

Not surprisingly, both fighters thought they got the shaft.

“I got robbed right here in my hometown,” said Smith. “I thought the hometown is supposed to protect you. If the decision had been rendered in California, I would have accepted it.”

“For them to call it a draw in Smith’s hometown means I won the fight,” asserted Quarry, who passed away in 2006. 

Longtime boxing figure Al Certo remembered a good scrap that could have gone either way. And Lou Duva, being the promoter, thought the best way to settle matters would be with a rematch which was being discussed when Smith died less than two months later.

“The fight was so close, it didn’t matter who won,” said John Duva, no relation to the promoting family, a retired NYPD lieutenant who competed internationally on the police team and was a lifelong friend of Smith.

“It would have just made for a better rematch. Even though it was a draw, it put Kevin a few levels higher. Quarry, with all of his experience and savviness, made Kevin a lot better fighter that night.

“Also, Kevin was such a hard worker and was really coming into his own, as a fighter and a person,” continued John Duva. “It really seemed like the sky was the limit. If Kevin fought Quarry a week later, he would have beaten him. I’m not saying that because I’m biased. Kevin became a total fighter after Quarry, able to do almost anything in the ring.”

“Kevin was one ballsy Irish kid who kept getting better,” added Al Certo. “His fans thought he was the cat’s meow. He had so much guts, he came to fight and would knock your head off. When the accident happened, Kevin was about to make some noise.”

In addition to the rematch with Quarry being in the mix, Smith was scheduled to fight up-and-coming Michael Spinks on several occasions, but Spinks kept canceling because of an injured hand.

The bout was to be televised on CBS and Smith’s late manager, John Magner, thought it would be his fighter’s coming out party. Although it is unlikely, some old-timers who still think of Smith with reverence cling to the belief that Spinks was ducking him.

Outside of the ring, Smith was on a roll. He became the official chauffer for Mayor Thomas Smith, who was no relation, and was rated in the top-10. John Duva was again reflective about his friend’s life.

“You can’t understand the metamorphosis that occurred in Kevin,” said Duva. “The Quarry fight, driving the mayor. He was totally committed to becoming a great fighter and a total gentleman. He had all the bases covered. And he hit so hard, he was right at the threshold. I really think he could have followed Mike Rossman to a championship. He became that good.”

However, on August 2, 1978, less than two months after stopping “Lightning” Bob Smith in the ninth round in Bayonne to rebound from the draw with Quarry, Smith was dead. He had come within punching distance of the Holy Grail, only to be turned away by fate, which is always the most formidable opponent of all.

Many people cannot believe that the 20-year-old Smith would take his own life, and feel as if something more nefarious occurred. However, in one newspaper article, a police spokesperson stated that all indications pointed to Smith shooting himself with a .25 caliber automatic.

But, the officer added, “We want to be certain that the gun we found was the right one.”

Smith’s girlfriend at the time told police and reporters that he had not been himself lately and had alluded to taking his own life, although she did not know specifically what was bothering him.
What still stands true is the fact that questions remain, and his passing is as much of a mystery to many people now as it was then. 

“He was bigger than life around here,” said Mario Costa, the longtime proprietor of the Ringside Bar in Jersey City and a confidante to Mike Tyson and the late Arturo Gatti.

“I remember the day he died like it was yesterday. It was like Kennedy getting killed. Grown people crying like babies. The only thing you heard on the street was people sobbing.”

Although Costa’s bar has a boxing motif, replete with unique memorabilia of past and present champions and contenders, he keeps one of his most cherished possessions at home for fear of it disappearing.

It is a pair of green training gloves used by Smith at the magnificently inglorious Bufano’s Gym, which was owned by brothers Dom and Dan and shared second floor space with a pool hall that was as tattered as the training facility.

The newly arrived denizens of Jersey City would not appreciate a fighter like Smith or the type of blue-collar bastion that he once represented so well. Million dollar condos now inhabit the battered waterfront, side streets and factories that have long since closed.

