“Seventeen years,” Ishe Smith said, pausing to let it sink in. “Seventeen years.”
Much has happened, much good, plenty bad, in the life of 39-year-old Ishe Oluwa Smith. The kid from Las Vegas who debuted in Tunica, Mississippi, with such big dreams on July 29, 2000, is now a grizzled veteran, hoping to hang in there a few more years, fighting for money for tuition, for insurance, for the things that make his family’s life better.
He headlines a Mayweather Promotions card on Saturday at The Cosmopolitan, facing hard-hitting Julian Williams. To headline a show in Las Vegas is a big deal for any fighter. For a 39-year-old ex-world champion who is no longer the blazing quick athlete he once was, it’s a testament to his toughness, desire and understanding of the game.
It’s been a traumatic year for Smith, who is fighting for the first time in 14 months. He’s had to endure the shooting deaths of his ex-wife, Latoya Woolen, as well as a friend, Las Vegas police officer Charleston Hadfield.
Woolen, the mother of three of Smith’s children, was killed execution-style on March 19. She’d just finished shopping and had grocery bags with her when she was shot from behind in the head and neck. A 55-year-old man was arrested in April and charged with her murder. On Oct. 1, Stephen Paddock shot from a suite at the Mandalay Bay Hotel/Casino into a crowd of more than 20,000 people who were attending the Route 91 Harvest Festival. Among the 58 who were killed was Hartfield, who had coached one of Smith’s sons in youth league football.
Those are the type of events that rock a person to the core. Smith said he shed more than a few tears, but knew that no matter what, he couldn’t quit fighting.
Smith is no longer chasing glory, or seeking headlines or attention. Life got in the way, and he has responsibilities. He has no health insurance because he can’t afford it. He has purchased insurance for his children, but doesn’t have enough money left over to buy it for himself.
“If something happened, man, I don’t know,” Smith said. “If I got sick, really sick where I needed a doctor or a hospital, man, that would be a problem to be honest with you.”
Smith is a former world champion, but he never earned the massive purses that other champions made. He’s not complaining because while the mega-purses that the stars at the top make garner headlines, most fighters make nowhere near that kind of money.
Smith isn’t an extravagant guy and isn’t covered with bling. He doesn’t drive a fancy car, nor does he jet around the world on vacation.
“I’ve never been that type of guy,” Smith said. “A lot of these fighters, even the greats, they get these big paychecks and what do they do? Spend, spend, spend. They think the money’s never going to end. But sooner or later, it ends for all of us. I haven’t done that. All of my money goes to taking care of my family.
“I’m the plainest, most basic guy. My highest bills are sending my two boys to [Bishop] Gorman, [a Catholic high school]. My daughter went there, too, and she’s got a full scholarship now. My sons are playing football but they’re honor roll students. And I want to give them the best education I can and set them up for the future the best way I know how.”
The most expensive thing he ever bought was an engagement ring for his fiancee. His idea of jet-setting is a weekend trip to Wrigley Field to see his beloved Chicago Cubs.
He fights because he has to. He hasn’t made money from any source other than boxing since he was a teenager, and even at 39 and in the later stages of his career, it’s his best bet for a solid income.
There is no pension in boxing and you don’t get paid when you don’t fight. So, Smith’s 14 months out of the ring aren’t easy when the bills come in during each of those months.
“You don’t think about it a lot when you get into this game, but it doesn’t really provide much of a future for you,” Smith said. “There are no insurance benefits and no pension. I’ve been boxing for 31 years and when I retire, that’s it. I came in with nothing and I’m going to leave with nothing. I’ve given this game 31 years and it’s unfortunate.
“You play football for five years and at least you get a pension. Look at O.J. [Simpson], and he’s got this huge pension. He got out of jail and he had two million waiting on him. You get out of boxing and you aren’t even guaranteed to get a ‘Good luck.’ It’s a hard, tough sport.”
And that’s before one begins to consider his profession’s physical toll.
But Smith made a decision as a young parent years ago that he would sacrifice himself so that his children could succeed. And so, he sends them to what he believes is the best school possible. He pays for health care for them despite not having it himself. He participates in their lives fully after growing up without a father and understanding the hole in his life that created.
His kids are excelling at football and at soccer, but he’s prouder of their academic achievements. His daughter is studying for a career in forensic science and his sons are on the honor roll and taking honors courses in high school.
“Hey, it would be great if my kids became football stars or soccer stars, but I want them to be well educated so they don’t have to rely on that,” Smith said. “What are the odds to making it [to the NFL]? It’s not that good. Education is the thing, so that’s what I’m all about. Work hard in school and you’ll never regret it.”
Smith has worked hard in the fight game and has had a superb, if understated career. He’s 29-8 with 12 knockouts and has a couple of years of fights left in him.
He hasn’t given up on the thought of winning another world title, but he’s content that he has one championship already.
He has loved the sport as much as he has hated it at the same time. It’s a difficult balancing act, much like it is difficult to pay the rent, put food on the table and pay the tuition when there’s no paycheck coming in every two weeks.
Smith is eager to get it on with the highly regarded Williams and use it as a springboard to bigger and better things.
“I know I’m not going to be around forever, so I want to take advantage of it while I can,” Smith said. “Win this and who knows what might come because of it? I just have to keep putting in the work because there’s always someone coming behind you. It’s hard.”
It’s been a hard year, and a hard life for Smith. But watching his children succeed and prosper makes it all worth it.
“At the end of the day, I’m doing this and going through all this for them,” he said. “If they succeed, I feel like I’m succeeding.”
By that standard, Ishe Oluwa Smith Sr. is a very successful man.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Vice president’s Colts stunt cost police $14K, showed ‘disregard for ethics’
• President Trump wants a thank-you from the UCLA Three
• Halladay’s widow delivered a brave and emotional eulogy for her husband
• Chris Mannix: Timberwolves’ defense still lacking teeth