When HBO featured a list of world champions from Cincinnati on its Adrien Broner-Vicente Martin Rodriguez broadcast Saturday night, the name of Wallace “Bud” Smith was unfortunately omitted. A combination puncher with the willingness to take a couple to give a couple, Smith was a television staple during the early fifties, when he met many of the best men in his class, rising up the ranks to eventually claim the lightweight crown from Jimmy Carter in 1955.
Images Courtesy of Antiquities of the Prize Ring
Smith, a three-sport star at Woodward High School, was a golden gloves and national amateur champion before narrowly missing out on a medal at the 1948 Olympics. Smith earned his spot on the American team with victories over Johnny Gonsalves and collegiate champion Chuck Davey before blasting through the first three rounds of the London Games in impressive fashion. Having dropped his Belgian opponent in the opening session of the semi-finals with a right hand, Smith’s dream of gold came crashing down when he punched himself out going for the finish. With little left in the tank, he spent the final round of the contest in retreat and lost a points verdict.
Unlike modern amateur stars, there was rarely a cushioned route to main-event status, and Smith’s early pro grind was no exception. After turning pro at Cincinnati’s Music Hall Arena a few months after the Games, he was quickly matched against capable veterans and before long was facing many of the division’s top battlers. He struggled at times while paying his dues, getting hammered over ten one-sided rounds by Carter in 1950 before enduring a six-fight stretch without a victory the following year. It was rough going with little reward for Smith, who, despite a fan-friendly style and many television appearances, found it hard to earn a buck during the mob-controlled fifties. Smith had little in the bank to show for his toil by the time he got a crack at Carter’s title.
The championship contest, fought at a sweltering Boston Garden on June 29, was a titanic struggle that saw both men bloody and staggering from punishment. Smith, using his left hook to great effect, had the durability to engage and get the better of Carter in the type of inside battle the hall of fame champion so excelled at, and emerged with his hand raised at the end of fifteen gory rounds.
Bill Lee of the Hartford Courant on Smith’s title winning effort:
“Smith, a 3 ½ to 1 short-ender, hammered the crown from Carter’s head in a bloody throwback to the days when they fought on river barges without benefit of boxing commission restraints…
Inside, it must have been hotter than the night at Yankee Stadium that Sugar Ray Robinson and Referee Ruby Goldstein succumbed to the terrible heat. This took its toll of the two dead game fighters as they came on from a slow beginning to make one of the most ferocious lightweight fights on the record books.
Carter made good on his rematch clause, and the fighters met four months later, this time in Smith’s hometown at the Cincinnati Gardens. It was another donnybrook, with Smith, who entered as an 8 to 5 underdog with the bookies, once again gaining the victory. Building on the anticipated violence after the first fight, the Cincinnati boxing commission made the unusual decision, on Carter’s request, of not limiting further bloodshed in any way by announcing the fight would not be stopped on cuts.
Smith pressed forward throughout in his typical fearless fashion, forcing Carter, who was used to being the stronger man, back onto his back foot for much of the contest – though he very nearly saw his title slip away during a hair-raising thirteenth session. A left hook hurt the local man, and he teetered, legs rubbery, from one side of the ring to another, as Carter tore after him in search of the finishing blow. But the gutsy Smith survived the round and remarkably came back strong to win the next session before battling on even terms during the frantic final three minutes to earn the decision.
Sadly, he was unable to translate his championship into the kind of financial reward his work deserved. The fights with Carter were the kind of high-contact brawls that take years off of careers, and in some cases, end them. For Smith, who had waited years for his crack at the crown, it was essentially the latter. The harrowing contests left him a depleted fighter. He never won another fight, relinquishing the crown to Joe Brown the following year. Smith retired in 1958 but not before suffering an unfortunate amount of punishment in his last few contests.
A familiar face in his neighborhood after his career ended, Smith struggled to adapt to life after boxing and was already suffering from early onset dementia when he died tragically in 1973. He was shot in the head after trying to act as a peacemaker between a quarreling couple on the streets of Cincinnati. He was just 44 years old at the time.