Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The countless winter evenings spent at the Thomas & Mack Center during my childhood helped fuel an unreachable dream: I wanted to play for the hometown Rebels.
Most people growing up in Southern Nevada in the 1980s had aspirations of running out on the red carpet with the UNLV basketball team. Thinking back, it was sure fun imagining myself in the Rebels’ scarlet and gray and slamming home an alley-oop pass from Mark Wade.
That’s why Ishe Smith's rise to prominence as a championship boxer is easy to appreciate. If you thought it was difficult getting one of a handful of roster spots at UNLV, imagine the long odds of becoming a boxing champion ... at age 35.
The Durango High graduate would frequently attend a big-time Las Vegas boxing cards during his teenage years with hopes of one day being the main attraction. But unlike this vertically challenged native in his mid-30s who couldn’t make his high school basketball team, that thirty-something boxer will have his dreams come true Saturday night.
About three times each year, the Strip would buzz with the excitement of a mega-boxing match — those heavyweight battles featuring Mike Tyson or someone with big-punching power when a boxing Saturday night still mattered.
Smith, a promising teenage boxer and Olympic hopeful, had to be close to the action. He just couldn’t afford a ticket.
On Saturday, Smith won’t need a ticket at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
“I remember being a little boy about 16 and 17 and going to the MGM and not being able to get into the Tyson fight,” he said. “But just going up there to be around the aura and being in the MGM lobby was exciting. To (fight) at MGM, the pinnacle of Las Vegas boxing, it is just going to be truly amazing.”
He’s part of the stacked undercard of the Floyd Mayweather-Canelo Alvarez fight, finally getting his chance to compete on one of those Las Vegas boxing Saturday nights when he takes on Carlos Molina in defense of his IBF light middleweight title. The card sold out within hours, breaking a Nevada live gate record.
Sure, most of the fans will be there to see Mayweather attempt to keep his record perfect against a major challenge from Alvarez. Smith, who trains out of the Mayweather Boxing Club, can’t wait to see the fight, either.
But this time, unlike his childhood when he was forced to wait outside and observe crowds with hopes of catching a glimpse of the fighters, he’ll be in the middle of the excitement.
He became a champion in February at age 34, an age when most athletes are retired, not at the peak of their career. He’s a pretty easy guy to root for and doesn’t mind carrying the flag for us middle-age weekend warriors.
“I don’t feel old, but my body feels old sometimes,” he said. “I’m not a young guy anymore. I’m here to inspire kids, adults, anyone who wants to give up on their dream. I had this dream when I was 8 years old, and to finally accomplish it 27 years later is amazing.”
After years of fighting in empty ballrooms, including locally at the Plaza and the Hard Rock Hotel, Smith will fight in front of 16,000 fans at the MGM. This will also be his best payday, reportedly $250,000.
More important, he is making his first title defense after winning his past four fights to transform his career.
In July 2010, Smith dropped a unanimous decision against Fernando Guerrero, being defeated for the third time in five fights. One of the wins was a six-round decision against a fighter with eight career defeats — not exactly the road to a championship for someone approaching his mid-30s.
“It’s been a roller-coaster ride, but a nice roller-coaster ride,” Smith said. “I won the title; that’s the most important thing. Not many people can say they were the champion.”
He's also Las Vegas’ champion, the first native to win a boxing belt. That’s something he glows with pride when asked about, knowing he wasn’t the only teenage boxer hanging around the MGM on those big fight nights to be part of the action. He was a respected amateur and nearly made the 1996 Olympic team, but he had to wait more than 20 years for boxing glory.
He’s never really pondered retirement, which helps explain how he lasted so long fighting in empty ballrooms all these years. Plus, he finally has a ticket to one of those can’t-miss boxing Saturday nights in Las Vegas.
“I always told myself I would get out of this game before this game defeated me,” he said. “Boxing will get the best of you if you stay too long. You see guys who can’t walk, can’t talk. I always told myself I’d be done at 40, but it looks like I’ll be staying a little longer.”