A Gray-Blur haze drifts over Magnolia, N.C., aromatic and powerful enough to be detected 10 miles away in the town of Turkey. It ascends, hissing, from enough barbecuing, fat-dripping hogmeat—400 pounds of it—to send the American Heart Association into instant trauma.
But the folk of Magnolia, which is a wide place on Route 117, are into hearty, not healthy, this particular weekend. Seemingly, all 617 of them have assembled in the ballpark, decked out in their Sunday best and intent on honoring the man their mayor has just called "our most famous fella." And they're doing it in the way they know best—with a Homecomin' Pig Pickin'.
The king of their hearts is none other than Magnolia-born-and-raised James Odell (Bonecrusher) Smith, 33, the World Boxing Association's heavyweight champion. This festive afternoon Smith has only one problem, how to maneuver his 6'4" frame through the offerings of congratulations so he can grab himself a plateful of that spicy meat without appearing to ignore any of his old friends. Meantime he is relishing this highlight in his totally unexpected but plainly happy reign.
The cold-eyed bookmakers in Las Vegas would have us amend that last phrase. The short happy reign of Bonecrusher is what they foresee, and they've set the odds at a remarkable 7 to 1 against his retaining his title when he meets World Boxing Council champion Mike Tyson in Las Vegas on March 7.
March 2, 1987
That cuts no ice with the Crusher. "O.K.," he responds at the pig pickin', once the speechifying is done, "I know I'm not supposed to be here. I know Tony Tubbs thinks he should be here. And it's a hell of a feeling, being discovered at 33. But all the same, I am a little tired of being called a lucky person. When Tyson won his title, the media yelled 'Awesome!' But when I put Tim Witherspoon away, the first reaction was that he must have been on drugs. That's all I got for my accomplishment."
The Crusher, of course, did get a little lucky. Last December he was in training for a bout with journeyman Mitch Green when word came that Tubbs was pulling out of his (take a deep breath) HBO/Don King-Butch Lewis Heavyweight Title Elimination Series fight (exhale) with Tim Witherspoon. What was needed, quickly, was a warm body, size heavyweight. Smith was delighted to oblige; he would get $230,000 for the Witherspoon fight against the $35,000 he would have picked up for meeting Green.
The fans were not so thrilled. The Crusher's 18-5 ring record was, to put it courteously, uneven. Among the wins were 13 knockouts, but among the losses were defeats by both Tubbs and Witherspoon. And so only 5,042 diehards showed up at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 12 to become witnesses to a major upset. Smith quickly and comprehensively destroyed Witherspoon in the first round, sending the WBA champ down four times following a series of massive rights to the head.
Now against the 20-year-old Tyson, the Crusher is again the heavy underdog. "This coming fight is a rare luxury for me," says Smith, "because I've actually known for weeks whom I'm fighting." Wryly he says, "Tyson and I have taken different routes to the top, and that's an understatement. I've had my breaks and my opportunities, but this young man has never faced adversity. Everything has been programmed for him, everything has been projected...."
Hold it. Just who is this talking? Do heavyweight champs use trisyllabic words these days? And how does a man called Bonecrusher, and who likes the name, get off properly using the pronoun "whom"?
Bonecrusher, in fact, is not your archetypal champ, as he himself might put it. That was immediately obvious to a visitor when, at a Fayetteville motel a few days before the Magnolia pig-in, this tall, serious-looking fellow with the attachè case and the conservative suit was introduced as Bonecrusher. The visitor was so flustered he asked the fighter, abruptly enough to upset Miss Manners, just what he was doing in a business suit.
"Well, what should the heavyweight champ wear?" asked the Crusher.
"All the ones I've known," said the visitor desperately, "tend towards crimson satin jackets."
