Mr. Smith Goes To Sacramento



Mr. Smith Goes To Sacramento

I met Terry Smith about a hundred and twenty seconds before being punched unconscious in my second professional boxing match. This is not a story about that embarrassment, though, but about the referee of that short fight, who afterward found me coming out of the showers, unsure of how I was going to face my parents, and sister, and friends who had come to watch me. Terry asked me how I felt, and I told him I was fine physically – which was true, except for my broken nose – but wasn’t too sure about my ego.

He chuckled, but not in a way that was uncaring, and patted me on the back. “You’ll be okay,” he said. I appreciated the concern, and it turns out he was right about recovering from such a loss. But then, as I would come to discover, he knew what he was talking about.

Terry had boxed himself, retiring with a professional record of eight wins against three losses. Seven of his victories were stoppages, as the British say, but the fight ended early in each of his three losses, too. In his final loss, to Charlie “Tombstone” Smith, Terry was knocked down nine times before the fight ended in the seventh round. He didn’t fight anymore after that, eventually finding his way to law school, and a career as a prosecutor for Sacramento County.

Born poor in London on August 15th, 1934, Terry and his brother Dave were introduced to boxing by their father. He described his upbringing perfectly in three sentences: “We moved around a lot, and you always had to fight to prove yourself. You’d pick the guy you wanted to fight. If you picked on a small guy, you got no respect.”

Size is relative, and after the Smith family emigrated to the United States in 1949, Terry (left) found himself winning the 1951 Seattle Golden Gloves and then boxing as a 119 pound freshman for Gonzaga University.

College boxing’s popularity peaked in the 1940s, but was still a prime sport through the 1950s, with west coast universities fielding a team including Sacramento State, Cal Poly, San Jose State, Idaho, Washington State, Colorado, Nevada, Cal, Santa Clara, Fresno State, University of San Francisco, Chico State, and Stanford.

But Gonzaga dropped its program before the 1952-1953 season, and Terry joined the Air Force, with newspaper accounts reporting him as boxing out of Hamilton Air Force Base, in California’s Marin County. He failed to make the 1956 Olympic team, but was noticed by Sacramento State’s boxing coach, Hank Elespuru, who persuaded Terry to return to college and box for him upon discharge from the military. This is how he was on the school’s cross country team in the fall of 1957, getting in shape for the upcoming boxing season. 

Terry was 23 years old, had developed into a full-grown middleweight, and had a world of experience from boxing since childhood. In Coach Elespuru’s words, “[Terry] could do anything he wanted with those boxing gloves.” 

This must have been about the time when Elespuru said of Terry that “…he was the best amateur fighter in the world. I think anybody who saw him would back that up.” He was not only regularly voted the best boxer at tournaments, but also often received the best sportsmanship award for not punishing his opponents once it was established he was the superior boxer. Newspaper articles mentioned how Terry would “ease up” on an opponent when it became clear who would win.

It might not have been a coincidence then, that the NCAA was made aware of a “transfer technicality,” in March, 1958, just before the NCAA National Tournament was to begin, and ruled Terry was ineligible to compete.

Coach Elespuru, according to The Sacramento Bee, was “fuming and blaming everyone for blowing the whistle.” Other coaches professed innocence when asked about reporting on Terry, wondering why it would be their concern. They hadn’t made the ruling, was their argument, pointing in the direction of Walter Byers, executive director of the NCAA. Terry would win the 156 pound NCAA title in 1959.

In April, 1959, he lost to Wilbur “Skeeter” McClure in the Pan-Am Trial finals, and was an alternate on this team. A guy named Cassius Clay lost in the tournament, too, to Stockton, California’s Amos Johnson.

Terry was eliminated in the finals of the 1960 Olympic trials when a cut opened over his left eye while ahead in a bout with Tom Davis of Boston. The fight was stopped in the second round. Fighting on the same night, in the same weight class, was Louisville’s Jimmy Ellis, who was to become a top heavyweight of the 1960s. McClure would secure the Olympic birth in the 156 pound weight class, and eventually win the gold medal.

An acknowledgment of how good a boxer Terry was, though, was his selection as the alternate for his weight class, even though he lost in an early round of the trial finals. Terry’s amateur boxing career ended, upon graduation from college, with something close to 190 victories out of 210 fights.