“I always felt like I had to be on my toes while driving down Kennedy Boulevard,” said Peter Wood, a 1971 New York City Golden Gloves finalist who is the author of “Confessions of a Fighter: Battling Through the Golden Gloves” and “A Clenched Fist: The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion.”

“The area was full of rundown commercial areas and low income neighborhoods leading into the heart of Jersey City — with its tenements, graffiti and unkempt storefronts. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great. You wouldn’t be sharing the roadway with any Acuras, Lexuses or Mercedes Benzs on Kennedy Boulevard in those days.”

Prior to his death in 1997, Al Braverman who had been on the boxing scene since the 1930s and was more Runyonesque than Damon Runyon himself, nostalgically recalled the 1970s North Jersey boxing scene with much fondness.

“Those Jersey clubs were the closest thing to boxing’s heyday,” he said. “I hated to see them go. Those arenas brought people to stardom the old-fashioned way. You had to graduate from them, then you would be ready for anything. Guys like Wepner, Randy Neumann, Kevin, they put on great fights there. Kevin was on his way.”

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  1. Richard Kenny 03:39am, 06/04/2018

    Information   Kevin Adam Smith,
    His passing was accident, I was with him that night earlier.
    Being tired and training that night at Bufanos, I needed to go home and get some rest.
    Kevin was pushed too fast too hard.
    If he went with Lou Duva, things would have been different for my Big Brother Kevin. I miss him ,and still think of him weekly.
    I had a sit Down with a well known Medium, Bobby Bristol from upstate NY, Keven came to me through this amazing gift this man has. After having the sit down the medium had me in tears because he knew thing from my past that only very close friends would have known.
    He said to me, your Father opened a door and let Kevin in, to tell me it was an accident.
    Ok explain that all of your official records at that time that need to change this to accidental . Not suicide. I stand by this, the medium Bobby Brust is well known to the NYPD AND HAS SOLVED CASES FOR THEM.ME I COULDN’T BELIEVE WHAT THIS MAN CAN DO.
    Richie Kenny. AKA. BOLO.
    I HAVE NOTHING ELSE TO ADD AT THIS TIME.

  2. Brother Ed 05:07pm, 03/01/2018

    I will always love and remember Kevin and ALL of the Smith family…..Susan his sister is a real sweetheart….Her dad was a special guy ....her brother Patrick should have been a fighter…he was one tough S.o.b.  James her biggest brother (lol) was a great guy too. I always remember Kevin trying to get my goat by calling me grasshopper at the bar because it was his way of breaking my balls for taking karate. I remember when I got bored at the bar…I’d go next door to visit the Smith’s and their door was always open and they didn’t act like you were intruding..even if I was lol. I love and miss you Susan….I remember singing that song “Susan” to you in the bar whenever I hadn’ t seen you for a while. God bless all the Smith family….even Scotty who kicked in the door of my Triumph Spitfire lol…....ED

  3. Michael Collins 06:17pm, 01/09/2018

    I was at most of Kevin Smiths fights and he was certainly on his way as an up coming light heavy weight fighter.  Kevin had a lot of balls in the ring.  He would have been a champion in his division.  God rest his soul.
    Michael Collins

  4. Bruce Kielty 10:43pm, 11/17/2017

    Fascinating story.  I suspect that if ESPN had existed in 1978 that everyone would have known about Kevin Smith.  Just a case of bad timing, I’m afraid.

  5. bob 10:02am, 10/22/2017

    In a picture stood a boxer with a beautiful girl on both sides, it looked like it was one of the happiest days of their lives. Hopefully with many more to come.

  6. Rick Parkinson 01:55pm, 01/02/2016

    John Magner, Kevins manager, was my best friend in Vietnam. He died about 6 months after Kevin of an apparent heart attack at age 35. A couple of his trainers died in that time period too. I often wonder if “The Iceman”, a hit man in the Jersey City area had anything to do with un timely deaths. I knew John well enough to know if something wasn’t right about Kevins death he would not stop until he found the truth. John was a fighter too, I know that from Vietnam.

