Junior middleweight contender Ishe Smith has always been a mercurial talent. Despite being an elite defensive fighter with natural boxing ability, Smith’s often lazy offensive output and unwillingness to let his hands go with abandon have cost him in his biggest fights.
Narrow and sometimes debatable defeats to the likes of Sechew Powell, Joel Julio, Daniel Jacobs and Fernando Guerrero suggest that Smith can push top fighters but perhaps not overcome them. Of course, this was not due to a deficiency in talent. Rather, Smith (24-5, 11 KO) appeared to lack urgency in the types of fights where he needed convince fans, pundits and, most importantly, ringside judges that he was more than just an opponent.
This Saturday, Smith will try to wrest the IBF 154-pound title from Cornelius “K9” Bundrage at Detroit’s Masonic Temple. Just when it seemed that Smith had been relegated to being one of boxing’s most competent gatekeepers, he will now travel into enemy territory to face a fellow alumnus of “The Contender” reality series.
So, as the opponent and travelling fighter, how can Smith overcome Bundrage (32-4, 19 KO) in what amounts to both a title and crossroads fight?
Despite setbacks that included a spectacular first-round TKO loss to Sechew Powell and an eighth-round stoppage defeat to Joel Julio, Bundrage has enjoyed a late-career renaissance since dropping a split decision to Grady Brewer. Though he has only fought three times since 2010, Bundrage has impressed on each occasion and established himself as a viable champion.
In twice bludgeoning former champion Cory Spinks and notching a workmanlike measure of revenge against Powell, Bundrage has used tireless aggression to overcome supposedly classier boxers. By so impressively defeating two southpaws in three championship fights, Bundrage has shown power in his clubbing right hand, as well as the ability to distort and disrupt his opponent’s punching range.
Bundrage finds himself in a similar situation against Smith. Though he is an orthodox fighter, Smith is a slick defender and better boxer than “K9.” For Smith, Bundrage’s pressure is a stark contrast to what he has lacked in his most significant fights, and it is this aggression that Smith must negate to impress the judges.
One of Smith’s best attributes is his counter-punching ability. However, in order to disrupt Bundrage’s rhythm, Smith must include forward movement and stiff jabs into his arsenal.
Over his last three fights against marginal opposition, Smith has shown more offensive flair. If Smith is aggressive early and works a steady jab, he could put Bundrage onto his back foot and force him into wild swings, which will allow Smith to then land stinging counters.
It is no secret that Smith employs his own variation of the “shoulder roll” defense. Smith is also a sound athlete and rarely gets hit cleanly. By carrying his right hand next to his cheek, Smith is capable of launching sharp counters down the middle, even after he’s turned away from his opponent or dipped his body low to evade a punch.
Smith will want to use his reflexes and ability to contort his body from a stationary position to set traps for Bundrage. If Smith can get Bundrage to lunge and reach with his right hand, Smith will be in optimal position to propel himself forward and counter with his own straight right hand or uppercut. When Bundrage misses, Smith will also have the option to clinch or sidestep, and turning Bundrage will open up angles for Smith’s combinations and force Bundrage to use his legs to reposition himself.
One of Smith’s finest attributes is his body punching. However, landing cleanly to Bundrage’s midsection can prove difficult because of his ability to close distance and smother opponents. If Smith can control range by using his jab and channeling Bundrage’s aggression, he will create the natural space he needs to land to the body.
Who will Saturday's IBF title fight?
Leading with hooks to the body is something that has served Smith well. Because Smith lacks one-punch knockout power, he needs to invest downstairs whenever he has an opening in order to sap Bundrage’s energy and make him drop his hands. While landing pot-shots from range isn’t thrilling, Smith will need to consistently initiate exchanges with these kinds of yeoman punches.
The main problem that Spinks and Powell had against Bundrage is that they let “K9” bully them. In order to avoid this, Smith must secure Bundrage in a clinch when he starts to get inside and unload. That said, if Smith can commit to fighting back harder, he can avoid wrestling Bundrage every time he gets in-close.
Variety will be essential with regards to negating Bundrage’s pressure. If Smith exclusively resorts to clinching, he could fall into a pattern where he ties up Bundrage, only to find himself overwhelmed by another barrage of punches. So, Smith needs to have moments where he simply digs in and backs Bundrage up. This sort of willfully aggressive display is what Smith needs to win the fight.
Ultimately, to avoid his past mistakes, Smith needs to be first with his combinations. He must punctuate his volleys with hard hooks to the body and force Bundrage to retreat. If Smith can morph into the bully amidst spells of his naturally slick boxing, he could very well leave Detroit with the IBF strap.