The Memory Bank: Part Thirteen

By Ted Sares on July 20, 2012
The Memory Bank: Part Thirteen
Billy Costello and was the clear underdog going into their fray at Madison Square Garden.

“Lightning” Lonnie Smith was 21-0-1 when he fought Billy Costello at Madison Square Garden on August 21, 1985…

“Inspiration really can’t be measured, but you recognize it when you see it; it’s palpable. On any number of occasions, I saw fighters win against great odds seemingly inspired to go beyond their self-imposed limitations—to stretch parameters of possibilities beyond the norm.”—From the author’s book Reeling in the Years: Boxing and More

“He (Billy Costello) was a world champion, he could have fought anywhere he wanted, but he chose to fight in Kingston because he loved this town…He just wanted to bring it back to Kingston.”—Family friend, Joe La Lima.

“Lonnie was a very quick handed guy with a wicked snap to his work, but in life he is far more quick witted and funny than you would imagine.”—Poster named Bigcat

The Setting

“Lightning” Lonnie Smith was 21-0-1 when he fought Billy Costello at Madison Square Garden on August 21, 1985. The WBC light welterweight was title at stake. Costello, a popular blue-collar champion of sorts with a good left hook and a suspect chin, was 30-0 at the time having won the title in 1984 with a stoppage over tough but worn Bruce Curry. He then defended it successfully three times against Ronnie Shields, Saul Mamby, and Leroy Haley. Each fight was in Costello’s home town of Kingston, NY, a working-class town of 27,000 people that lies by the Hudson River, 90 miles north of Manhattan.

Costello was from humble beginnings but he soon became known as “The King of Kingston.”  As writer Michael Rivest put it, “Some of the biggest names of the 1980s welterweight division tasted defeat in the house Costello built…Being a champion wasn’t just a title to Costello. It was a responsibility to his Kingston fans.”
Smith was from Northeast Denver, but he was a staple in both Las Vegas and Atlantic City (particularly at the Resorts International). In fact, he fought nine times in Atlantic City and won his first seven in Las Vegas, but he was not nearly as well known as Costello and was the clear underdog going into their fray at the Garden.

The Fight

Things started out according to script when Smith was decked in the first round by a quick right, but then, on this particular evening in New York City, Lonnie Smith kept his composure and quickly and unexpectedly became the “baddest man on the planet,” much as Buster Douglas would be five years later. It was all about inspiration and fighting beyond one’s limits. All of a sudden Lonnie was fast, powerful, and punched from odd and discordant angles using every inch of the ring with smooth side-to-side right to left and then left to right foot movement. Billy was up against someone who seemed to be an early clone of Roy Jones Jr., with the same athleticism, speed, defense and accuracy. It was Apollo Creed manhandling a stalking but frustrated Rocky Balboa.

Lightning Lonnie lived up to his nickname as he potshotted Costello for most of the fight. He confused and demoralized the flat and somewhat mechanical Kingston native. Lonnie decked him an astounding five times. Billy was floored twice in the second, once in the fifth, and twice in the eighth, forcing referee Louis Rivera to halt the action as a stunned pro-Costello crowd watched in silence. Billy had taken a savage roundhouse right uppercut that put him down and when he staggered up, he was on Queer Street. The fight probably should have been stopped then and there but it was academic. Smith showed the killer instinct of a seasoned closer as he launched a savage flurry punctuated by a short blistering left hook to Costello’s jaw to finish the job; Lonnie was incredible, he was like an apparition.

Reinforcing the fight’s singular shock and awe, Lonnie incredibly would lose his next fight (and title) to tough Rene Arredondo via 5th round TKO. However, he did have a shoulder injury and this could well have contributed to the shocking loss. Later, in 1991, he took on WBC Light Welterweight titleholder Julio César Chávez (75-0 coming in), but lost a one-sided decision and lost it badly. Lightning Lonnie would never again fight for a title; he retired in 1999 after a loss to Diosbelys Hurtado. His final record was 45-6-2, but aside from that one memorable night in August 1985 he never could win when he stepped up, suggesting to some that he may have been a one-trick pony.

