The Opponent: The Story of Ernie “Gypsy Boy” Smith
Far away from the bright lights of Las Vegas, the roar of the crowd at Madison Square Garden and the sing-song-throng of Wembley Stadium is a nearly endless supply of small town dives, dusty functional halls and lodges that showcase everything from mediocre magicians, washed up pro wrestlers and bums from the local boxing clubs to amuse the paying crowds for a few hours on a Friday or Saturday night.
15 quid at the door might get you a ring side folding chair, uncomfortable, dented.
Beer served in plastic cups along with chips and maybe some stale popcorn.
No name ‘opponents.’ Boxers who either lack the skill, opportunities or access to the best trainers or for some other reason find themselves buried on the undercards of small local shows, lucky to make 200 quid – enough to cover the cost of the medicals required to keep and or maintain a license in their state or county fit the bill on nights like these. If they are lucky they get to be a punching bag for a prospect on his way up, or a sparring partner for camp.
We know the slang, the epithets and we know that there is a place for them in “The Sport of Kings.”
I discovered one such boxer totally by accident.
I was researching another fighter, preparing to write an article about an upcoming fight and combing through his record, looking for notable wins, losses, when I came across Ernie “Gypsy Boy” Smith.
It was his record that stood out to me; 13-142-5, 1 KO.
That’s right, 13 wins. 142 Loses. Five draws, one win via knockout.
I was incredulous that in the ‘modern era’ of boxing that a professional with 160 fights was even possible!
I rubbed my eyes, maybe my undiagnosed dyslexia had kicked in, or maybe my morning coffee had not. I do a lot of writing in the wee morning hours before I go to work, so I read it again. I had read Smith’s record correctly the first time.
I let out a huff and was about to move on, I had to get ready for work and still had not fed the dogs or showered. However, somehow, I just knew that could not be the end of the story, I forgot about my original piece and dove in to learning as much as I could about Ernie Smith.
Kidderminster, lays is the Wyre Forest district of Worcestershire. The name first appears in The Domesday Book a sinister moniker taken from Middle English to mean Doomsday – or the day of reckoning with the ‘ol tax man.’ William the Conqueror having captured England and Wales wanted a proper census taken for the orderly collection of taxes and by 1086 this Great Survey was finished.
Known for being the hub for the carpet manufacturing industry of all things Kidderminster is an otherwise quiet, none descript town in the heart of The Midlands described by architect Alan Brooks this way in 2007 “the 19th century mill buildings, together with the churches, provide most of the architectural interest in a town otherwise uncommonly lacking in visual pleasures."
Ernie Smith was born here 10 June 1978.
I could not find much about Ernie’s early life, save he and his twin brother Billy Smith both found their way into the local boxing gym in Kidderminster. Ernie had real passion for the sport, Billy less so though later he too developed a love for boxing.
For his part, Billy had 161 bouts, just like his brother Ernie and enjoyed no more in ring success than him. Billy’s record stands at 13-145-2 (0 KOs).
Ernie made his pro debut 24 November 1998 against Woody Greenway at the Park Hall Hotel in Wolverhampton. Ernie lost a close points decision after six rounds. Ernie fought again barely two weeks later 5 December taking on Welsh bulldog Gavin Rees in just his second pro fight. Gavin won by decision handedly in their four-round scrap.
Ernie put his first and only win streak together totaling three straight decision wins just two months later from February of ’99 through March of ’99.
Three months later in June Ernie began a 17-fight skid, losing every fight in that roughly 15-month span and was finished five times. Despite this he had the opportunity to fight for his first title belt, the vacant British Boxing Midlands Area welterweight title on 13 August 2000.
Ernie was Kayoed in the fourth round by Jawaid Khaliq.
This would be the only title shot Ernie Smith would get. However, he would go on fighting, answering the call for promoters sometimes at the last minute taking on all comers.
Ernie would make his bread and reputation as the “have gloves will travel” opponent often taking fights on same day notice traveling all over the UK to fight in town halls, hotels and the occasional local arena.
Before writing this article, I scoured the web trying to find video of Mr. Smith in action, I found one on YouTube, a six-rounder at the Hilton Hotel, Mayfair in London on 23 November 2005, spoiler alert Ernie lost on points to Anthony Smalls.
