The Big Interview: Grant Smith, the man who came back from the dead to create champion boxers

Grant Smith with his right-hand man, dad Brian. Pictures: Marie Coley
Grant Smith with his right-hand man, dad Brian. Pictures: Marie Coley
0
Have your say

He talks about it as if it was almost nothing: the day he was hit head on by a 56-tonne tram and doctors gave him only hours to live.

Boxing coach Grant Smith was out running near Meadowhall, on the route he’d taken a thousand times before, when death came knocking at his door.

Four generations ... Grant with dad Brian, son Dalton and grandson Cavann

Four generations ... Grant with dad Brian, son Dalton and grandson Cavann

“I had a bad Supertram accident,” he says matter-of-factly. “Doctors said I’d die or have brain damage if I survived. They told my mum and dad and all the family to expect the worst.

“The tram came through the footpath at 28 miles an hour and hit me. I did the same run every day down through Attercliffe and Meadowhall. 56 tonnes hit me at 28mph.

“I had brain surgery, part of my skull was taken away. I was blind. Deaf. My shoulder was round my back.”

Smith signed himself out of hospital after little more than a week. The man nurturing champion boxers at his Steel City gym in Darnall, Sheffield, is as tough as any of his fighters.

That was 12 years ago. Smith gives me the details, but only because I’m pressing. No big deal to him. It happened. Done now.

The conversation turns to the fight game and his body language changes.

The gym is famous for the number of national amateur champions it has produced since Smith took it over in 2002. Seven in one year once, four in a single tournament. He coaches 10 amateur boxers, known as ‘elites’, and six professional fighters, two of whom are already world-ranked. They come from all over the country to work under him.

He’s more forthcoming now. He leans forward on his office desk, animated, steel in his eyes, his T-shirted arms muscled and tattooed in equal measure. School was never his thing, but winning is a subject he has mastered.

Dalton works the bag

Dalton works the bag

“I’m like a drill-master,” he says. “This place is on lockdown when my boxers are in. I don’t have parents in the gym. The fighters have it hard.

He emphasises ‘hard’ in the broad, guttural accent you’d expect from someone brought up on the nearby Littledale estate

“Even the elites train like professionals,” continues the man who started out by coaching his own kids. “In fact, they train harder than the professionals, believe me. That’s why they win national titles. Any person who has come to me has never won a title before. Even if a fighter has been boxing and comes to me, I’ve never taken a national champion. I’ve made national champions.

“All I look for is, they’ve got to listen and when they get the b*llockings, they have to take the b*llockings.

“I tell them all: ‘You’re getting b*llockings and you’re getting kicked up hill and down dale for your benefit, not mine. It doesn’t mean I’m a nasty person, because I’m not a nasty person. I’m doing it because I want you to be the best.’ I praise them as well. They all know how much I think of them.

“But if they’re out of order, they get dragged in here and they get told. Three have been in here this week (we’re only on Wednesday). Some of these are professionals. Men. Big men. They get told how it is. They all take it, or they’re not on squad.”

The gym is a family affair. Grant’s dad, Brian, is there most days and sits in on the interview, good-naturedly piping up from a settee behind us now and again. Mum Pauline is renowned for having a meal on the table before the count reaches 10 for any boxer who drops by to see her and her hubby at their Darnall home.

The bond between father and son is obvious and heartwarming. Brian boxed. Grant did a bit and now regrets he didn’t do more. They laugh together and finish off each other’s stories. Smith Junior isn’t a man given overly to sentiment. “My dad’s my right-hand man. I think the world of him,”is as much as he needs to say.

Grant coaches his own son, Dalton, who is part of the Team GB set-up and working towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Daughters Chelsea and Gervan made their mark at national elite level before retiring. Grandson Cavann is nine and already lacing up the gloves.

We meet at the gym. There’s a sign just inside informing you you’re entering Grant ‘Miffa’ Smith territory. It’s 3pm and Smith - a self-employed kitchen-fitter assisted by one of his pros, Scott Jenkins - has already been on the go for 10 and a half hours.