"I must get one," replied the champ, trotting out the act he usually saves for press conferences: He rolls his eyes, deepens his voice, puts on a stagey, cotton-choppin' accent. "Dis is de Bonecrusher!" he roars. "Gonna put me out some lights, man!" But in these surroundings, he can't keep up the top-volume rhetoric for very long. Soon, in a soft, educated voice, he explains that he has come from a real estate closing. He has just bought 20 acres of land outside Fayetteville and is handling much of the paperwork himself.
Exit Bonecrusher. Enter Mr. J. Odell Smith, graduate in business administration of Shaw University (N.C.), Realtor and entrepreneur with, just possibly, some political ambitions.
It's hard to find anybody in this part of North Carolina who would consider that last notion incongruous. Even in the midst of training for the title fight, Smith is capable of driving, as he did recently, almost 40 miles after his workout to host a basketball shoot-out at Lee Senior High School in Lee County to aid the elderly poor. He was willing to help even though the event was so low-key that one of the door prizes was an oil change and the chance of any boxing spin-off was negligible. He spoke at length, elegantly and with strong feeling. After all, he has known poverty himself.
Smith was born in a shack a mile or two outside Magnolia and was raised a couple of fields away in a small, white frame house built by his father, Jessie, a sharecropper. On the morning before the pig-pickin' the little front yard of that house blossomed with assorted guests—about half-and-half neighbors and Smith's boxing entourage—around whose feet wandered ducks, guinea hens and, by Bertha Smith's count, 33 chickens. Bertha is Bonecrusher's mother and at this sunny morning gathering she is the star, leaving her son badly upstaged. Her face is a map of the hardships of her life, but as she speaks you see at once where her son gets his style.
"Can you imagine the sacrifices we made to send him to college?" Bertha asks, unnecessarily. "Yes! My Lord! Prayers, tears and hard work." She shows you the rusting plow that her son Odell had hitched to a pair of mules to break the ground when he was young. She recalls how, one terrible year in the early '60s, the whole family—her six children, Jessie, and herself—worked all through the tobacco season and cleared only $94. "Me and Jessie, we had to thumb a ride into Magnolia every morning, take the shoofly [the local train] into Goldsboro and work all day in the tobacco factory, do our own farm chores in what time was left. My husband always had it hard. Jessie's mother died before he was seven, his father before he was old enough to do a real job. He hired out for a man, feeding oxen, and this man would give him meat for wages, sometimes old overalls he could wear.
"So you see, when it came to Odell—that's what we call him at home—even when he was nothing but a boy, I knew I wanted him to go to school. I wanted them all to go to school, and four of them did, three of them at the same time. Goldie Byrd, that's our baby girl, though she's 30 now, is a doctor in Nashville. And Odell is world champion and he's as nice and sweet and humble as he always was. But I have to say, I never saw boxing in his life."
Neither did Odell. "In school I thought I could be Wilt Chamberlain...Magic Johnson," Smith says. "But I stopped growing at six foot four, so I gave football a try, made the college team as defensive tackle. It wasn't until I joined the Army that I first put on gloves."
Smith was stationed in Würzburg, West Germany, with the 3rd Infantry Division when, at 22, he picked up his nickname. "I was just busting guys up," he recalls now. "I didn't really know anything about boxing, but I was strong, able to hurt people, break noses, crack ribs."
Nevertheless, when Smith got out of the Army three years later and took a job as a prison guard in the North Carolina Correction Department (and moonlighted by teaching high school equivalency courses in adult education classes), he had no thought of turning pro. But when he started seeing fighters he had beaten in the service appear on TV, "It made me think," he says. "I'd get up and run in Magnolia, then drive 25 miles to be at work by 6 a.m. When I came off in the afternoon, I'd head home, change, then drive 50 miles to Fayetteville and work out in the gym.
