John Scully could not believe what he had just heard.
The veteran trainer and former light heavyweight contender was watching the first episode of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, a piece of ESPN shoulder programming to promote the light heavyweight unification between Artur Beterbiev and Joe Smith Jr., when Smith uttered words unconscionable for a seemingly hardened prizefighter.
Narrating his title winning effort over Maxim Vlasov last April, Smith admitted in the segment that he felt despondent late in their highly competitive 12-round tussle, so much so that he had disclosed to Jerry Capobianco, his head trainer, that he was not sure if he was going to finish on his feet.
“There was a point in the fight I went back to the corner and I said to Jerry, ‘Man, I don’t know if I’m gonna make it through this one,” Smith said. “He’s really getting to me.’”
In the end, Smith managed to eke out a majority decision, giving him rights to claim the WBO 175-pound title. After years of painstaking toil in the gym and coming up short in a previous title shot, the former day laborer from Long Island was now champion.
It was a heartfelt story, a paean to all underdogs everywhere, but for Scully, hearing Smith talk so freely about the vulnerabilities he felt in the ring against Vlasov was tantamount to waving the white flag.
“Here’s the ultimate thing for me,” Scully told BoxingScene.com. “If you saw the ESPN special that came out a couple of weeks ago. Joe said something to the effect of, at one point the physical pressure was really getting to him and it was almost like he wanted to give up. I was surprised. Well, that was a mistake.
“He never should have said that. I think Joe made a mistake there. He spoke too much.”
Scully, best known as a trainer for his work with former light heavyweight titlist Chad Dawson, has been working lately as the assistant trainer to Beterbiev, the much feared Russian mauler who makes his home in Montreal and whose head trainer is local fixture Marc Ramsay. Fighters do not lose to Beterbiev so much as they crumble, collapse – conk out. Smith will be looking to change that narrative trajectory when he takes on Beterbiev, who holds the IBF and WBC 175-pound titles, Saturday night at the Hulu Theater in Madison Square Garden in New York City in the main event of an ESPN telecast.
Beterbiev, 37, is hardly the type of fighter one figure is in need of a moral boost, but Scully was only too happy to offer his charge an alluring psychological morsel. If Smith felt so comfortable divulging his insecurities against a competent, but hardly extraordinary, fighter in Vlasov, consider, Scully thought, what avenues of mental fragility a presumed knockout artist like Beterbiev could put Smith on?
“I told him, ‘Hey we have an advantage that is insurmountable and it’s a given,’ Scully said. “You can’t work on that. You can’t go, ‘Wish I never said that.’ That’s your deep, deep mentality.
“Artur’s mentality is kill, kill, kill. Like pit bulls. You could break a pitbull’s leg and he’s still gonna fight. I think we have a great advantage, deep down psychologically, over Joe, because now we know that he has a chink in that armor. Artur Beterbiev would never ever, ever, ever, ever say that (giving up). He would never feel that. He would never say that, and if he did he would never admit it. Artur doesn’t have that gene in him. He wouldn’t do that.”
In Beterbiev’s last fight against Marcus Browne in December, the Russian looked to be in trouble when a gruesome gash opened up in the middle of his forehead as a result of a head clash deemed inadvertent. (Beterbiev disagreed with that assessment, claiming Browne knew what he was doing.) After a somewhat slow start to the fight, Beterbiev broke Browne down, finishing off the Staten Island native in the ninth round.
Scully expects Beterbiev (17-0, 17 KOs) to produce a similar scenario against Smith (28-3, 22 KOs).
“They say that pressure bursts pipes,” Scully said. “People get in with Artur and you can see it’s almost like the life being sucked out of them. The air being sucked out of their being. Round after round it gets deeper and deeper and deeper. I think Artur presents a strength that is pretty unusual for a light heavyweight.”