Boxing has long attracted exemplary american writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates. Before he's through, special contributor Gary Smith may rank with the best of them as a chronicler of the sweet science. Indeed, Oates herself says, "That Muhammad Ali piece [SI, April 25, 1988] was brilliant. Oh, and that extraordinary one in which he led Mike Tyson into saying those amazing things was even more striking [March 21, 1988]. I can't praise this man highly enough. He represents boxing writing at its very best."
What draws Smith, whose profile of the redoubtable trainer Eddie Futch begins on page 58, to the sport are the characters who inhabit it. "They're real and raw and not so concerned with image," he says. "Most of them are guys who are driven into the ring, guys who look at people walking by in three-piece suits and have an urge to pull them down. Boxers seem to live lives that have all the elements of a story, even before their ability in the ring makes celebrities out of them."
Smith is from Wilmington, Del., and vividly remembers going as a teenager to see his first fight, Ali-Frazier I, on closed circuit in 1971. "We stood on our chairs, and the feeling was more heightened than any sporting event I'd ever been to," says Smith. "Big fights are like that. They have so much riding on them."
Five years later Smith covered his first bout. He was a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, and the fight was at the old Philadelphia Arena. His pugilistic tastes haven't changed. He still prefers big fights and cramped gyms. "I like places with feeling to them," he says. "Old arenas with old smells."
And boxers seem to like having him around them. When he had completed his interviews for the Tyson story, Tyson invited him to stay at his training camp for a spell. Says Smith, "I said I had to leave, and he said, 'No, don't go. Stick around for a while.' "
Smith, however, was eager to get back to his wife, Sally, and their daughters, Gabriela, 3, and Saviana, 1, in Charleston, S.C. Smith recognizes a familiar combativeness in Saviana. "She has a boxer's attitude," he says. "She dives headfirst into everything. We call her 'Crazy.' Hmmm. That's a good name for a boxer, isn't it? Saviana (Crazy) Smith."
Smith likes his characters raw and his gyms old.