Catching them young ... Grant with Cavann

Catching them young ... Grant with Cavann

“I’m up around 4.30am,” he says. “There are 6am training sessions for the lads who need them. Then it’s straight to work. There are no breaks. We go straight through. We eat while we work. It’s straight to the gym after that to train the pros, then the elites come in. I’m home for about 8pm, in bed for 10.30. That’s weekends as well. It’s seven days a week. “

Maybe it’s this kind of driven mentality which helped him survive even though the caliper of the tram’s windscreen wiper went through his head.

Partner Lindsey doesn’t see a lot of him. “She’s a godsend,” Smith says. “She has to put up with an awful a lot of cr*p from me. Anything I ask of her, she does it for me. She never moans, she never complains. I couldn’t do any of this without her and the rest of the family. We’ve been together for 10 years but I’ve known her for about 30.”

Now 46, he still recollects one teacher telling him he’d never amount to anything.

“He’s worked every day since he left school,” interjects Brian. “It’s true,” Smith confirms. “No days off sick. I don’t have time to be ill.”

He’s proud of what he’s done to the disused school where his operation has been based for the last two years. “I’ve spent £40,000 of my own money on it,” he says. “I’ve designed a lot of it myself. We get no funding. It’s self-financed. We’re open to the public at certain times and the subs from that help.

“I’m honoured to be where I am because South Yorkshire has some top, top trainers. To be classed as a good trainer out of all that lot and for my gym to stand out from some other gyms is an honour for me.”

I ask for a guided tour and get more than I bargained for when he takes me to the toilets. “Look at them,” he says. “Spotless. I have the cleaners in every day.”

The gym is airy, spacious, with a well-thought-out place for everything. The gear of his boxers is neatly stored in a back room on individual racks bearing their names. Flags from some of his fighters’ home countries hang on the wall. His phone rings but he’s adamant he’s not taking calls until my time with him is over.

There’s evidence of good standards everywhere.

Tea arrives courtesy of Brian and, just like the boxers’ storage space, comes with a nice personal touch. My mug has the letter ‘P’ on it, Grant’s has ‘G’, and we’re not talking Tips.

“Anybody who comes to box for me - they’ll tell you - they get to know me,” Smith says. “I treat them all like my kids. I give them business advice, life skills. If I can do something for them, I will. I’ll give them no bad advice.

“I want to be one of the best, no matter what I do, whether it’s kitchens or whatever. If I fit a kitchen, I fit it as well as I possibly can.

“My boxers get 100 per cent of me. I’m not in this for the money one little bit. This costs me money. It’s cost me a lot of my money, time and effort and a lot of my family’s time and effort.

“I don’t get to see my grandkid like I should do, my kids. Everybody in my family, my missus, my dad, my kids, my mum, my grandson, they all suffer for this place.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m okay losing money on this. I set myself targets. And I’m going to hit those targets.”

The fire flashes again as he repeats: “I’m going to hit those targets.”

Smith is intense yet sparky, friendly and welcoming. When he laughs, he really laughs, but ambition makes life a serious business. Things are run his way. Miffa’s Law.

I’d hate to get on the wrong side of him. I’d love him to fit my next kitchen.

He goes on: “Boxers get told when they come on squad that if they don’t make every squad session, if they don’t make the morning sessions when they’re called in, if they start slacking, they’ll get a warning.

“They get another warning after that. After that, gone. A national champion has gone this year. I don’t mess about.

“Only one boxer has left me by choice, and he came back after one season.”

The day his life almost ended seems a long time ago. There’s a major scar on his head, but the only long-term effect, he tells me, is “just a bit of stuttering”. There’s no sign of it while I’m there.

“I was deaf and blind for a while and then it started coming back bit by bit,” he recalls. “My face was paralysed down one side. It was hard for me because I thought I was sat there talking normally to somebody but my words were all slurry. I coudn’t tell.

“I justed wanted to come home. I had two weeks recovering at my mum and dad’s. Then I was back out and about after six weeks. I was very, very lucky.”

We have to leave it there. His fighters are due in soon. Smith doesn’t dwell on the accident anyway.

He remembers it only because it happened on his mum’s birthday.