If so, he pulled off one heck of a trick.

These days, Lonnie operates Lightning Lonnie’s Fitness Learning Center, a collaborative community center that incorporates fitness and learning programs to provide positive outlets for urban youth.

As for Billy, he fought three-time champion Alexis Arguello (75-7 at the time) in February 1986 and was well ahead on points until he got drilled by one of Arguello’s patented long rights in round four that quickly led to a stoppage loss. Costello then took some six years off; he came back in 1992 to win his last nine bouts finishing with a 40-2 mark. All in all, Costello’s professional career had lasted an amazing 20 years, from 1979–1999, and ended with a UD win over a former world champion Juan Laporte in 1999. HBO’s “Legends of Boxing” franchise had offered him a chance for that one last payday. After retiring from fighting, Costello worked in building and road construction, as a boxing judge, and with young people in Kingston’s Police Athletic League boxing club.

Sadly, the beloved Billy passed away in 2011 at the young age of 55 from a particularly deadly form of lung cancer that afflicts non-smokers. Tributes poured in from throughout the boxing world.

Postscript: Another memorable (and potentially scandalous) thing about this fight was the scoring at the time of the stoppage. Judge Carol Castellano correctly had Smith winning 67-63, but judges Tony Perez and Bill Graham had Costello in the lead 65-64 and 66-64, respectively. There were other stories behind the story, including the way in which Smith was not paid and the almost empty house at the Garden, but those are minor compared to the real story here which is about a fight in which one of the combatants won against all odds by stretching himself beyond the parameters.

The Memory Bank: Part One
The Memory Bank: Part Two
The Memory Bank: Part Three
The Memory Bank: Part Four
The Memory Bank: Part Five
The Memory Bank: Part Six
The Memory Bank: Part Seven
The Memory Bank: Part Eight
The Memory Bank: Part Nine
The Memory Bank: Part Ten
The Memory Bank: Part Eleven
The Memory Bank: Part Twelve
The Memory Bank: Part Thirteen

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  1. the thresher 06:06pm, 07/22/2012

    This in from Daniel McGarvie on FACEBOOK:

    friends & boxing brothers please add MICHAEL DOKES in your prayers he is in his last days with liver Cancer .. GOD BLESS you CHAMP.. never to be forgotten

  2. raxman 04:29pm, 07/22/2012

    another good read ted. keep it up

  3. Tex Hassler 05:28pm, 07/21/2012

    Billy Costello may be gone but he is certainly not forgotten. He always made a brave effort when he was in the ring. Thanks for the article Mr. Sares.

  4. the thresher 04:00pm, 07/21/2012

    word MrBill, word!

  5. MRBILL-HARDCORE XXX 02:40pm, 07/21/2012

    I have a video of “Smith-Costello.” Lon Smith looked like the new hot shot on the block after smoking Costello like the Marlboro man. Costello had no legs and no chin for the fight, and the beating he sustained ruined him. Costello was later waxed by Arguello inside 4 rds…...

  6. the thresher 05:55am, 07/21/2012

    Jude, there was quite a lawsuit filed by Lonnie when they refused to pay him. I don’t know how it came out, but it appeared he had been stiffed something awful.

    Actually, there was TV for the fight and Al Bernstein did the honors. Billy had gotten great TV exposure in the past but this exposure was local and limited.  Camacho was running all over the place making an asshole out of himself, and the Garden was as empty as a tomb execpt for ringside seats. All in all, a real nightmare for all concerned.

  7. pugknows 10:41pm, 07/20/2012

    Another gem. Great memory, Ted. Great account of a great performance. Thanks.

  8. Jude Kaldi 06:56pm, 07/20/2012

    Another aspect about this fight was that the promoter lost his ass on it.  There was no TV for it and the Garden was practically empty; it was the promoter’s first and last fight.

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