China Smith Sr. was still a year away from truly considering himself a boxer when he got the opportunity for three minutes that would define just about any boxer’s career.
In 1975, the 20-year-old Smith was a football player at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. Muhammad Ali, who spent much of his career training in Miami, made the trip up the coast for a charity event at the historically black university. A handful of football players each got the chance to go a round against The Greatest.
“I wasn’t no coward, so I wasn’t going to back down from anybody,” Smith said.
Now a Sarasota resident, Smith began to take boxing more seriously a year later and now helps his son, China Smith Jr., coach at gyms in Bradenton and Sarasota. He was always going to take lessons from his days watching Ali. Seeing him in person, though, changed Smith’s perspective.
Before the round of sparring began, there were two things that stood out to Smith. The first was Ali’s hands.
“His hands,” Smith said, “were soft as a newborn baby.”
Then there was Ali’s body. Of course, he was muscular, but to a Division I college football player Ali didn’t seem overwhelming physically. There weren’t muscles in unfamiliar places bulging out at unrecognizable angles. The 6-foot-3 heavyweight, who typically fought around 214 pounds, was famous for avoiding lifting weights. Instead, he had a sinewy, athletic physique, which was sometimes small compared to his opponents.
The next three minutes forever affected the way Smith coaches.
“I’m in there trying to hit him and he’s playing like he did with everybody,” Smith said. “It went like everybody else’s rounds. He played with me like he played with everybody else.”
Smith jokes he hit Ali once — “on his arm, for sure,” he said — while the heavyweight champion danced around the ring, talking smack and putting on a show for the crowd that had filled Bethune-Cookman’s football stadium to see Ali toy with amateurs. It hadn’t been hard for Smith to see how Ali’s speed made him a legend, but the aspiring boxer couldn’t fully understand it until he actually tried to punch him.
“Speed burns. I don’t care what you do. You’ve got to have speed,” Smith said. “Everything everybody tells you, ‘You’ve got to be strong; you’ve got to be big; you’ve got to be this and that.’ No. You’ve got to be fast, and he was fast. His feet were fast, his hands were fast, his mouth was fast and that’s why he was the greatest fighter who ever lived.”
When Smith first started to reflect on Ali’s death Saturday he did so in a similar manner to most others, whether they saw him fight live or have just seen the old highlight reels and stories.
The outpouring after Ali died Friday in Phoenix centered on his long-term, societal impact. He didn’t just fight with brash confidence, he lived with it. Whether it was changing his name from Cassius Clay because his birth name was “a slave name” or refusing to join the United States Armed Forces because of his anti-war stance, Ali's life resonated with people because he stood for what he believed in no matter the consequences.
So when Smith stepped into the ring with Ali, it wasn’t the champion’s physique that was supposed to intimidate the novice. It was the weight behind the man.
“I wasn’t going to be stupid because I knew who I was in the ring with,” Smith said. “I was in the ring with my hero.”