'Only a few can say they are the best': Callum Smith interview
Photos: Al Bello / Getty images
Now widely regarded as the number one super-middleweight on the planet, Callum Smith tells Mark Butcher he is eyeing further glories after fulfilling his considerable potential with a world title in a breakthrough 2018. The Liverpudlian faces Hassan N'Dam this Saturday on the undercard to Anthony Joshua vs Andy Ruiz Jr...
Last September, Callum Smith (25-0, 18 KOs) showed himself to be the elite operator his supporters always believed, triumphing in the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) with a masterful seventh-round stoppage over the fancied George Groves to earn the ‘WBA Super’ crown and hefty Muhammad Ali Trophy but, perhaps more importantly, acknowledgement as the best fighter at his weight.
In the unlikely setting of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Smith’s quiet, self-belief was emphatically justified, dispelling the prevailing notion that the seasoned Groves would know too much.
“It’s okay believing you’re going to do it, but actually going out and doing it is a different thing,” a relaxed Smith told Boxing Monthly over the phone. “I was pleased I did it by beating the number one in the division. I didn’t want to win a version of the world title and be sitting sixth or seventh in the division and say I’m champion of the world when, realistically, I’m not.
“There are a lot of people who can claim they are a world champion, but only a few who can say they are the best in the world. Thankfully, I believe I’m in that position now and I don’t want to stop there.”
Smith looked remarkably composed in his stiffest test to date. A study in concentration, he diffused Groves’ stellar jab early on before his heavier hands eventually overwhelmed the champion in the seventh.
“I always believed I had the power to hurt him,” said Smith. “I’ve seen him hurt numerous times before, whether it’s been fights or in gyms. I knew if I landed [effectively], I could hurt him. I was nullifying and dealing with his jab earlier than I expected. I thought in the first round I was matching him for boxing ability and, if I can beat him at this game, I can beat him at any.
“A lot of people say I looked comfortable, but I was always switched on. George was a big puncher and I knew with one mistake it could all change. I couldn’t afford to switch off the way I had in previous fights. I always felt I was in control and, if the fight was to get tougher, I still had more to give. I remember I hurt him early in the fight and Joe [Gallagher] saying in the corner, ‘You don’t have to go looking for it. You will land throughout the fight. He’s always going to be there. Just take your time and the shot will come.’ When it did land, I knew he was ready to go.”
Groves had been largely favoured on the basis of a dominant semi-final victory over the heavily hyped Chris Eubank Jr. overshadowing Smith’s workman-like tournament wins over lesser lights Erik Skoglund and Nieky Holzken. Yet the Liverpool man has a tendency of raising and lowering his performance levels to match the strength of his opposition.
“The people who still picked me to win believed I was underperforming because of the level of opposition,” he agreed. “They believed I could do better and I obviously knew that myself, but a lot of people didn’t. Boxing fans, as good as they are, are fickle and judge you on your last performance. Mine wasn’t the best and people read into the Eubank hype and classed Groves’ win over him bigger than it probably was. I felt I was a completely different opponent to Eubank and possessed a lot more threat to George. But I also knew it was a tough fight and, if I didn’t perform and George did, there was a chance I would lose. That probably brought the best performance out of me.”
Smith is one of a select band of fighters (okay, one) to win a world title in Jeddah and, naturally, reflects on the experience fondly while rightly pondering why an all-British fight of that magnitude did not take place on home ground.
“In years to come I can tell people I went to Jeddah to win a world title. It sounds a bit better than Manchester Arena or the O2 Arena!” he laughed. “But, in all honesty, I think the fight deserved to be in the UK with a big home crowd. On fight night, the atmosphere was better than I expected, but I think the same people were cheering when George landed and I landed!
"If it was at home, the atmosphere would have been more rowdy. There would have been my fans cheering and Groves’ fans cheering for him, but we both probably had a handful who managed to get visas. The atmosphere wasn’t quite the same as I’ve seen in other big British world title fights, but the minute the bell went there is only certain voices I hear anyway.”
After his career had been cast into limbo during protracted and frustrating negotiations for a vacant WBC title fight with Anthony Dirrell, Smith’s gamble to enter the inaugural WBSS tournament paid off handsomely. Now the man to beat in the division, Smith is flushed with options with unification matches high on his agenda in 2019 as well as the lure of mega-fights with Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin. The Mexican star has already taken a brief excursion into super-middleweight territory, scoring a crushing three-round win over Smith’s old foe Rocky Fielding in December though a immediate return to middleweight is widely expected.