"Then one day a boxing coach asked me out of the blue if I would be willing to fight James Broad—he was hot then—on ESPN in Atlantic City. So that was when I went pro, in 1981. I was 28 years of age, which must be some kind of record, though I told everybody at the time I was 26. I'd had no pro training. Broad stopped me in the fourth. 'Oh,——,' I said, 'no more fights.' "
But more fights did follow, often short-notice matches that brought the Crusher purses of $300 to $400. In Atlantic City on Sept. 11, 1982, when he beat Chris McDonald, who was 8-0-1, Bonecrusher was noticed by a New York Realtor named Alan Kornberg, who signed him up. Until then, Smith says, he had never felt the need for a manager. Kornberg's first act was to bring Smith together with Emile Griffith.
Yes, that Emile Griffith, the five-time world champion with the melodic Virgin Islands accent. Now, in Fayetteville, Griffith is still the Bonecrusher's trainer, though at 49 he does not head out at 6:30 a.m. with the Crusher when he runs. "Them hard old roads don't love me no more," the trainer says. In the gym, though, Griffith gives spectacular value, as acid as a fishwife, as harsh as a parrot, when he wants to get Smith moving faster against a sparring partner. "Cop 'im! Cop 'im!" Griffith shrills. "Why you waiting? For Christmas coming? Whup 'im! He ain't King Kong!"
Together they resemble a vaudeville act. The Crusher waits patiently until the end of the round, then says, referring to his trainer's baldness, "You're outgrowing your hair, Emile." The great former boxer crackles like an electric storm for a little while, but later, seriously and judiciously, he weighs up his charge's chances against Tyson.
"He come to me very late in life," Griffith says. "He was heavy, sort of square-shaped. I made a mistake at first. I teach him to box and he like to box too good. He forget about punching for a while. Even when he fought Larry Holmes [the IBF heavyweight champion knocked out Smith in the 12th in 1984] he wasn't right where I wanted him. But in the Witherspoon fight, when we only had a week to get our mind on it, I had to say, 'Get him in the first round, then we go home.' I told him, 'I have this safety pin. If you come back to me before you win, I stick this in you.' He think I'm crazy. But it works.
"The Tyson fight will also be one or two rounds. We will see two mountain goats. The one who takes the best punch, that's it. Bonecrusher, he can knock Tyson out in two rounds. He could do it in one, and make me a liar. He's one of the heaviest punchers I've had."
Between the lines, of course, all that Griffith was giving Smith was the traditional puncher's chance—on the perfectly viable theory that the Crusher's terrifying right can do the job before his aging legs let him down.
And maybe this is the way that Smith himself is thinking. "Listen," he says, his voice growing louder as the Bonecrusher side of the man takes control. "Mitch Green would have been a better fight than Witherspoon because Mitch would have run. I do better against punchers. Bruno and Weaver were punchers [trailing badly in the final round, Smith knocked out Frank Bruno in 1984; last year he KO'd Mike Weaver in the first round]. And remember, all the guys that Tyson has fought, even if they'd hit him flush in the face, they wouldn't have hurt him. I'm going to hit him flush and this 20-year-old is going to have a lot on his mind."
Then, just as suddenly as the Bonecrusher persona has appeared, J. Odell reasserts himself. "I'm simply furnishing you with the facts," Smith says. "I can't afford to let Mike Tyson be great right now. I'm 33. He has plenty of time to be great later on."
The following week Smith was at home in Harnett County, not far from Fayetteville, where he lives with his wife, Reba (a former accounting supervisor at U.S. Steel), his 4-year-old daughter, Jamie, and his 16-year-old stepson, Raymond. Smith has 18 acres among the pines, plus a Doberman named Red Cross (because that is what unwanted strangers will need if she meets them) and a horse named Buck. Buck, though, was reluctant to come to his master this particular morning, so the Crusher noisily rattled an empty feed pail—whereupon the horse galloped up, was caught and bridled. "See?" says Smith. "You have to trick him to come to you. And then, strong as he is, you can control him."
"Like Tyson?" says the visitor.
"Right," says the Bonecrusher. And if he is right—well, you would not want to be a fattened hog in Magnolia, N.C., in the days following March 7.