Callum Smith describes himself as “a bit of a perfectionist”.
He is the type of individual who likes to do everything correct. Even when he wins a fight the focus is on what he did wrong, rather than resting on his laurels working on the assumption that everything will continue without a bump in the road.
“Even internationally in the amateurs when I first joined [Team] GB I remember sparring with Kazakh fighters and they’d do stuff in sparring and you’d be like, ‘Wow, how did you do that?’ and then I‘d go away and try and learn it,” said Smith.
“The best way to learn is to be in with someone who is doing something new and doing it to you. You think, ‘Wow, that was so hard to defend against’ and you work on that and then all of a sudden you can do that shot to other fighters.”
Smith was speaking to Boxing Social several weeks on from a loss and a lesson to the pound-for-pound king Canelo Alvarez. Smith’s 27-fight unbeaten record and his WBA ‘Super’ 168lbs title was put on the table, along with the vacant WBC belt. Canelo, the ice-cold Mexican gunslinger came in, pointed his fists at Smith for 12 rounds and took away everything plus a pile of money.
In defeat, Smith also picked up an arm injury in the first third of the fight, which led to nasty swelling afterwards. Canelo had been aiming all along with right hooks purposely taking away Smith’s catch left hook. An effective tactic that proves how calculated the red-headed one is.
Some rest, physio and time spent with his family has been a big enough interval for Smith to come to terms with his loss which had been hard to take initially. Now there is a realisation. He can learn from Canelo, the Liverpudlian perfectionist can return to the gym and work on what Canelo did better and implement that moving forward.
As his former gym-mate Anthony Crolla once said, ‘It’s not a loss, it’s a lesson’. And Smith agreed with the Mancunian’s sentiment.
“I think you’ve got to; you can’t just blame everyone else for the loss. You’ve got to accept that you lost because he was the better man on the night. You’ve got to look at why he was the better man, what he did better than you, what you didn’t do as good as you should have done,” he said.
“I was ranked as number one but now I’m not and I’ve got to look at why I’m not. Why did I lose, why was Canelo better than me, what does he do so good that I can’t and then I go in the gym. Being in with Canelo I learned a lot from him. His presence, his shot selection, just little bits and there’s no better way to learn so to speak. You got to take it on the chin as a lesson rather than look for excuses.”
Life has been pretty boring, in Smith’s words, since the loss. Normally, a holiday in the sun or some evenings out at restaurants would take his mind off all matters boxing but things have changed in the outside world. Family time has been essential. A visit to his mother’s house and he is asked how he is, no shop talk, but the man on the street wants to talk about the Canelo fight.
“Other people they relate me with boxing and the only way to get a conversation from you is boxing and to be honest it’s probably the last thing you want to speak about, especially after losing,” he said. But Smith will oblige. It’s the rough with the smooth.
Thankfully, Smith never walked into the Alamodome in San Antonio on fight night with a hefty entourage, the music blaring and gold chains a-clinking. In victory, a circle is large and full of hangers on. In defeat, there are tumbleweeds and you’re left looking at the four walls with your real circle by your side regardless. Smith isn’t bling, Smith isn’t loud, and Smith hasn’t had to suffer the sound of silence around him as the cash grabbers vanish.
“I’m not one of those who is out partying with every man and his dog, loving the limelight,” said Smith. “I’ve got my three brothers and a close group of friends and they’ve always treated me the same when I was on top or when I turned first professional, when I hadn’t done anything. It’s more the public and their opinion, it changes of you. One minute I was the next big thing and you lose, and people question whether you’re any good in the first place.”
Does public opinion matter to him?
“Obviously, you’d like to be liked by everyone in the world and that’d be a perfect world. I’d never lost in my career, but I’ve won fights where I never really boxed my best like against Nieky Holzken. It was quite a boring fight. Then I was never given a chance against George Groves then I beat George Groves and then I’m the next big thing again,” he said.
“Then I go and perform well against Hassan N’Dam and everyone was praising me saying he’s the man to beat Canelo and GGG and then you under-perform against Ryder and they say I haven’t got a chance of beating Canelo. It’s up and down. The fans kinda judge you on your last performance and that’s that. Actual fighters understand that we can’t perform all the time and not to judge a fighter on the most recent performance. whereas most fans generally do. I’ve been here before. I was written off before the Groves fight and, if it mattered to me and bothered me and believed what the public said, my confidence would have been shot and I would never have beat George Groves, but I know what I’m capable of when I perform.”
