Lonnie Smith: See You At The Crossroads

On a weekend devoid of a marquee matchup, Lonnie Smith has an opportunity to steal the spotlight as he meets fellow junior lightweight and former U.S. Olympian Vicente Escobedo in a 10-round crossroads bout in the latter’s hometown of Woodland, Calif. The fight, scheduled for Saturday, (Smith’s 25th birthday), will be aired on TeleFutura’s Solo Boxeo.

Though Wladimir Klitschko is slated to defend his two alphabet straps earlier that day against former cruiserweight champion Jean Marc Mormeck, the preservation of his titles seems predetermined; Mormeck, pushing 40, is five years senior to and nearly a foot shorter than the reigning heavyweight king.

That the weekend’s most competitive card – on paper, anyway – will air on Solo Boxeo is surprising. Since Golden Boy Promotions and Telefutura announced their partnership in April 2010, the matchmaking has been lukewarm at best.

Escobedo’s resume boasts a number of high profile fights, though victory has often, if barely, eluded him. Las Vegas’ Lonnie Smith (14-2-2, 10 KOs) is hoping to position himself closer to the head of the 130-pound pack with an upset win over Escobedo (24-3, 14 KOs). I had a chance to speak with Smith earlier in the week — a real treat.

If you’re a longtime follower of boxing and can’t quite place a face to the familiar name, you’re likely thinking of the former WBC junior welterweight titlist who plied his trade throughout the ’90s. Only in recent years has his son and namesake emerged onto television, the younger Smith’s last few bouts earning airtime on Solo Boxeo. Having witnessed most of Lonnie’s fights, televised or otherwise, I can confidently assure you that his is often the most exciting one of the night.

It was Smith’s entertainment factor that initially struck Terry and Tommy Lane of Let’s Get It On, which assumed the promotional reins of Smith’s career since February of last year.

The Lane brothers have always proclaimed Lonnie as the kind of fighter they would pay to see fight, and with good reason. For clues about his fighting style, one need not look further than Smith’s ring moniker, “El Negro Mexicano” (The Black Mexican).

“I grew up in a predominantly Hispanic, Mexican area in Denver, Colorado,” Smith told TQBR. “The gym that I first started out in was 99.8 percent Mexican in there. I’ve always fought like that because the people in the gym fought like that. In the papers, they said my style was black/Mexican. One of my friends was like, ‘El Negro Mexicano,’ and I liked that.”

Speaking with Lonnie, I couldn’t help but be reminded of future Hall of Famer James “Lights Out” Toney.

Not long ago, I finished Donald McRae’s “Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing,” a fantastic chronicle of the author’s journey through pugilism, the bulk of the story taking place in the early- to mid-nineties. The book includes in-depth dialogues with some of the sport’s biggest names at the time: Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, Naseem Hamed, and Roy Jones Jr., among others. The most revealing account, however, featured Toney.

Though manager Jackie Kallen grabbed most of the limelight during Toney’s early success (and during their acrimonious falling out), Toney’s most solid support system came in the form of his mother Sherry. The self-proclaimed badass’ reverence for his mom formed a stark contrast to Toney’s contempt for his father, who was, to say the very least, a bad apple.

Prior to reaching Lonnie for an interview, I posted a tweet in which I erroneously referred to him as “Lonnie Smith Jr.” Lonnie promptly got in touch and set me straight:

“Just a quick tip: there is no ‘Jr.’ on the end of my name. Never was, never will be. Thank you.”

Shades of Toney in less than 140 characters.

Concluding my interview, I inquired how often people make the same mistake.

“I hear it all the time, but that is something that has to be corrected,” said Smith. “I do have the same name. It is not my fault, I think it is the person next to me’s fault, and I look like him and I do the same thing, too. I just let them know there isn’t a ‘Jr.’ at the end of my last name.”

Throughout our conversation, it became evident that someone else was with Smith. Someone whose response to his responses elicited much laughter from the confident yet humble fighter. Smith’s final remark revealed the identity of his good-humored companion: Melani, his mom. I asked Lonnie if he would mind handing the phone to his mother for a few questions.

