BRADENTON -- The Dragon is back.
When China Smith steps inside the ring Friday night at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, the 34-year-old Sarasota native and resident will be ending a six-year boxing hiatus.
"Time off has done me well," said Smith, nicknamed The Dragon. "I'm older, more mature. But I'm hungrier."
Smith's scheduled bout with Rubin Williams will headline tonight's eight-fight card.
Doors open at 6 p.m., and boxing gets under way at 8 p.m.
After crafting a career that included a 33-4 record, 26 knockouts and two stints as the National Boxing Association's heavyweight champion, Smith stepped away from boxing to work with and help mentor young people. He manages the Boxing Extreme Fitness Program at the Manatee County Police Athletic League and routinely gives lectures at area schools.
"I never lost my dream, never lost my focus," Smith said. "I knew at one point in time I was coming back ... When I go speak at schools and with certain people, I always say, 'Never give up on your dreams, and if you work hard, listen to your parents and listen to members of law enforcement, your dreams can come true.'"
A married father of three, Smith said his desire to be a good role model kept him in shape all these years. Plus, six of years of no boxing was beneficial to his body.
"I wasn't hit on, wasn't pounded on - my body got a chance to heal," he said. "I wasn't in fighting shape, but I gradually stayed in shape; I could always two, three miles no problem. ... What most people do after a fight is they gain something like 15 pounds. But I gradually stayed in shape, gradually stayed in the gym, and working with kids and working with the youth kept me in shape because they looked up to me."
During his time away, Smith said he received offers to fight all over the country. The time was never right, he said.
Smith said this time is the right time. And now that he's back, he wants to reclaim or surpass his past glories.
"Right now, it's do or die. The heavyweight division is wide open," he said. "I feel stronger, so I'm good, and I'm ready to go."
He's happy his comeback is taking place in his hometown and in front of so many familiar faces. And he wants to do them proud, just as he wants to do all the kids he has spoken to proud.
The Dragon is back. And The Dragon is ready.
"I'm ready to get it on, ready to make it happen," Smith said. "The kids have heard me talk the talk. Now they're going to get to see me walk the walk."