Having a family rock has prevented Smith from ever getting ahead of himself. Brothers Paul, Stephen and Liam have been there before. Liam has fought Canelo, Paul and Stephen have also fought for world titles. Callum can turn and lean on any one of them.
The youngest of the four fighting siblings (at 30-years-old) was never foolish enough to think someone was never going to come along that wasn’t better than him. Still hurts when it happens though, as does the gentle reminders as he explains.
“A few weeks ago, I did an interview with Sky and to hear ‘Former world champion’… it is hard. I worked my whole life to be world champion and I was proud to be world champion and I enjoyed it and to lose it hit home a little bit. I’m not a sore loser and I never really wanted it to happen, but I’ve got friends and family and they’re supporting me,” he said.
Boxing Social brought up the word perspective during the conversation. As much as losing his world title has hurt, having his faculties intact, his health in general and family around him is what matters right now. The world title opportunities will return. Smith is part of an ever-growing generation of fighters who want to leave the sport at the right time, financially secure with glowing achievements.
“You see far too many fighters, and good fighters as well, that stay in the game too long. It’s sad to see and I’ve always said I want to be the opposite. Get out young and healthy and fit and achieve what I want to do, and I believe I’m still on course to do that.”
The interview then turns to the future. Smith isn’t satisfied. Two-weight world champion sounds good.
“I done what I set out to do as a little kid. I always believed there was more I could achieve, that I can be a two-weight world champion. Obviously, I’ve lost one but there are goals I will always set myself. I think as a sports person you always push the bar higher and try and reach and you’re never fully satisfied,” he said. “You always want more, you achieve a new goal and then you want more, and I’ve always felt that’s been me through my career. When you turn pro you see the British title and you want to win it and I won it, and it was like what’s next. I never really sat back and enjoyed where I was.”
Smith’s honesty then came to the fore and the word “greedy” surprisingly came up.
“I always wanted more. When I won the world title, I thought that was it, I could retire the next day and be happy. I won it and I was like there’s more, I want more. I think it was greedy and I think now losing has made me appreciate what I had more. I should have enjoyed being world champion more than I did,” he explained.
Smith told Boxing Social he hopes to return in the spring/summer. Prior to the Canelo fight, he had 13 months out the ring. There are plenty of shows on the schedule and in the pipeline, particularly from promoter Eddie Hearn. As for what is next, Smith wouldn’t 100% commit to saying he would be fighting at light-heavyweight, but his words more or less said he will be. Upon his return, he would like a camp without having to make 168lbs so expect Smith to return somewhere between 168lbs and 175lbs next time out.
“I’ve lost count of how many title fights I’ve had and made 12 stone many, many times. I’d like to do a camp where it’s not all about making 12 stone, it’s about improving. Obviously, I want to improve on my last performance but I’m looking forward to getting back in there with less pressure on me and just becoming a better fighter,” he said. “I’ve been in with the very best now and know what it takes to reach that level and I’ll do my best to keep pushing on and improving. I’m not in here to have a few knock-over jobs. I’m in it to win world titles and that’s the next goal.
“Even if I hadn’t lost to Canelo I always wanted to try and be a two-weight world champion. It’s something I’ve always believed, and I’ve got the frame big enough to do it so why not do it now? Why not have a fresh start?”
The fresh start means targeting 175lbs champions such as Artur Beterbiev and, former amateur opponent, Dmitry Bivol.
“It was a good little fight,” he said of the fight Bivol won 11-7 at a tournament in Hungary nine years ago.
“When you box the Russians in the amateurs you never really see them again but now, they’re all turning professional. I remember seeing him [Bivol] in the Wild Card gym thinking I’ve boxed him and next thing I know he’s on a show in Monte Carlo. He’s a very good fighter and he’s good at what he does. It’s a fight I would love. It’s a fight I’ve talked about before. I remember Beterbiev from the amateurs as well. He was a lot bigger. It’s a good division and it’s wide open. The belts are all split up and I would like to see some unification fights but hopefully I can get in there before they’re all tied up.”
He added: “As much as I’d like to have my world title, I’m now free of it. If I didn’t believe I was good enough to win another world title I’d probably retire now. I do believe I can win one. It’s the goal I’ve set myself and I do believe I will achieve it. I know me better than anyone and I know how good I can be. If anything, the loss has taught me that there is always someone better than you and you can improve no matter what level you reach.”
Main image and all photos: Ed Mulholland/Matchroom Boxing.