Short Notice: A Life of James “Bonecrusher” Smith

By Brian D'Ambrosio on June 19, 2013
Short Notice: A Life of James “Bonecrusher” Smith
Smith came to the awareness that he could successfully redirect his resentment. (Ecksel)

“The world title came because I was so mad about that seven days’ notice. I was so mad about the short notice. But, you know, hey, life is short notice…”

Born on a sharecropper’s farm in April of 1953, James Smith’s work ethic may be traced to the dirt and soil of Magnolia, North Carolina.

The third child of eight, James was a rural kid who grew up chopping firewood, lifting hay bales and sacks of peanuts, stacking bags of fertilizer, and cleaning and preparing vegetables to sell at his dad’s produce business. He ate home-raised chickens and the hogs he and his family slaughtered on site. He was a self-described “little, scrawny kid,” who didn’t wish to leave the comforts of mom and dad. 

That little, scrawny kid’s path to a world boxing championship began at P.E. Williams Elementary School.

His first-grade teacher, annoyed by his fussing, whipped him with a fan belt that she had taken straight off of an old car. She then sent a note home saying he had disrupted the class, and that led to more lashings from both of his parents.

“Back then, if you got a whipping at school,” says Smith. “You got one more when you got home, too. I got another whipping from my momma and daddy. I decided then I was going to finish school, and I was going to whip somebody.”

James Smith belted plenty of people in 18 years of boxing.

A basketball standout in high school and All-Conference player, he became a boxer in the US Army at the age of 23. He turned to boxing after he had graduated from Shaw University with a business degree.

“At that time, it was just a dream,” says Smith. “But every success starts with a dream.”

In Smith’s first amateur bout at the United States military post in Leighton Barracks, Wurzburg, Germany, he made short work of the opposition. 

“I knocked him straight out of his shoes,” says Smith.

Smith won the army base heavyweight championship and was soon touring other military bases and cities. His mode of operation was swift and severe: rush in on an opponent and try to break his jaw or nose or a rib with one or two hearty blows. In fact, one night someone who was well-acquainted with Smith’s ferocious formula shouted out the name “Bonecrusher.” Sweet melody to Smith’s ears, the moniker stuck.

“Bonecrusher” turned pro in 1981 after leaving the service, dropping his first bout to the more experienced James Broad. He earned $300 for the ESPN-televised fight against Broad, the previous year’s Olympic Trials Champion. Broad didn’t get the chance to represent the United States, which, outraged by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, boycotted the Moscow Olympic Games.

“Every round seemed to go on forever,” says Smith. “He stopped me in the fourth.”

After putting together a 13-fight win streak, Smith traveled to England in May 1984 and knocked out undefeated Brit Frank Bruno in ten rounds.
“I came from behind. Bruno got tired of hitting me, I came back and I knocked him out.”

His next bout, with the 44-0 Larry Holmes, was for the IBF Heavyweight Championship; Smith was stopped on a cut in the twelfth round.

From there, Smith’s trajectory seesawed: the highs included victories over Mike Weaver and Jose Ribalta and losses to Tim Witherspoon and Marvis Frazier. One night in December 1986, the phone rang; Don King invited him to participate in a WBA heavyweight title fight against Witherspoon. 

“People forget that I took the fight on one week’s notice,” says Smith. “Tony Tubbs dropped out and I took the fight.”

Smith, who had been outpointed by Witherspoon the previous year, identified dishonest intent in the offer. He says he was mad at Don King and the boxing world, because he felt as if the rematch with Witherspoon was a setup, a charade, a fight he wasn’t supposed to win.

“That made me mad. It was only the second time in my life that I was that mad.”

Smith channeled that anger into a one-round blitz of Witherspoon.

“I knew that the longer the fight went on, the stronger Witherspoon would become, so I hit him with shots and power and strength. It was unbelievable. I got him in trouble fast. I beat him from pillar to post. I got mad and started throwing heavy leather upside his head. I was notified seven days earlier to take on the guy who whipped me the year before, and knocked him out in the first round for a world title. I can’t tell you how that felt.”

Smith says that the Witherspoon rematch forced him to make not just a boxing decision, but an overall life decision. He came to the awareness that he could successfully redirect his resentment.

“I realized that it’s okay to get mad,” says Smith. “It’s what you do after you get mad that counts. Some people live and never learn it. They live a lifetime and never learn. Getting mad gave me that extra energy and gave me that extra push.”

Smith relinquished the crown three months later when he lost a 12-round unanimous decision to WBC heavyweight titlist Mike Tyson, a man who channeled his own fearsome rage into a spectacular art form.

That unification bout took place in Las Vegas, Nevada, in March 1987. Smith, predicted by some to not even last one round, fought cautiously, incurring point deductions for excessive holding. Tyson tried everything he could to get in one good shot. In the closing seconds of the last round, Smith landed the best punch of the fight. 

“It was hard to hit Tyson,” says Smith. “Hey, I hit Tyson. Mike came out hard in the first round, he was knocking them out in the first round.”

Smith saw his career dip further with a 10-round loss to Adilson Rodriques and a seventh-round knockout loss to Donovan “Razor” Ruddock. Smith continued to fight all over the world, including Canada, Australia, France, and Germany, wrapping up on June 18, 1999, a rematch with Larry Holmes. The 49-year-old Holmes brought the 46-year-old Smith’s career to a close in eight rounds.