  7. Dennis mack 04:06pm, 12/24/2015

    My name is dennis mack I lived next store from the smiths. I allways looked up to the smiths. Not just kevin smith but all of them were our heros. Pat brian james susan. Wow they were the best friends you would want in your life. Keven would come home late at night after thr jym. See us kids out side he woulf bring us pixzza and say yo us. Hey kids are you guys being good. We would say oh yes keven cox he was all out mentor. I still and all ways keep kevin in my heart what a great person and role model he was and still is in my heart.

  8. Larry S. 12:49pm, 08/10/2015

    Kevin Smith will be enshrined in the NJ boxing hall of fame this Nov 2015. Looking for anyone who may have tape of any of Kevin Smith’s fights. Please contact me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The family of Kevin Smith and the hall of fame would greatly appreciate it.

  9. bob noonan 06:37pm, 07/19/2015

    Mike Quarry was filthy dirty that night

  10. eric magner 10:36am, 03/31/2015

    Kevin Smith was the real deal in the 70’s my uncle trained him

  11. Eric 12:11pm, 03/28/2015

    Magner

  12. Tom McHale 07:31pm, 03/11/2015

    Kevin was my Mentor and Guardian in Bufano’s Gym.  He’d make sure the newbies weren’t used as heavy-bags with legs by the seasoned fighters.  When sparring, even with Kevin pulling his punches, they hurt.  (It even hurt when he missed!)  I attended the Quarry fight with my Dad, also a former fighter.  Yes we are clearly bias and yes we both insist Kevin beat Mike Quarry.  Shortly after the Smith-Quarry Fight, I fought in an amateur show in Bayonne, NJ.  Mike Quarry made an appearance.  Quarry, rightfully so, signed autographs, acted as a gentleman, and a celebrity sportsman, which he was.  Quarry even wrote me a note about my fight.  Kevin attended the same amateur event.  Kevin didn’t look to sign autographs or take the celebrity route.  Instead, Kevin worked my corner and became my cut man when I received a cut above my eye.  Kevin had no problem carrying a spit bucket and ice pack while his most recent opponent paused for pics.  This was Kevin Smith.  And yes, Spinks did duck fighting Kevin.  My Kevin Smith pennant still hangs in my house today.  I miss him dearly.

  13. Terrance McGee 06:38pm, 03/11/2015

    I hung out with Kevin and we were very good friends, also with Jigger and his Mom . The entire Smith Family ..........loved them all. Princeton Ave. with the dead end kids. Im pretty sure if I’m not mistaken Kevin knocked out Otis Gorden in the rematch. 1ST round. Kevin was a great boxer & friend ,put Jersey City on the map in the 70’s.  Good times at Tierney’s on the Ocean !!

  14. sam c 09:13am, 03/11/2015

    I was at the fight, along with just about everyone from Greenville section, when he fought Quarry in Totowa. I thought Smitty edged him, and I still remember a tall well dressed guy with a big cowboy hat go over to the refs and say something, just before the decision. We were screaming, but the verdict was in.

  15. susan 03:02am, 02/04/2015

    Thank you for a nice story on Kevin, Mr.Mladinich. I should probably take my best friends advise & not answer ,but why start now. Kevin & John Duva were good friends,& if John were still here he’d tell you the ballsy one was our Mom. Of course Kevin was,& my Father, but my Mom put up with all of us & all our friends,our front was never locked when we lived in Jersey City, our friends were always welcome & then some. There was an article in the local new paper @ the time of his death, I have only read in the past 6 months since moving & opening a box long tuck away in my closet. It stated his girlfriend, Cheryl B, said he hadn’t been himself . Pure bullshit ! That kid was about 14, didn’t even live in the neighborhood. His long time girlfriend & high school was Sharon Logan,who never spoke to anyone, about anything.  Kevin couldn’t wait to fight Spinks that was going to be a big purse for 78” standards. His mind was right ! All he wanted to do is make his money in boxing, marry Sharon & get into politics. He had his whole life planned out. The “mystery” was there was no clip in the gun, so, what mystery was there really?.........Sharon, went on to become a NYC detective,& retired after20 years,she’s married to a prince of a man &  believe it or not knew your wife & you through the job, too bad you didn’t know to ask her about Kevin, she could have told you a lot more about the real Kevin R Smith.

