By Richard Hubbard
“I was a champion before and now I feel I am training like a champion”
When Mitchell Smith last occupied this interview slot at the back end of August last year he was seemingly riding the crest of a wave. He had just got wind of the fact that the Young Boxer of the Year award was to be bestowed on him by the Boxing Writers Club and he was also getting ready to hang out the ‘Gone Fishing’ sign and head to Thailand to take his place in an ITV4 angling contest.
He had a date lined up with George Jupp in his home town of Harrow for the end of October and the plan, he claimed at the time, was to kick-start his training in the steamy climes of Krabi.
As viewers of the recently broadcast Big Fish Off might have noted, there was little evidence of any strenuous exercise going on as the 23-year-old suffered an eventual defeat to reality star Ricky Rayment.
It was all good fun and heavyweight catches, but training was the one that got away.
A further – far more pungent – taste of defeat came in December at the Manchester Arena when his match with Jupp was finally rescheduled.
Out of condition and contending with a niggling hand problem, Smith conceded he had no hopes of making the Harrow home fixture and the demons were creeping in. Getting fighting fit for a tug at the Xmas Cracker card in Manchester was also proving a tall order, but he pressed on, perhaps also pressing the self-destruct button at the same time.
King Mitch was unceremoniously dislodged from his throne by Jupp, weight-drained, having failed to prepare, he now faced up to a first career failure.
The loss of his WBO Intercontinental title hit him harder than anything Jupp could throw at him on the night and many on social media revelled in his despair, given the provocative nature of most of his own prior posts.
But it was not just the points defeat Smith needed to get out of his head, his troubled mind was in need of cleansing and an enforced sabbatical was duly taken. There was no danger of him rushing back to the ring as he injured his hand in a fit of rage on returning to his dressing room.
His time-out was productively spent questioning whether he actually wanted to continue trading punches for a living.
“I’ve spent five months enjoying myself outside of boxing and I sort of needed to get to grips with whether I wanted to do it anymore,” he revealed. “It was tough getting over the defeat, but the main thing was I felt like I let myself down, because I didn’t train as hard as I should of as I thought the fight was going to be easy.
“I really did (consider quitting), you’ve got to understand that we don’t earn any money unless we fight. I’ve got a daughter to look after, a flat to run and a missus that wants to do things as well. There are things in life that I want to do and sometimes finances get tight.
“I know, in the long run, there is a lot of money that could be made from the boxing game, but it is getting there with blips that crop up and injuries. Things happen that you can’t control.”
He accepts, however, that he was the architect of his own downfall by not switching back on to fight mode on his return from Thailand, for motoring on with life in the fast lane and neglecting the day job. One which involves discipline and abstinence.
“I didn’t do anything, I was out partying and eating what I wanted to. I suppose I lacked hunger for that fight, I had everything there given to me sort of thing. I came back from that holiday and stayed out partying, socialising, eating… I had like two stone to lose so I had to pull out of the Harrow show because of weight really, although I had a slight niggle on my hand.
“That wasn’t the main reason, which was I was carrying a lot of weight. Even when December came it all came round too quick. I should’ve pulled out of the fight, but it’s one of those things now.
“In life you learn little things here and there. I lacked hunger for that fight because I thought that I had sparred George Jupp and dealt with him so easily while unfit in the gym. I was offered a bigger and better fight for that show and turned it down because I was like ‘I might as well take the easier fight’.
“It turned out to be the complete opposite.”
Jupp displayed the movement and patience to defuse the bombs unloaded by the renowned knockout artist, while keeping busy enough to impress the judges and rack up the rounds. Smith was running on empty and attempting to rely on his equaliser to get him out of bother.
He went on to reveal the extent of his pre-fight torment, which goes some way towards explaining the irrational and overly aggressive behaviour he displayed towards a passive Jupp at the press conference and weigh-in, which had nothing to do with ratcheting up the ante for the punters or boosting his profile.
“What it was is that I knew I didn’t have it in my locker, I knew I wouldn’t be able to work hard for three minutes of a round and be able to do that for ten rounds. I hadn’t trained enough for it.
“I was in bad condition for the fight, I jumped on the scales at 9st 4lbs, but fat. I was carrying weight, dehydrated, was on antidepressants, on sleeping tablets, I had bad anxiety. I was just in a bad way and I think it was a build-up of alcohol, partying and then coming to reality and thinking ‘shit, I’ve got a fight night in three weeks’.
“It was pretty much three weeks before my fight that I came down really, really depressed. It was the case that I still had 17lbs to go and got very down. I knew that I couldn’t do it healthily and I would have to kill myself to do it. It just got worse and worse and worse.
“I didn’t want to let anyone down and there was no-one to blame but myself.
“I know I tried to break him mentally. I thought if I could get into his head, make him stand there and want to have a tear-up with me. At the time I had drained so much of my weight and my legs were not going to work, so I thought the only way of doing it was to make him stand there holding his feet so I could f**king ping him.
“I was flat and on a lot of medication and I changed as a person throughout Christmas as well, all the way through to January and stopped seeing my daughter because I was told the best thing for me to do was go and clear my head as I was acting out of character.”
Smith kept his issues pretty much to himself, not exactly suffering in silence, but he knows what himself or his trainer at the time, Jason Rowland, should have done. Put in a call to the promoter and be pulled from the show. His absence on a card 200-odd miles from home wouldn’t have been a show-stopper.
