He Has The Gift Of Jab Boxing Legend Paul Smith Teaches His Craft
He’s 79, but Paul F. Smith of Spokane is still fighting trim, glides like Fred Astaire and could punch his way out of a dark alley.
Picture the Burgess Meredith character from the first “Rocky” movie. Smith is more handsome and less crotchety.
He’s soft-spoken and even comes across passive - until he throws that lightning left at an 11-year-old’s face, stopping just shy of the wideeyed youngster’s nose.
“If you’re a right-hander, your left is the most important hand you got. It sets up the big one,” he tells the kid.
Smith was a professional boxer in the mid- to late 1930s, a Tacoma-based lightweight whom one magazine ranked 19th in the world in 1937.
Now he’s a volunteer trainer in the basement of the Eagles Lodge at Francis and Lidgerwood.
The gym is a dank, cramped rectangle. Pipes and wires hang exposed. It smells like a 30-yearold case of body odor.
Three nights a week, it’s Smith’s second home.
“I just got it in my blood,” he says. “And I always got along good with kids.”
Smith and his wife, Betty, parlayed a blind date into a 56-year union that produced five children, 17 grandchildren and about that many greatgrandchildren.
He was born Jan. 21, 1916, to Mark and Nellie Smith, in Reno, Nev., and grew up with a chin as tough as sagebrush, his trainers told him.
In 1935, Smith turned pro after 14 amateur fights, all wins.
He fought about five years as a lightweight and welterweight out of the Northwest Athletic Club, finishing with a record he estimates - but concedes he can’t prove - at 80 wins, eight losses and eight draws.
Yellowed newspaper clippings say Smith started slow but became a solid fighter, with a tough work ethic and a blazing left.
“Tacoma fans are still singing the praises of Paul Smith, who last week made one of the best fights of the year in dishing out a sound shellacking to Eddie Caudell, who weighed 12 and a half pounds more than the Tacoma lighty for the scrap,” an undated boxing program says.
“Smith cut the Wenatchee baker boy to ribbons in gaining his spectacular win.”
Smith is now 5 feet 7 inches tall, 1 1/2 inches shorter than his fighting height when his spine was straighter. He weighs 142 pounds. His fighting weight ranged from 135 to 147.
His white hair is combed back and curls at the tips. His blue eyes still have a fire.
And Smith still makes the Everlast heavy bag go “whap” when he throws his varied combinations.
“You’re telegraphing your punches a mile,” Smith tells 13-year-old Dan Eller.
“He’s one of our newer kids,” Smith whispers.
Part-time Eagles coach Rowdy Welch, 30, a former professional contender at junior lightweight and middleweight, considers himself a boxing historian.
He admires Smith for being from the old school, where boxers weren’t as technically good but were much tougher.
“He grew up in the Depression, where fighting was a way of life,” Welch mumbles through a lip full of snuff tobacco. “He had to eat, so he had to fight.”
Eleven-year-old Ezra Bocook is popping the heavy bag with quick and powerful bursts, but he’s breathing too deeply.
“You gotta quit snorting. You’ll get tired real quick and run out of oxygen,” Smith tells him.
“Smith is a relentless, tireless, pugnacious sort of a rascal,” a sportswriter wrote 60 years ago.
At Eagles gym, he’s beloved.
Trish Simpson has been taking her shy 8-year-old, Ricky Parkins Jr., to the gym for two months.
“He’s so good with the kids,” she says. “He really encourages them. And he tells interesting and good stories. He’s a cool guy.”
The Eagles gym takes all comers for a nominal, $15 yearly fee. The club travels to various regional matches.
“We love Paul,” adds Trish’s mother, Marge Simpson, grinning about having the same name as the TV cartoon character.
“Paul, a smiling personable youngster, has been coming along slower than some of the flashier kids around the Northwest gym, but more surely. Now he has definitely passed them on the way up the fistic stairs.
“There is considerable of the Horatio Alger Work-and-Win stuff about Smith,” a yellowed clipping says.
Nearly 60 years later, it’s a work ethic that still fits Smith like an old pair of boxing gloves.