  16. NYIrish 05:59pm, 01/07/2015

    Good article. You mention Otis Gordon stopped Kevin Smith. Gordon had the talent of a champion but not the lifestyle. He was shot in a Houston beerjoint in the early eighties.

  17. matt atwater 11:09am, 01/07/2015

    Wow really heartbreaking story about a guy who might have made to the top? Diffrents time when people were not so hyper sensitive about everything!

  18. Pete The Sneak 05:43am, 01/07/2015

    Mr. Mladinich, thanks for this very intriguing and informative article about this boxer, whom I am embarrassed to say I’d never heard of (being from NYC)...Sounds like Kevin Smith would have been the type of fighter I would have gladly paid to see, Great story…Interestingly enough, talk about ‘Ballsy,’ it appears his father was that and then some. The man was working two jobs as a mechanic and a truck driver to support his family and only had one arm? If ever there was an example of work ethic and determination a for young a man to follow, that would have been the apex of which to model yourself after…Peace.

  19. Eric 08:18pm, 01/06/2015

    Another boxer from the NY/NJ area that died under suspicous circumstances is Bill Sharkey. I would love to see the Frankie DePaula-Dick Tiger bout but I don’t think any film is available. Heard it was quite a fight. Also heard rumors that DePaula took a dive against Foster.

  20. peter 06:48pm, 01/06/2015

    Another excellent Mladinich story. I never tire of them. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—Robert Mladinich is the John Steinbeck of boxing writers. I’m from the area and I remember Smith coming up. But then it all came to a screeching halt. End of story. Smith’s abrupt and untimely exit parallels another tragic and mysterious Jersey City death, Frankie DePaula’s.

  21. Clarence George 01:13pm, 01/06/2015

    Like Eric, I, too, never heard of Kevin Smith.  But I’m delighted to make his acquaintance.  The mystery surrounding his death is particularly intriguing.

    Excellent write-up, Bob, per uje.

  22. Eric 12:30pm, 01/06/2015

    Had Smith been around at the time of ‘80 or ‘81 and his career was still progressing, a Smith-Rossman bout would have been intriguing. Rossman was past it by a bit and I’m sure those few extra years of maturing and gaining experience for Smith, would have made for a competitive matchup with Rossman. Smith would have still been young enough to be fighting in the Bobby Czyz light heavyweight era. Another possible marquee matchup with local ties. His tragic end was really quite a shame. Don’t know how he would have done against the elite of the 175lb division but he probably could have made some entertaining matchups with the guys a notch or two below.

  23. Pete 11:42am, 01/06/2015

    Another successful defense by Bob Mladinich of his title as the best boxing writer around.

  24. Eric 10:35am, 01/06/2015

    Never heard of Kevin Smith. Followed boxing closely back in the late ‘70’s. As you noted, this was a great time for boxing, thanks mainly to the ‘76 Olympic team and the movie Rocky. I’m sure he was a big hit locally in the NY/NJ area, but for those of us outside that area, the name doesn’t ring a bell.  Sounds like he would have been a heck of fighter, drawing with a seasoned veteran like Mike Quarry was quite an accomplishment for a 20 year old. Quarry might have been slipping at that point but he was still a world class fighter. Problem is that Kevin would have been facing some real monsters had he moved on up the rankings. The light heavy division would have been quite a test for any fighter looking to move up back in the late 70’s-early 80’s.

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