LAS VEGAS – Ishe Smith sat, largely unnoticed, inside of a bustling coffee shop a few miles from where, on Sept. 14, he'll make the first defense of his world championship.
It will be a glorious occasion. In February, Smith fulfilled what a decade ago he felt was his destiny by winning the title and becoming the first native born Las Vegan to capture a boxing world championship.
He'll meet Carlos Molina at the MGM Grand Garden, carrying his IBF junior middleweight title belt with him to the ring in the kind of moment that, years ago, he was certain would be a regular occurrence.
Smith nearly didn't make it, having come so close to committing suicide that his only sibling, his sister, Jennifer, had an ambulance rush to his apartment to save him.
Smith sat in his darkened apartment one night a few years back, a loaded 9 mm gun in his hand, wondering whether he should pull the trigger and end years of pain, angst and misery and a life filled with hopelessness.
He thought mostly about the father he never knew.
"My father could be in this Starbucks right now, sitting right next to us, and I wouldn't know it," Smith said, shaking his head and glancing toward the floor.
He's never seen so much as a photograph of his father, as the man was erased from the family's collective databanks like a government dissident in China. His father vanished right around the time Smith was born, never to be seen or heard from again.
Smith grew up and not only didn't have a father, he didn't know a thing about him.
"There weren't even any pictures of him," Smith said. "I don't know if my Mom did that to protect me or what, but it was like nothing."
As Smith held the gun in the darkness, his mind wandered to all of those moments in his life when he wished his father would have been there, when the father could have provided advice and guidance or simply given him a hug or said, "I love you."
The pain of not only not having a father but of never knowing a thing about the man had been a blight upon his life and had caused him many sleepless nights, wondering, thinking, hurting.
Smith had thought of killing himself before, but this time, with bills mounting, problems rising and no likelihood of success in his career, he was about to end it all.
He wanted to kill himself, but didn't pull the trigger for the very reason that he was in so much pain. He couldn't do to his children what his father had done to him: abandon them.
"I sat there staring at the gun, looking at the bullets, putting the bullets in the gun, sitting in the dark," Smith said. "I was thinking, 'Man, what do I do?' The only thing that kept me here and prevented me from pulling that trigger is the one thing I always hated: Growing up without a dad.
"I thought to myself, 'How selfish would I be if I took myself?' No matter what, if another man came along, he'd never be their dad. And so the one thing I hated and despised, and to this day I still hate, is what kept me alive."
He couldn't kill himself and let his children grow up wondering about their father, experiencing the kind of pain that he did.
So Smith put the gun down and later took it to a pawn shop, where he sold it for $100. He'd kept it for protection, but the best way to protect himself he came to realize was to get rid of it.
And the sale of that gun signaled a seminal change in Smith's life. He began to get breaks that he'd seemingly never gotten before.
He'd been a touted amateur in Las Vegas and nearly made the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. He'd been part of a group of four native Las Vegans, along with Augie Sanchez, Limmie Young and Charles Shufford, who'd called themselves "The Four Horsemen."
They'd trained together and dreamed together and believed they'd win Olympic medals and then professional world titles together.
Early in his career, Smith began fighting on monthly club shows that were held in a ballroom at the Orleans Hotel & Casino in his hometown.
Guilty Boxing put on the shows, and didn't have a large stable of fighters under contract who it was trying to protect. The fights were regularly battles.
"I always tell people, the best fights I ever saw in my life weren't on HBO or Showtime, they were on those cards at the Orleans," Smith said.
Smith was happy, for a while, headlining those shows. He was the local boy making good and boxed his way to 10 consecutive wins. Then, the big time came calling and all of Smith's happiness and momentum fell apart.
In 2004, he signed with Gary Shaw Productions, at the time one of the sport's top promoters. Smith felt his career was about to rocket to the top. There would be world title fights, massive paydays, bouts on HBO and Showtime, international recognition, he believed.
He was 13-0 and was matched against Randall Bailey, then as now one of the hardest hitters in the sport. Bailey was 27-3 and a welterweight who punched like a light heavyweight.
It was a major step up in competition, but not in compensation. Smith's payday for the fight was $11,000.
"It was never about the money, really," Smith said.
After Smith paid his taxes and all of his obligations, he wound up netting $1,800. He was a full-time fighter trying to raise a family, and two months of work to prepare for one of the most dangerous men in the business netted him essentially $225 per week.
He became bitter, not the friendly outgoing young man he once had been.
He'd had a falling out with a manager he believed tricked him. He says he paid the manager 30 percent of the $10,000 purse he was scheduled to make to fight David Estrada in Sault Sainte Marie, Mich., but that his manager called him and told him he wouldn't be able to make the fight because he couldn't afford to pay for his airfare and hotel room.
Smith says he paid another $500 so his manager could afford the trip.
"And then I later found out that he came from a very wealthy family that had all this money, and he's taking an extra $500 from me under false [pretenses]," Smith said.
Smith had to file for bankruptcy, in part to break away from his contract with Shaw, he said, but mostly because he was flat broke. He had no assets and $80,000 in debts.
