A new chapter: Stephen Smith shifts from ex-fighter to trainer

When one of the famous fighting Smith brothers goes into battle in Quebec on Saturday night, he will have three of his siblings behind him, as always.

But while Callum Smith attempts to get back on top of the mountain – up at light-heavyweight against Artur Beterbiev having previously ruled at super-middle – brother Stephen finds himself at the start of another ascent.

‘Swifty’ has become a trainer, who is quickly gaining momentum. Things did not work out how he hoped they might in the pros. He was good. Really good. But he never got over the world title hump, with losing title efforts to Jose Pedraza for the IBF super-featherweight title and Jason Sosa for the WBA. 

As a consequence, Smith – 28-4 (15 KOs) – was underappreciated and underrated. His other losses came to future world champ Lee Selby, in a fight Smith had been expected to win, and that infamous clash with Francisco Vargas on a gory night in Las Vegas when a substantial chunk of Smith’s ear was left dangling following an accidental headclash.

But there were plenty of good nights, like the stoppage of Daniel Brizuela, beating tough Scot John Simpson for the British title at featherweight and winning the crown at super-featherweight with one of the most perfectly-selected right uppercuts in a British ring.

On top of being a decorated amateur (Commonwealth Games gold medalist) and quality pro, Smith has always been a student of the sport and followed it closely. 

He knew who was coming through the amateurs, who would make it, who would survive and who might fall off.

Now he has a young stable of fighters to guide through the sport’s hazardous waters, including former world flyweight champion Charlie Edwards, Liverpool amateur standout (ABA champion) Ste Clarke and (European gold medalist) Liv Hussey.

When Smith discusses the future, there is enthusiasm and passion. When he talks about his own past, there is a sense of remorse and darkness. Despite winning his last three, his career faded to black in a cloak of anonymity, swallowed up and ultimately engulfed by the pandemic, never to re-emerge.

But the new chapter has allowed him to start a fresh, even though he had not been able to draw a line under the previous one.

“I think I never really got any closure on my career, I think I, sort of, retired because of COVID, I wasn’t ready to retire but when boxing had all stopped I realised I was 34 [years-old], I was thinking it’s probably the wrong time, so I thought I might have to come to terms with my retirement,” Smith admitted. “I had won my last three and I was waiting on the opportunity and I just never got any closure so it hit me that I retired. I took some time away to sort of accept that I wouldn’t box anymore – I still miss boxing now – I’d still love to fight but you just can’t beat time, you know what I mean? I had the break that I needed and the next best thing was always going to be passing the knowledge on and becoming a trainer. I think I’ve got all the tools to become a good trainer. I don’t look at other trainers and think that I couldn’t do that, I think I could be as good as anyone. I’ve got all the confidence and all the tools to go and do it, and I knew I’d had enough time.”

Stephen is now 38. He is training his fighters out of the Rotunda Amateur Boxing Club, where Smith boxed as an amateur – “it made sense to start there” – and because of his new responsibilities, he was delayed going out to Quebec to watch his brother box this weekend.

Paul, Liam and Callum flew out last week. Stephen flies out today (Thursday), so he could train his boxers and, in particular, Clarke, who makes his debut next week.

Stephen now watches boxing through a coach’s lens, and while Edwards is his most high-profile client, more are likely to follow.

“When he [Charlie] made contact, I was flattered the fact that I hadn’t been in a corner yet, and I had a former world champion, someone of his level, asking me to coach them,” Smith explained. “I thought that was a big thing for me. I went out and did a bit of training with him. I saw his dedication and work ethic was unbelievable and I thought that for the fighter who’s had the bad luck he’s had in terms of struggling to get fights, to be putting it in every day the way he us, he showed me what he wants and how much he’s willing to give to the game. When I worked with him, I knew it was still all there. He’s got more than enough ability to go and win a world title again. I think we just need the opportunity, just someone taking a chance and getting a fight really, and then he can do the rest himself - show his ability level and I think he’s also in a weight which has been blown wide open by [Naoya] Inoue by winning all the belts and moving up [in weight], and then vacating. Bantamweight is wide open and he’s as good as anyone to go and win a world title again.”

