Stephen Smith: Adding up at last
Stephen ‘Swifty’ Smith is quite possibly the toughest accountant in the world. The IBF’s No.1 contender at 130lbs is equally adept at crunching numbers as he is crippling left hooks to the body.
There were times the Liverpool man, a qualified accountant, pondered his future in the fight game after suffering a succession of injuries and a debilitating double dose of kidney stones, but he never stopped believing.
That faith was vindicated in September as Smith paved the way for a shot at IBF champion Jose Pedraza by accounting for Devis Boschiero in six, almost dismissive rounds of a final eliminator widely regarded as a career-best performance.
Former WBC title challenger Boschiero, never before stopped and noted for his durability, tasted the canvas five times as the livewire Smith belaboured him downstairs in an astute display of box-fighting. At the most pivotal time in his career it seems as if Smith (23-1, 13 KOs) is finding his finest form.
“Sometimes in camps things just go well and you feel strong in sparring and I am always confident in my punch so I felt I could get an impressive result,” Smith told Boxing Monthly over the phone from his Liverpool home. “I’d trained hard for a good, tough 12 rounds. I knew he was durable, the only fights he’d lost were two split decisions and the other by a couple of points on each card. I knew he was strong. But scoring the five knockdowns and getting him out in six – I couldn’t really complain with that!”
Smith, like his fighting brothers Callum, Liam and Paul, is under the shrewd guidance of Manchester trainer Joe Gallagher who instills a siege mentality in his fighters but, more importantly, improves them incrementally with subtle adjustments and an educated punch variety. Even while he was injured or drained by illness, Smith was watching and learning from the sidelines.
“A lot of people wondered if I would be hindered by the periods of inactivity, where I have had an injury or a setback like the kidney stones, but during the time I spent out of the ring I was always in the gym with Joe. I never leave. I learn from him as much in the gym as I do in the fights,” explained Smith.
“With the amount Joe puts in to boxing, his dedication to the sport and training, it’s refreshing for us to box for him. It makes it that much easier to learn and put the work in when you see how much your trainer wants it for you. I feel like I am improving all the time under Joe and I believe it will carry on with a world title.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t [have career doubts]. There were times I’d come home from the gym and be lying on the bed with another injury. The first time with the kidney stones I was in Germany and meant to be boxing. I’d put all the training in and made the sacrifices - I’m a dad now with two little lads – and it felt like I was just not getting the luck. There’s got to be easier ways making a living, now I’m 30 and I’ve got accountancy. Things seemed to be going wrong, little things out of my control and I was thinking, ‘Maybe it’s not for me’. But the other side of me said, ‘Come on, keep going, your time will come, you’ll get your luck’. I just tried to keep the belief in that, really. Thankfully, it looks like it’s paying off for me now with a big fight coming next.”
That ‘big fight’ will take place on 26 March in New York against skillful Puerto Rican switch-hitter Pedraza, the reigning IBF 130lbs champion, undefeated in 21 contests (12 KOs) and represented by the influential and ubiquitous Al Haymon. In the form of his career, it’s a challenge Smith accepts willingly.
“I think Pedraza is a very good fighter. I rate him,” said Smith. “As an orthodox fighter, he is exciting to watch, he can throw good shots. Typical Puerto Rican, head and body, but his last few fights he has been boxing southpaw where he is more safety first, probably not as good to watch for the public.
“He’s probably a bit more difficult to prepare for because he switches a lot, but it’s a fight I would be very confident going into. I don’t struggle at all with southpaws. I think the way Joe is we would have a plan A, B and C, whichever way he came out.”
A former British champion at 126lbs and 130lbs, Smith has been a boxer transformed at the higher poundage after struggling badly with weight loss in his featherweight days. “Since I’ve moved up I think I’ve proved I’m a different fighter,” explained Smith, who won Commonwealth Gold (2006) and successive ABA featherweight titles (2006 and 2007) in a decorated amateur career. “I’ve got more strength and feel more 100% in myself when I’m in the ring, rather than just being good in the gym before I had to lose the 4lbs. Not having the same strength, the same punch. Since moving up, every title fight I’ve had, I’ve won by knockout. The only fights that have gone to points have been the little tick over jobs.
“There’s some really good fights across the weight,” he continued. “It’s tough at world level, but I probably wouldn’t have it another way. I want to win a world title and get the credit for it and the respect that I haven’t been given. I’ve had to win an eliminator, a final eliminator and, touch wood, I’ll go and win the world title and people will respect me for it - that I’ve done it properly.”
A GREAT MUM BY ALL ACCOUNTS
Fighter/accountants are a rarity, but Stephen Smith’s contrasting talents mean he has a ready-made career lined up when he hangs up the gloves. “Accountancy could be something I go back into after boxing if needs be. I thank my mum [Margaret] for that, really,” said Smith. “She knew I was bright in school and, when I came home, she would say, ‘Make sure you get your homework done or you’re not going to the gym’ and, obviously, the gym was my life. Maths was always my favourite subject and the one I seemed to take to and that’s why I went into accountancy after school. I made sure I did what I had to do so I could go to the gym. It paid off in the end because I did well in school and always have that to fall back on.”