Having met James "Bonecrusher" Smith this past weekend at a Ring 10 fundraiser to aid impoverished fighters, Boxing 101 features his upset victory over WBA heavyweight champion Tim Witherspoon on December 12, 1986 at New York's Madison Square Garden in this installment of VHS Classic Rewind.
Bonecrusher Smith (18-5, 13 KO's) initially crushed his way into relevance with a knockout in the final two minutes of a 10-round fight in May 1984 against then undefeated British prospect Frank Bruno in London. This victory set him up for a title shot in November 1984 against the mighty Larry Holmes who had successfully defended his crown 18 times and was undefeated in 45 fights. Although he rocked Holmes, Smith was unable to keep his foot on the gas and suffered a cut that forced the fight to be stopped in the tenth round.
This would be Smith's second time facing Witherspoon, losing the first meeting by unanimous decision in June 1985 for the NABF belt. While preparing for a non-title bout with Mitch "Blood" Green, Smith was given only a week's notice by promoter Don King in December 1986 to fight Witherspoon for the WBA championship when originally scheduled opponent Tony Tubbs suddenly withdrew at the last minute. Recognizing that he might not get such an opportunity again, Smith accepted the fight.
Witherspoon (25-2, 17 KO's), who briefly held the WBC belt before losing it to Pinklon Thomas by majority decision in August 1984, captured the WBA strap when he defeated Tubbs by majority decision in January 1986. Instead of facing Tubbs in a rematch after successfully defending the title against Frank Bruno in July 1986, Witherspoon would be fighting the 31-year old, last minute substitute Smith. The champion Witherspoon was heavily favored, especially coming off of an eleventh round TKO victory over Bruno in London.
The #9 WBA ranked Smith immediately jumped on the bone dry and somewhat soft Witherspoon, landing an overhand right at the opening bell. From that point forward, Smith did not let up. He continued to pressure Witherspoon with combinations that put the champion in full defense mode covering up and trying to duck punches.
Smith countered one of Witherspoon's few punches with a big right hand that knocked the 28-year old champion to his knee. Witherspoon immediately got back up and continued retreating even though it should have been ruled a knockdown. However, there would be more where that came from given Smith's persistent and unanswered right hand that kept chopping away at his opponent.
The first official knockdown came when Smith followed up a big left hook with a right hand to drop Witherspoon. A second knockdown came courtesy of a chopping right hand that landed on the side of Witherspoon's head. Smith continued to thump away after his weary opponent reluctantly rose to his feet, dropping the uninspired champion for the third and final time with another right hand.
Since the three knockdown rule was in effect, referee Luis Rivera stopped the fight at 2:12 of the first round amidst confusion by the HBO broadcasters as to whether the rule was, in fact, in place. It was an irrelevant point since it was clear Witherspoon did not come to fight.
Smith, on the other hand, came not only to fight, but to win. In so doing, he became the first college graduate to win the heavyweight championship of the world.
His championship reign was brief, however. Smith lost the title in his next fight three months later to Mike Tyson in lackluster fashion. Although Smith continued to fight rather frequently into the late 1990's, he never fought for another world title again. At the age of 46, Smith lost his last fight by eighth round TKO against an even older Larry Holmes in June 1999. Bonecrusher retired with a record of 44-17-1 (32 KO's).
Witherspoon was embroiled in a legal battle with promoter Don King for several years. Like Smith, Witherspoon never reached championship heights again, although he did win the USBA title with a split decision victory over Carl "The Truth" Williams in March 1991. He continued to fight into his 40's, retiring in 2003 at the age of 45 with a record of 55-13-1 (38 KO's).
Many have pointed to Witherspoon's lack of mental and physical conditioning as a major contributing factor in the outcome of this fight. While that may very well be the case, Smith took full advantage of the opportunity and overcame his own disadvantages to get the startling win. At 31 years old and with only a week to prepare for the fight, the manner in which Bonecrusher decimated Witherspoon was admirable.
Following the fight, HBO analyst Larry Merchant called Smith's victory a "monumental upset".
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