“There are things that have happened in my career where I believe I can’t blame everything on myself. I’ve been able to get away with a lot that I should never have got away with.
“That’s not me putting Jason down, it’s just that I think I got away with too much where I was. That was my downfall.
“I look back now and think ‘how did I let myself get in that state?’, how did I let myself get that lazy in not wanting to train, not wanting to be in the gym. When I was in the gym hiding behind the bag, when I was meant to be out road running and not doing it. How I let myself get to that, I know I only have myself to blame, but I know now it can’t happen.
“It is why the time I had out of the gym is possibly a good thing for me because it made me come to terms with either being in the game, working hard and getting the rewards for what you do, or you come out of it and enjoy your life.
“I didn’t know whether I needed it. I’ve been in this game so long, since I was six years of age and I know I’ve f**ked about a bit here and there, but it is still hard work having to hit weights and go out running every day. You pick up injuries, you get sore, it is boring food. It is not a normal life to be living.
“So in the time I had out, I sat down and I was in tears, talking with my missus, my dad and (brother) Jez and I said that for six weeks I didn’t even want to talk boxing, didn’t want to hear it, think of it.
“All I wanted to do was eat what I wanted, drink what I wanted and live my life around nice people and clear my head.
“After that time out I was like ‘right, I know where I want to be’ – and the only place to be was in the gym. It had to be my choice and me making that decision. I’ve been through my boxing career not wanting disappoint anyone but, realistically, unless I am enjoying it and unless I want it, then all I’m going to be doing is letting people down when the shit hits the fan.”
Smith’s promoter – and great supporter – Frank Warren revealed his own dissatisfaction with his application to the job and the boxer was duly summoned to explain himself. Looking back, the now 13-1 man, can put the reverse into perspective and view it as a significant turning point in his fortunes.
“No and I was not surprised,” he admitted on his promoter’s disappointment. “I let myself down, but also let other people down. He called me in, we had a discussion and I was honest with him. The best thing you can be with Frank is just honest. I said that I had f**ked around and that I was paying the price for it.
“I’m young and now I honestly do think this is the best thing that has happened to me because when I do get the ball rolling again properly I really do think I can be moved at a fast pace.
“From suffering a defeat, I won’t ever let myself get to the stage I got last time, I won’t ever let myself get that arrogant, cocky and over confident. I don’t think the defeat will make me think I’m not good enough because I don’t think that’s the case.”
While Smith is trimming himself up nicely for his return to the ring at the York Hall on June 10, he reports that he is also now healthy in body and mind, back working hard to forge a fresh beginning under the guidance of new trainer Adam Booth.
He has calculated that his state of mind and happiness is related to his fitness, with his down times linked to living it up.
“Yes I am off all medication, I’m eating well, training hard and I’m in a good place. I have been for two and a half months now, since I have been back punching.
“I’ve stopped going out, I was always out in clubs with people offering me free tables and bottles of Champagne. I’ve stopped that and I am happy being back to how I was before everything started going downhill.”
Smith now ventures five days a week from Harrow to the Surrey base of Booth and, it is fair to say, he is quite taken with the methods of his mentor.
“He is very, very knowledgeable. He says things in the gym and you don’t even have to think about it, you just go ‘yeah, why didn’t I see that – or do that?’. I am very confident, quietly confident – I have learned from the mistake of being loudly confident – that if there is anyone who can get me back, it is that man.
“I’ve started gelling with the whole team, which is nice because it is hard going into somewhere and not feeling accepted. I’ve gone in there knowing they are like a family and now I feel part of it. I genuinely trust Adam with my career.”
Booth’s latest charge is well aware he has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly and that big ears and a closed mouth will serve him well when instructions are being dished out.
“Yes, but he has not tried to change me as a person because he likes the fact that I am confident and have banter. It is nice that he has not tried to change that, but he has laid down the ground rules, which are ‘when I’m talking, you listen and don’t talk over me, and when I tell you to do something you do it’. As long as you can do that he is happy for you to do what you do.
“It is regimental and it is nice. I’m learning now where I was stale before, when I go into the gym with Adam, every day he is drilling stuff into me. Everything is new, I was a champion before and felt I was training like an amateur, but now I feel I am training like a champion.
“He said to me at the start that he wouldn’t have worked with me unless he felt I could win world honours. I’ve tasted defeat and it is not a nice thing.
“The fact is I went into a fight with everyone knowing I should piss it and embarrassed myself by not training hard and performing like an arsehole. It is hard to get over and, now I’ve tasted that, I won’t go through it again.”
To that end, Smith is not going to rush himself, or get ahead of himself again. He has so far resisted calling for an obvious rematch with Jupp and is prepared to play the waiting game.
“I’m ready for what is going to be put in front of me, I wouldn’t be ready for title level just yet. I want to get back winning. I’ve been in the gym for ten weeks and I’m seeing changes to my body because I am doing different things. Adam said we will take it slow because my body is going through changes. I’m not in a rush, regular work would be good and I would be happy to get out four times this year.”
He might not be in a hurry to chase belts again, but he can’t promise such patience when he steps in the ring, where he suspects it might just be a case of old habits die hard.
“I like knocking people out and I think that is just in me. I will be not be so desperate do it and just let it happen. There’s been a few times in fights where I’ve just tried too hard. Now I will be cunning, be clever and be spiteful – at the right time!”