Since Smith announced his move into coaching, there have been phone calls and messages from boxers enquiring about his availability, but Smith is patient. He is in no hurry. Talk is cheap, and until someone is in there hitting the pads with him, enquiries are just that.

“I want to work with fighters of all levels really,” Smith said. “But obviously I want to be doing it on the top stage. I got messages off numerous fighters, but again, what comes of it we’ll see.”

There is a renewed enthusiasm in how Smith talks. Towards the tail-end of his career, it was not there. It might not have been there for a few years. But now he wants to test and prove himself all over again. He is confident with his boxing knowledge. He has been in and around the gym with the likes of Buddy McGirt (training Callum), Joe Gallagher and Freddie Roach, and plenty more have influenced him.

“Yeah definitely, right from day one, Jimmy Albertina, I think his amateur boxing was unbelievable, I love it more so and have respected it more as I’ve got older, with Jimmy,” Smith continued. “I loved the fact that he had a way of coaching where he didn’t have it from a book, he had a way of coaching fighters and he’d get the best out of fighters. I would use us brothers [Liam, Paul, Callum and Stephen Smith] as an example, because Paul and Liam would need something – like a slap if they were losing, and for me and Callum he’d get his arm round us and let us know we’re getting better. Sometimes you’ve got to get fighters going and rile them up to get the best out of them, and knowing how to treat each individual is what makes good a good coach. 

“When I first turned pro [with] George Vaughan, I saw a lot of similarities in George, learnt a lot from him and as I say now, I’ve found myself watching the coaching side of boxing a lot more than even the fighters. I think I’m watching coaches and listening to instructions more, and trying to reason why they’re telling them that, and if I think the same thing. It’s good to pit your wits against anyone and use your own knowledge and see if you’re on the same level.”

It is that experience that the family shares in abundance. Between them, they have fought Andre Ward, Canelo, George Groves, Arthur Abraham, John Ryder, James DeGale, Chris Eubank and countless others. They have sparred, between them, multiple more star names. Stephen has learned every step and now is ready to embrace his transition from punching mitts to holding them, from answering the first bell to stepping out of the ring when it sounds. And it’s a challenge he is happy for.

“I’ve always enjoyed that side of boxing, I like the intelligence side of it, the boxing IQ thing,” Smith went on. “Setting traps and that side of the game. The mental chess side of boxing is what I’ve always loved, that thought of pitting my mind against other coaches. I like that side of things anyway, so I’m looking forward to making that plan against the opposition when it’s at that level and when you’re in them kind of fights.”

Of course, there are plenty of people who manage to get in corners who shouldn’t be there, but Smith is watching with an open mind, hoping to learn, to progress, improve his fighters and, hopefully, hit the heights he fell just a little short of in his own stellar career.

Is there still time to take the reins of Liam and/Callum before either of them calls it a day? Stephen thinks that is unlikely.

“Probably not, I’m always there helping them [Liam and Callum Smith] out and stuff and I’m involved in their careers but no, I don’t think I’d ever be the No. 1 coach for them,” Smith explained. “I just think the timing’s a bit different. Obviously if there was a bit more of an age gap beforehand then there may be something, but I’ll always be there helping out. At the minute I’m in the gym, Callum’s training with Buddy McGirt and I’m helping Buddy out as much as I can. I love just learning from him. I think I’ve got one of the best coaches in the world to watch, study, and learn from. The things he tells Callum, stuff he corrects him on, stuff he asks him to do and reasons why he does them… I think I’ve just got to be a sponge being around him and really learn.”

And, for his part, Callum has seen older brother Stephen learning his new trade. With the Beterbiev fight one of the biggest the Smiths have had so far, Callum is confident in his own chances and of his brother’s future success in the corner.

“I think he will be very good,” Callum said, of Stephen’s fresh start. “His boxing knowledge and IQ levels are very good and he seems to have a spring in his step now he’s finally made the jump to do it. He’s probably sorry he didn’t do it a little bit earlier. It’s got him busy again and he’s very enthusiastic and I think the thing with Stephen is when he puts his mind to it, he’ll give it 110 per cent. 

“I’m excited to see him. He’s been doing work in the gym, he’s been doing quite a bit with Tasha Jonas as well, while Joe [Gallagher]’s been in Saudi, so he’s coming on as a coach, enjoying it and I’m excited for the journey ahead.”