Kieran smith: back to business

Back in 2016, at the age of 23, Kieran Smith spectacularly knocked out his opponent within 18 seconds of the first round. It was live on Sky Sports on the undercard of Ricky Burns’ victory over Kiryl Relikh. The finish was one of the fastest in history, and earned the young fighter a great deal of recognition and praise.

He could have been forgiven for thinking that was the moment his professional career would take off. A respected amateur, Smith was now catapulted into the public eye: repeats on Sky Sports News were followed by coverage across the boxing media, and his phone would have been inundated with notifications, texts and calls. But, in a notoriously cruel sport, the road ahead was not a smooth one.

We meet Smith at Springhill Boxing Club in Shotts, Lanarkshire. It’s a real old school gym, portraits and posters of past glories fill the walls, as do pictures of up-and-coming prospects, future events and local community causes. We chat with Smith on the side of the well-used boxing ring, and he explains:

‘I’ve been out for a while now. I was meant to fight Joe Pigford last year but got a bad cut in sparring. Then when it healed I was going to fight on the next Box Nation show, but it was cancelled when Billy-Joe Saunders fought away in Canada. Since then there’s been quite a few fights offered but they all fell through for different reasons. It’s been gutting.’

By the time Smith climbs through the ropes at MTK Global’s show in Glasgow in August he will have been inactive for over a year. That’s not an insignificant time for a fighter of his age, one that’s now completed his apprenticeship and should be aiming for competitive, championship fights. His last contest in June 2017, a clinical beating of former British champion Bradley Pryce, now seems like a distant memory.

Photo credit: Allan Picken

Smith made the difficult decision to part company with his manager and promoter Willie Limond since that victory. Limond – an icon of Scottish boxing, and former Commonwealth, British and European champion – found that the sport can be as painful outside the ring as in it. Opponents pulling out at late notice, cancelled shows and financial uncertainty defined a frustrating year for all involved. Smith explained:

‘Me and Willie are brand new. There’s no bad feeling there. I’ve got a lot of respect for him, but sometimes things just don’t work out. I asked for my contract back and he gave me it, no problems.’

‘I’m ready to go now, climb the rankings and get some big fights. I’m 10-0 but I don’t want to be fighting journeymen. Like it or lump it, you can have an unbeaten record but still not have fought anyone. You see it all the time in this game but that’s no me.’

As a free agent Smith was offered a host of glamorous but surreal opportunities to kick start his career. There was a signed contract with Lennox Lewis’ promotional company that did not materialise. A proposed match in Azerbaijan with a former world amateur champion. And a fight stateside – organised via a Roy Jones Jnr connection and scheduled to appear on UFC fight pass – that was blocked by the British Boxing Board of Control due to time constraints.

These stories are now interesting anecdotes, but at the time must have compounded feelings of bewilderment and stagnation. We probe Smith on his mental state during the last two years, but he appears remarkably stoic. He’s upbeat, philosophical and unshakably positive.

‘It was one thing after another. It’s no easy being out the ring when you’re not injured, just waiting for fights. A few people have asked how I kept positive, but I just coped with it by staying busy in the gym.’

‘I’m a driven person, and I learnt a lot from my amateur days. I was out for 11 months with a hand injury but kept training to stay fit. I fought all over the world and obviously you don’t know your opponent until just before the fight so I’m used to change. Plus when you’ve seen as many dodgy decisions as I have you learn to deal with disappointment! I just keep going.’

‘I’ve been coming to this gym since I was a kid, it’s like a second home. I tried swimming and other stuff but I always knew I wanted to fight. It’s funny that I came here just a wee guy but I’m probably one the more senior lads now.’

‘The coach is also my boss at my other job so we’re obviously close. It’s good having someone that understands boxing, and that balance between working and fighting.’

Kieran comes from a small former mining town, Greenrigg, in West Lothian, and appears to embody the physical and mental strength typical of many from post-industrial towns in Scotland. He may be a modern fighter – fashionable, social media savvy and physically unscathed from combat – but, beneath the superficial, Smith is a hard man. And he has been rewarded for his resilience with a new, tangible opportunity: a management contract with MTK Global.

It’s no secret now that Danny Vaughan has taken the reigns of MTK in Scotland. The experienced coach and manager is known across the sport, and has secured several fight dates, new venues and a television deal with Box Nation. There seems to be a healthy mix of ambition and investment, and it’s an exciting time for Scottish boxing. Smith, like many domestic fighters, is aiming to establish himself as one of the leading names in the country:

‘I’m excited for the future. It’s been good getting to know Danny and sparring some of the other boys. MTK are not messing about, they’re planning some big nights in Scotland.’

‘It’s a six rounder for me in August then hopefully an eight rounder by the end of the year. Then I’m focused on titles. I’d love to win the Commonwealth and push on.’

‘I’d like to go for the British but I’ll see what opportunities come. You’ve seen with the likes of Josh Kelly [WBA International belt holder] that there’s different routes to go now. I want to go as far as possible, get to world level and challenge, that’s what it’s all about.’

As our time ends with Smith, we’re impressed by his attitude, unbroken by two years of distraction. He was once arguably the hottest prospect in Scottish boxing and celebrated for a dramatic knockout on the big stage. But injury and promotional issues halted his progression. It’s now time to bet back to business.

In a short professional career already filled with change, it’s the consistencies in Smith’s life – his gym and coach that he’s worked with since childhood, a supportive family and partner, and an unteachable fighting spirit – that should see him finally realise his undoubted potential.

The hard hitting southpaw will start his new assault on the light middleweight division on Friday 24 August live on Box Nation. Tickets for the event at Glasgow’s Emirates Arena are available from the fighter or i.ritchie@mtkglobal.com.

Gloves Red would like to thank Ricky Flanagan of Uddingston Physiotherapy and Rehab Clinic – http://www.uddingstonphysiotherapy.com – for organising our interview with Kieran Smith.