****************************

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Best fighter coached? This is going to sound corny, but it’s got to be Dalton Smith! He was the first man from Sheffield to be on a Team GB Olympic squad. The plan is for him to turn pro after Tokyo 2020. We’ve had some good offers already, but all he’s interested in for now is winning medals. When I’m in the gym, I’m his coach. Out of the gym, I’m his dad. You have to switch off. I’ve trained him since he was six. We’re very close. A lot of coaches who coach their sons or daughters treat them as their son or daughter. When it gets tough, they get a bit soft on their kid. They let them cut little corners and make excuses. I don’t. Ask anyone in my gym, Dalton gets it tougher than anybody.

Best UK prospect? I’ve got a few in my gym. There’s Sunny Edwards (“He’s going to be world champion in the next three years,” says Smith’s dad, Brian). There’s Kyle Yousaf as well. He’s as good. Same weight. I’m just moving them in different channels. They’re both world-ranked. Kyle is a Sheffield boy. Sunny has been up here from Croydon for years.

Best ever fighter? Sugar Ray Robinson. For what reason? Everything. He could punch, he could move, everything. I like a skilful fighter, a boxer who can do a bit of everything. I don’t like an all-out fight when it’s just brawling. Anyone can fight. Not everyone can box.

Best friend in boxing? I’ve got about six, not counting family. I keep my circle close. I’ll go for Jamie Sheldon (cutman and hand-wrapper). He’s a big influence on this gym. Everyone knows Jamies in this game and in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). He’s got a big profile. I was quite honoured when he chose to come and use this gym as his base. We’ve become great friends. He gives me opportunities, I give him opportunities. He has the same ethic as me. He’d do anything for the lads. He’s part of us. That’s why we’re tight.

Best moment in boxing? The one that stands out for me is when my son won his first national schoolboy title in his first year. He was 12. It was in Brentwood, Essex. He won at 40 kilograms. I was really proud. We had a game-plan for that fight. We were boxing a Repton Boys lad. They’re a top club, but I always seem to beat their boys in finals. Dalton was fighting a kid from a big boxing family and I knew it was going to be a tough fight, so I studied it. I can still remember the exact words I spoke to him at the end of the second round. He come back and he was 2-1 down. Before the fight, I’d said to him: ‘If you’re two points down going into the last round, don’t worry. I’ve got something up my sleeve.’ I’m getting goose pimples now look just thinking about it. He came back and he was a point down. ‘Don’t panic,’ I said. He came back after the second round two points down. He said: ‘Dad, I’m not going to pull this back.’ I said: ‘Listen to me. This kid does this, this kid does that. I didn’t want to show it too early. Go out there and throw this shot, do this, do that, don’t panic. When I call, you do as I say.’ He did it. When he came back, he’d won it by two points. We still joke about it today. He came running over and hugged me.

Worst moment in boxing? The Elite ABA Finals two years ago in Liverpool. I’d got Sunny and Dalton there and they were both ranked number one. Sonny had already won it the year before. Dalton goes through to the semi-finals and wins clearly, cuts the kid and everything. The referee was wiping Dalton as if he was cut. I told him it was the other kid. He give the kid some right hammer. Comes to the scorecards and he’s lost on a split decision. I was heartbroken. Everyone knew he’d won. With Sunny, same again. He reaches the semi-final. He didn’t box too well in the first round, won the next two, lost on a split decision. That was the lowest point. I blamed myself. I trained the guys, I gave them instructions. They do what I say. I took that really, really badly.

What’s the art of coaching? It’s different for every boxer. Just because a coach has boxed doesn’t mean he’s going to be a better coach than the next man. That is a load of cr*p. The only people who say that are ex-fighters and coaches who are ex-fighters. I just keep my mouth shut. I know what I’ve done and how good my fighters are. A lot of coaches train a system. I don’t. I have an individual approach to all of them, even though they’re in the same gym. Every fighter is trained a little bit differently to help their style.

Best thing about what you do? Seeing my lads succeed, all of them, not just my son. They’re all my lads.

Worst thing about what you do? I don’t get to see my kids and my grandson. It bugs me, but I have to take it on the chin. I hope they realise what I do and why I do it.

Stars of the future

Stars of the future