With world-class boxing bloodlines, Lonnie’s vocation seems a given. But neither his father nor his uncle, Hall of Fame light heavyweight (and for a brief run, Toney trainer) Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, has exerted as much influence as his mother.

Understandably, parents find it difficult to support the pursuit of a career that subjects their children to any physical danger. No matter how much admiration is commanded by the title of fireman, policeman, or professional pugilist, most parents prefer an occupation that stars carpal tunnel as their child’s most fearsome challenger. Melani has a stronger stomach than most.

“I think I am the one that kind of pushed him into it, to start boxing,” she recalled when asked about any hesitations she may have had about her son’s desire to become a fighter.

“Marvin Hagler is my cousin,” Melani continued. “My brother boxed, but he got hurt in the military. It is what I grew up with in Denver, Colorado, going to the 20th Street Gym. I didn’t spend time with the girls, I used to hang with all the boys in the boxing gym.”

“A lot of my family members love boxing,” said Lonnie. “My mother loves boxing. She knew I was a tough kid and maybe I should start boxing.”

After his professional debut in March 2006, Lonnie had a tough go. In nine fights, he had two losses and two draws, one loss being a 1st round stoppage to a Mexican journeyman. At that point, Lonnie and Melani agreed that in order to continue his career, tweaks were necessary.

“I’m actually glad that I lost,” said Lonnie. “I had an ego when I first started out, and I was humbled by those losses. The first one really wasn’t a loss. The second one, I was humbled. I started back from the beginning, I tore down being egocentric.”

“When we first started out, like he told you, he had an ego,” agreed Melani. “I think we lost sight of everything because once you start winning all you think about is the wins. The two losses made us think of putting his career in someone’s hands to guide him.

“We didn’t know anything about who he was fighting, we would just go in there,” Melanie continued. “After that second loss, me and Lonnie sat down and we had to think about it. We had to learn about the fighters, look them up, see who it is. You can’t let someone run your career. The way it is now, he’ll ask my opinion, I’ll go research the guy and tell him what I think about it and we go from there.”

After a few minutes of conversation, it became clear that Melani was more fluent in the sport than many of those who call themselves managers or advisors. More importantly, she actually had her son’s best interests at heart.

When asked whether her earlier experiences with boxing helped shed any naïveté in regards to her son’s career, Melani was quick to affirm.

“You have to watch out who you deal with. We learned that early with Lonnie Sr. We thought people were looking for his best interests and they weren’t,” she said. “You won’t see Lonnie get into the ring with 20 people. None of them work for it. You won’t see Lonnie doing a lot of stuff the fighters are doing. I try and keep him grounded, tell him to stay the same way and most things will come. Don’t get the big head.”

Meaning, if Lonnie Smith reaches the top, there won’t be an Iron Mike-like entourage climbing into the ring with him.

“His father had probably one of the biggest (entourages) and he paid for everything for everybody, and when he lost and there wasn’t the glory anymore, nobody helped him,” she said. “Are all those people going to be there when you’re not boxing? No.

“Lonnie puts the work in, Lonnie puts the time in, he takes the hits, so he gets the glory,” she said. “Lonnie wants me to get in the ring with him and I say, ‘No’. That’s his glory and I get a good feeling from being successful.”

Another element that separates Lonnie from his father is fighting style.

“I fight so much different than what he did as a professional,” said Lonnie. “There isn’t a comparison in our fighting styles. He was more of a boxer and I am more of a puncher. He uses his feet and I use whatever I can.”

Considering the upcoming opposition, Melani deconstructed Escobedo like a pro.

“His early fights, he was on top and he outboxed everybody that he fought,” she said. “His last fight with Rocky (Juarez), if Rocky had anything he would have knocked him out. All he did was potshot Rocky all night.