However, many well-known fighters made their names on the back of Ernie Smith, a stalwart gate keeper. Fighting “The Gypsy Boy” became a rite of passage for the up and coming fighter. Gavin Rees fought Ernie twice. He lost to young Ricky Burns in September 2002 on points. Nathan Cleverly made his debut against Gypsy Boy at the Meadowbank Sports Centre, in Edinburgh 23 July 2005.
Kell Brook, last seen giving Genady Golovkin some target practice padded his record against Ernie Smith fighting him three times! All in less than a year in fact. Their first meeting was 15 May 2005 and then in back to back fights 10 September 2005 and 29 April 2006. To Smith’s credit he was never finished by Kell Brook
Ernie Smith was finished 19 times however. Any boxer who loses 19 fights ought to consider another line of work, let alone Kayoed 19 times.
The Hurt Business
In all Ernie Smith fought professionally for 11 years out of 161 total bouts he averaged over 15 fights a year.
I looked at one calendar year September 2008 to his last fight July 2009, Ernie smith was stopped five times. He went four months between being stopped by Craig Denton and losing to Jaime Bell on points but that was the longest break during the period. He suffered back to back knockouts less than two weeks apart against Vinnie Baldassara and Darryl Campbell and was stopped in his last fight on 24 July 2009.
More media attention has been paid to a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a disease process thought to be caused by repeated concussions and or repeated brain trauma the likes of which seem to occur per the data at a higher rate in boxing, American football, hockey, Rugby and other contact sports and professions like stunt work. A conclusion like this seems obvious however surprisingly serious academic and scientific research has only just begun with the first journal publication by Dr. Bennet Omalu in 2005 following the death of former American Football player Mike Webster.
Boxing has long known about brain injury however informal the conclusions. In the 1920s dementia pugilistica was a diagnosis for something boxers and fans had known colloquially as punch drunk, slurred speech, the lazy dull expression, ataxia was all thought to be simply a side effect of boxing and was tacitly accepted by all. Only with the passing of Muhammad Ali following decades of wasting away before our eyes has the public taken more interest in what consequences these warriors may face after years in the ring.
I discovered “The Gypsy Boy” Ernie Smith totally by accident and I can’t deny my amusement when I saw his record, he reminded me of Glass Joe, the first opponent in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, the old Nintendo video game. Though Ernie clearly had no glass jaw!
This article turned out for me personally one of the most beautiful and tragic pieces I have ever written or may ever write.
Perhaps because of the increased concern over the boxer’s long term safety Ernie Smith was denied a renewed boxing license, he had failed an MRI screening late in 2009.
The 31-year-old father of three died of an apparent suicide on 27 January 2010.
His brother Billy remembered him this way;
“Ernie was a really good dad and loved his three kids (2 girls and Ernie Jr.) so much. He was a brilliant twin brother, I couldn’t of asked for a better brother than Ernie and I loved him so much. He was the kind man who would do anything for anyone and ask for nothing in return, very kind hearted. He taught me a lot in the boxing trade and it is paying off to keep his memory going. Words cannot say how much I miss him, R.I.P Bro, loves and missus you loads.”
Compounding this tragedy Billy Smith who had taken up “The Gypsy Boy” moniker also took his own life just three years later. Billy passed away 23 July 2013. Friends and family reported that Billy was distraught following the loss of his twin brother and racked with guilt at the thought of not being able to save him could not bear his pain any longer. Billy Smith was just 36.
In the Sport of Kings some boxers become royalty, some peasants. The majority pass on without leaving a mark on the sport.
It’s crucially important to think about men like the Smith Brothers, without warriors like them how could the prospects of the sport we love build a name and get experience, more important than any contribution to boxing these men had fathers, mothers, friends and children who lost them so suddenly and tragically I’m quite sure that wound will heal very slowly if ever.
Boxing is The Hurt Business. It demands much, gives little and accepts no weakness.
Grown men and women who step through those ropes are potentially risking their lives and health for glory yes and our entertainment, we owe them our respect and memory.
Image Credit: BoxRec