“I don’t think he stays at super-middle,” said Smith. “I think it was just a smash and grab – one fight at the weight above then go back down. Of course, he’s a threat. He’s a special fighter, ability-wise. He dealt with the size well enough against Fielding though I think [Rocky] kind of played into his hands. He let him close the space down a little too easy and probably froze a bit, but Canelo, good as he is, makes up for his lack of size.
"It’s definitely a fight I’d love to be involved in, but I haven’t really spoken about it because I don’t [anticipate] him staying [at 168lbs]. I believe he’ll go back down and fight [Daniel] Jacobs or [Jermall] Charlo or maybe Golovkin in a third match.
“There’s been lots of articles about me fighting Golovkin, but no official talks [as of late December 2018]. I think it’s just a fight people would like to see. They do a tweet about it and it catches fire. Everyone keeps asking me, ‘Am I fighting Golovkin?’ but nothing’s been spoken about. The plan after the [Groves] fight was to have a bit of time off, try and switch off from boxing, if possible.
Smith's daughter Alba was born in January and it was a deliberate move on his part to delay his ring return until now, when he faces Cameroon-born N'Dam this weekend.
“I’ve always been a big believer in there’s more to life in boxing. Boxing is a part of my life, but family is more important.”
As most observers’ king of the super-middleweights, Smith hopes to eventually annex the other 168lbs titles; a notoriously difficult task given the inherent politics of the sport, but a genuine statement of his intent. Among his rivals, former WBO title-holder Gilberto Ramirez has moved up to 175lbs after a series of flat performances, but Smith has long believed their futures are entwined.
“I’ve always said I rate Ramirez,” Smith told BM. “He’s a very good fighter, tall, southpaw; he can fight inside, he can fight at distance. He looks hard to beat. I feel that the weight has been hurting him. It’s showed in his last few performances. He’s lost some of his sharpness. From a few years ago, it was him I kept my eye on. Whether it is at 168lbs or 175lbs, I feel our paths will cross at some point in the future.
“When I first saw [IBF champion] Jose Uzcategui, I thought he was a bit raw and heavy-handed,” added Smith. “Then I watched his two fights with [Andre] Dirrell and he’s a bit more than that. He’s an educated pressure fighter, he’s clever. I rate him a lot more.
“The same with [WBC champion in recess] David Benavidez. He’s a good fighter. He showed a few flaws in the first [Ronald] Gavril fight. He’s still a bit green, but only turned 22 the other day so, without doubt, he’s going to keep improving. The time to beat him is probably now. All four champions are probably as good as each other. They’d all be considered relatively 50-50 fights, which isn’t the case in most divisions. I want to cement myself as the best in the division. I’ve set a few goals for myself and unification fights are a big part of that. I’m with a good team and think those fights can be made.”
Given his towering 6ft 3ins frame, almost monster status at 168lbs, a move to the vibrant light-heavyweight division seems inevitable with Smith possessing all the tools to flourish at the higher poundage. “It’s not easy to make the weight. I am massive for it,” he admitted. “But I’ve seen when someone struggles for the weight and I’m not there just yet. Two-weight world champion is something I would like to achieve. I believe I will move to 175lbs, but I don’t feel it will be immediately unless the right fight or offer comes in.”
Smith’s ascendancy to the pinnacle of his weight added further lustre to the astonishing story of four boxing brothers from Liverpool, who graduated from childhood spars in the family living room to each reign as British champions before taking on the world.
“It’s hard to put into words. We’re very close, regardless of whether we’re brothers or not,” mused Smith. “We see each other every day whether it’s socialising or in the gym working together. I’m lucky that my brothers have been there and done it. They know exactly what I’m going through and what I’m thinking.
“People have always asked me if I feel pressure being the youngest, but I found the opposite. I benefited massively. I’ve been at [their] world title fights. I’ve been in the changing rooms. I’ve done a ring walk with Liam in front of 50,000 Mexicans against Canelo and that helped me in the long run. When it was my turn to walk to the ring for a world title fight, it wasn’t a big shock. I didn’t feel out of my depth. I felt I had been there before.
“It’s a good story,” he reflected. “We probably won’t realise ourselves what we’re doing until we’re all finished, and look back and think it was a good journey. I always try and enjoy every minute of it because it does go pretty quick. I remember being 12 years old and watching Paul in the Commonwealth Games and now he’s retired and, if you ask him, he’ll probably say it went in the blink of an eye. Me winning a world title probably felt like Stephen, Paul and Liam had all won themselves. We are that close as a family and I don’t think we’re finished yet.”
A version of this article previously appeared in Boxing Monthly magazine