He also didn't have a good outlook. He'd alienated many of those who were there for him at the beginning and who had been his friends.
"I was getting a reputation as a guy who was really hard to deal with," Smith said. "I was kind of getting to be like [ex-NFL stars] Terrell Owens and Chad [Johnson]. At the time, I didn't realize it, but I wasn't the same guy I was at the beginning in the Orleans days.
"I had a bad, bad reputation as kind of like a knucklehead. People were afraid to do business with me because of how difficult I could be."
He went that way for several years, struggling to find fights, battling with promoters and frequently sitting on the sidelines, training but not fighting.
The financial pressures caused his marriage to crumble. In late 2009 or early 2010, he met a woman who would become his girlfriend, and she had two children of her own. Smith had four, and when he moved in with her, their six children lived as brothers and sisters.
Smith loved it, except that he was struggling to provide. There weren't any fights available and he had long stretches of inactivity. He certainly didn't have any lucrative bouts.
It seemed most had abandoned him, though his girlfriend stuck with him through the toughest times.
He'd been off more than a year when he told her he was going to give up the fight game and get a job so he could provide for his family the way he wanted to do instead of hoping he'd catch a break in boxing.
She wouldn't hear of it, however.
"She said, 'I'm working, don't worry. Keep going, keep trying, because something good is going to happen,' " Smith said. "I'm like, 'Nothing good is happening. It's been 18 months. We have six kids. I got to take care of these kids.
"But she was insisting I keep trying. I said to myself, 'I don't know who is crazier, this woman for believing in me, or me.' I hadn't fought in 18 months. Can't she see what is going on?"
But she saw something that perhaps he couldn't see. And things changed dramatically when, in the spring of 2012, Floyd Mayweather Jr. needed a sparring partner as he was preparing to fight Miguel Cotto.
Former world champion Cornelius Boza-Edwards, who runs Mayweather's Las Vegas gym and serves as his matchmaker, called to see if Smith was interested in sparring with Mayweather.
With no fights lined up and needing money to pay the bills, Smith accepted the $2,000 per week that Mayweather offered.
That figure, Smith said, is far above what any other boxer pays his sparring partners, and is a reason why Smith has become so loyal to Mayweather.
But the loyalty goes far beyond that. Not only did Mayweather use Smith as a sparring partner, he got him a fight on a card that was held the night before he fought Cotto.
It was the beginning of the resurrection of Smith's career.
Mayweather got him another fight in September of last year, before lining up a challenge against Cornelius Bundrage on Feb. 23 in Detroit for the IBF title.
After almost 20 years, Smith, now 35, had finally gotten to where he thought he'd quickly arrive when he was trying to make the 1996 Olympic team.
Smith defeated Bundrage to win the IBF title and shed tears of joy in the ring. He immediately sought out Showtime employees who had been with him for much of his journey.
And now, he's got a prime spot on the main card of the biggest show of the year, serving as an opening act for Mayweather.
He'll make $250,000 to defend the belt against Molina, a guy much like Smith himself who had to make it the hard way, largely on his own.
It's a pittance compared to the $41.5 million that Mayweather will pull in for fighting Canelo Alvarez that night, but Smith has nothing but great things to say about Mayweather and Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe.
"Without them, I'm afraid to think where I would be or what I might be doing now," Smith said with a shake of the head.
He also could have made much more than the $250,000 he is to make against Molina. Cotto was interested in fighting Smith, and Smith estimates he'd have made $1 million for that bout. He could still have fought Molina down the line, when his mandatory defense came due.
But Smith said he learned a lesson from former world champions Mike Tyson, Azumah Nelson, Roger Mayweather, Terry Norris, Felix Trinidad and Gerald McClellan that he decided he'd employ whenever he became champion.
"Those guys, they worked so hard to get where they were, and they sought out the hardest fights they could get because they wanted to prove themselves as real champions," Smith said. "I always said, when I became champion, No. 1, I wanted to be respected like they were. I wanted to go down as being the best in my division and do it the old-fashioned way like they did, seeking out the toughest guys.
"I wanted to fight those tough fights and I looked at Carlos Molina and I saw what I was looking for. He is a tough guy who has a tough story. He got a tough break against James Kirkland, a tough break against [Erislandy] Lara. He's one of the best and I felt I owed it to myself and the sport to do that and take that kind of a fight."
He laughed as he was explaining himself, because many have questioned his decision to seek out Molina rather than taking the big-money bout with Cotto or an easier fight against someone else.
Smith was once the guy who was avoided and couldn't get the fights. He wasn't going to then be the guy doing the avoiding.
"I have been through so much in my career, and in my life," he says with an intense gaze. "You know? One thing I've learned is to be a man of my word. I lost part of that after I left the Orleans and those days looking for what I thought were bigger and better things.
"I made a lot of mistakes, but I'm fortunate to be able to say I've learned from them. I am a mature man now, and it means a lot to me to be a man of my word, and so I try to do the right thing and be a role model. I would have looked bad to change mid-stream after saying I'd fight Molina to go to fight Cotto because of the money. The old Ishe might have done that. Not now, though. I'm a different man, now. And I want to live my life every day to show that."
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