“The thing about Larry was that he had so much experience, a really good jab. We were old men that second fight.”

Smith ended up with a pro record of 44 wins, 17 losses and one draw. Despite victories over Frank Bruno and Mike Weaver, and the monumental upset of Witherspoon, along with the close losses to Larry Holmes and Tony Tubbs, perhaps Smith has been a bit overshadowed by the fractious, short-term nature of 1980s heavyweight boxing. 

Branding himself as the only heavyweight champion to own a college degree, Smith recently published a book, “M.A.D. Make A Decision.” Smith says that proceeds from the book sales will benefit a youth-oriented, non-profit mentorship he has established called Champion for Kids, Inc.

Inside, he writes about how daily life comes with decisions and their consequences, and how you have to live with both. We learn that boxing has taught him to step back, avoid conflict. He discusses that the extreme scope of sensations he experienced in the boxing ring taught him to keep cool during confrontations.

“I always wanted to write it. When I looked around, I saw a lot of people on edge, buying guns, blowing people up, shooting people, shooting their families, everyone a little mad about something. I thought I could tell people about those two times I got so mad. I didn’t shoot nobody the way people do today.”

Smith lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he runs a summer boxing camp, operates a travel business, and dabbles in other business ventures.

“Just think about it, I’m sixty years old,” laughs Smith. “I’m an old man now.”

Yet, the champion’s programmed propensity for healthy regimen is strong.

“I’m eating a tuna salad right now,” says Smith. “I’m in great shape for an old man. Sometimes when I’m out at boxing conventions, I’ll see some pitiful guys. Instead of drinking water, they drink liquor. They abuse their body. Not me.”

Smith then once more reflects on the source of motivation that pushed a North Carolina farm kid from a one stoplight town to success on the world stage. 

“The world title came because I was so mad about that seven days’ notice. I was so mad about the short notice. But, you know, hey, life is short notice.”

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Cliff 09:19am, 08/03/2013

    Great article! Bonecrusher could punch and had underrated speed. That counter he put on Witherspoon ( 5:24 ) is how Tim lost his front tooth. You can see him spit it out ( 6:20 ). Again great article!

  2. FrankinDallas 12:37pm, 06/21/2013

    Bonecrusher remains one of my favorite boxers. His wins over Bruno and Witherspoon were epic. He and Pinklon Thomas were funny guys.

  3. Jason 07:16pm, 06/20/2013

    Love this site. The 80s era. Always an entertaining bunch.

  4. Kurt 02:49pm, 06/20/2013

    I recall sitting in my 2nd row seat at the Las Vegas Hilton Arena watching Bonecrusher hold Tyson the entire fight.  What people don’t know or forget is, you could NOT place a bet at the Hilton Sports Book on Tyson to simply win the fight. You could only place a bet on Tyson to win by Knockout. Everyone thought Tyson would KO Smith so we bet anyhow.  The rest is painful $$ history.

  5. Pete The Sneak 05:24am, 06/20/2013

    Nice write up man. If you read the first few paragraphs of this article carefully and then stop, you could easily think that this will be a write up about Joe Frazier (same humble beginnings). But that’s where the comparison ends. Bonecrusher was an entertaining boxer and the way he smoked Terrible Tim (against all odds) was something to behold. However the Tyson fight, which was brutal to watch, where he was just holding on for dear life had soured me on him (and apparently most of the Boxing media at the time, which ended up dubbing him ‘BoneClutcher’ Smith). Still, the guy could swat when he was fighting and he did provide some very compelling moments in 1980’s Heavyweight Boxing. As for his after Boxing Life, well in reading this piece it tells you that Mr. Smith gets it. The man is moving forward and doing some things that will benefit others. Don’t get no better than that. And lastly, his quote:  “I realized that it’s okay to get mad, It’s what you do after you get mad that counts. Some people live and never learn it.” This should be posted in every school and learning institution in the US. Teachers can discuss with kids what that means, and hopefully it may curtail some future Columbine or other school/student tragedy’s from occurring. (Hey, I can hope, can’t I?)...Peace.

  6. Michael Hegan 05:17am, 06/20/2013

    Thank you Brian ...for a fine read..

  7. Michael Hegan 05:15am, 06/20/2013

    Glad to read that Bonecrusher is well and feeling fine…in his life after the ring.
    I had no idea he took that Witherspoon HW Title CHallenge on seven days notice !!!  I thought Chuvalo taking his match with Ali on 17 days notice was a tuff nut.

    Smith had the right fight plan…and he went ALL IN…in the first part of the fight….Surprised Witherspoon, who was a little overconfident…or distracted.

    I remember WItherspoon….in an later interview about how he felt about Don King…..” I remember being knocked down…and as I looked up…I saw Don King stepping over me…”

    I think Witherspoon got thirty thousand dollars out of his purses with Don King…

  8. Clarence George 01:51am, 06/20/2013

    Never had much interest in “Bonecrusher”...until now.  Nice narrative.

  9. Mike Schmidt 12:33am, 06/20/2013

    Really nice article—smooth—Brian. I was coming out of the “Rusty Rail” two weeks ago at the Hall of Fame with some friends and standing by a car, by himself, is Champion Smith—a very very pleasant guy—nice chat and some great pictures with the guys. HUGE MITTS ON THE GUY—would not want to get hit by those!!! Seriously though—you wouldn’t meet a nicer guy—keep em coming Sir!!!

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