“He never has fought anybody as aggressive as Lonnie. He never has had anybody hit him to the body,” she said. “My guess is that is what is going to take him out, body shots. If he leans on the ropes and stays there too long, Lonnie is going to rip that body. And in that fight with Rocky, he caught Escobedo with a left hook, but the bell saved him.”

Given that Senior was more of a mover and his son much more of a puncher, I asked Melani if Lonnie would have thumped his father to the body the way she expects him to pick apart Escobedo.

“Yeah, he’d probably whoop his ass,” she said with a laugh.

“Everything else is exactly the same. The walk, the talk, everything,” she said. “The boxing, totally different. Lonnie Smith Sr, he don’t like getting hit. Lonnie gets hit, he goes, ‘Okay, it’s time to fight.’”

Going into Saturday’s fight, Lonnie is riding a nine-bout win streak. Escobedo represents a big leap in quality of opposition. As well, this marks Lonnie’s first exposure to the 10 round distance; he previously has only ever gone six rounds.

“Lonnie has been training for ten rounds for a long time, we just could never get a fight,” said Melani. “Even when we fought David Rodela, we tried to get him to do an eight rounder, but he wouldn’t, he would only do a six rounder. We’ve never had the chance of getting that ten round fight. In the gym, he works ten, twelve rounds.”

Though he shares a name with a former world champion, Lonnie’s career climb has differed from other boxing offspring. He wasn’t protected.

“Had Lonnie been handed everything, with his ego, if he got there with 20-0, if he would have lost it would have destroyed him,” said Melani.

“Losing and coming up without being handed anything, it made him more hungry, more determined to go to the gym everyday,” she said. “Lonnie goes to the gym when he don’t have a fight, where a lot of fighters don’t until they have a fight. When they get in the ring and look like shit, they can’t step up to the next level. I feel bad for some of them, but that is the game and the politics of boxing.”

Furthermore, said boxing politics have landed Lonnie in less-than-favorable territory.

“I’m not nervous going into his backyard,” said Smith. “If you’re a warrior, that’s what you have to do. If you’re a boxer you have to take these risks. Greater risks, greater rewards. I know after this fight there will be a lot of opportunities. They will come up and I will be ready for him. I’m not looking for a decision I’m gonna knock him out.”

Though not looking beyond this Saturday’s big test, Lonnie nurses high aspirations.

“I want to go to Japan and fight the champ (Takahiro) Aoh. I want to fight him and I want to beat him, and I want to beat him in Japan,” he said. “I want to go over there and to knock him out and I want my flight out that night, so as to avoid getting killed. He’s a great warrior, he boxes for a couple rounds, then he just mauls you and tries to destroy you. The people that he’s fighting are people that are overwhelmed by that. I won’t be overwhelmed by that. Maybe I am not ready for that now but soon I will be ready. That’s what I tell everybody, that’s what I tell you. I only believe that the #1 belt is the WBC. To have that green belt around your waist is the biggest thing in the world.”

The regional WBO NABO 140-pound title constitutes not just the spoils of the upcoming contest, but a huge stepping stone towards his desired destination. Come what may, Lonnie will always have Melani in his corner.

“Whatever happens, it’ll always be me and him,” explained Melani. “I’m the one person that is not going to leave him whether he wins or lose. I always tell him what my opinion is about a person. I’m his biggest fan but I’m his biggest critic too. I don’t praise him and if he isn’t doing well, I let him know.”

Really, there stands only one big difference between the mothers of James Toney and Lonnie Smith: an aptitude in the kitchen. Sherry Toney, owner of Speciality Cakes & Pies, is cited as an expert baker — which contributed perhaps, to her son’s past battles with the scale.

Smith, on the other hand, has suffered no such problems.

“I don’t really cook, which is why it is so easy for Lonnie to make 130 pounds,” Melani said with a chuckle.

Mark Ortega can be reached via e-mail at ortegaliitr@gmail.com and followed via Twitter at www.twitter.com/MarkEOrtega. Mark also contributes to renowned boxing publications RING Magazine and Boxing Monthly.