He sold cars during the summer of 1960, began working on a master’s degree in economics when the fall semester began, and had two professional fights before the year ended, winning both.

Terry was knocked down by a right hand in the second round by Dave “Schoolboy” Brown early in 1961, and knocked down again in the third before the fight was stopped. Then, after a six fight winning streak, he was stopped by Brown again, this time on a cut. His manager Joey Lopes said, “My eyes have been cut much deeper many times during my fighting career. It wasn’t fair [stopping the fight] to Terry, the promoters or the fans to stop the fight so early.”

This cut was over the same eye as the injury Smith incurred in the Olympic trials, and where he had been cut before over while boxing for Sac State.

Lopes was still boxing himself while helping guide the careers of both Terry and his Sac State teammate, Jim Flood – himself a former NCAA champion -who had graduated and turned professional a year before Terry. Lopes was flying out the night of this fight to Manila to meet Flash Elorde in a fight for the junior-lightweight title.

Upon losing the fight to “Tombstone” Smith in January, 1962, Terry retired from professional boxing. In addition to his work as a prosecuting attorney for over 25 years, he also became one of California’s top boxing officials, both judging and refereeing championship fights on an international level.

Even though referees aren’t generally known for taking punches, it is a line of work that comes with hard knocks, too. And Terry took some heat at home for disqualifying Sacramento’s beloved Tony “The Tiger” Lopez and staining his 26-0 record, when Lopez hit Ramon Rico while Rico’s knee was on the canvas, having been knocked down by the immediately preceding Lopez punch.

There are not a lot of rules in boxing, but one of them is not to hit an opponent when he is down, and having a knee on the ground counts as being down.

Terry counted Rico out and then appeared momentarily indecisive, as though he was in deep thought, before disqualifying Lopez. Terry said it was a decision he “hated to make,” but explained that he wasn’t indecisive. The disqualification was a decision “I made immediately, but I also ran a million reasons through my mind to come up with a reason not to [but couldn’t]…” 

“The guy was on the ground when he hit him,” Terry said of Lopez, whose entire camp was outraged. Lopez was on the verge of fighting Brian Mitchell for Mitchell’s WBA junior-lightweight title, and receiving the kind of money that comes with fighting at a world-class level, and it was uncertain what effect this verdict might have on his career.

The fans were angry, too, throwing beer and garbage at Terry. Some tried to rush the ring, and security had to escort him to safety.

After viewing the tape the next day, though, Lopez admitted, “I can’t deny that he had his knee on the canvas.” Time, and the success that Lopez would come to enjoy, helped to heal these wounds, and Lopez would later say that “Terry is a great guy.”

John Cochran, with whom Terry worked at the county District Attorney’s Office, found Terry to be a gentle, generous and soft-spoken man. Someone who had a wonderful sense of humor and loved to tell stories. But, he said, Terry was “…also sort of an enigma. He works for a very conservative organization but he always behaves more like a lefty. He disdains violence and here he is in a violent sport where people die.”

Terry explained the contradiction well enough by admitting he was “a real pacifist. But I always loved the idea of getting in the ring because it was just you and him. There’s nothing else.”

An example of Terry’s sense of humor came at an awards ceremony when he was being acknowledged for his contributions to boxing. He commented on the irony of paying his daughter’s way through medical school so that when she graduated she could try to ban boxing.

“He differs from many prosecutors,” colleague Cochran said of Terry, “in that he is not motivated by the idea of sending someone to prison. There are people in the office who are offended by his sensibilities.”

But there can be limits to one’s gentleness. Two guys were heckling Terry while he was refereeing a March, 1996, bout at Sacramento’s Radisson Hotel. He went for the hecklers even before the judges’ decision was announced. A couple fans threw beer on him as he left the ring, and something of a small brawl broke out with Terry and a few others ending on the ground.

Friend and former coach and fellow referee Elespuru weighed in: “Terry was real embarrassed about it because he doesn’t do those things,” adding that, “Terry has the longest fuse of anyone I know.” But, Elespuru continued, “These guys were swearing, saying all kind of lewd things, making crude remarks about Terry’s wife…he went into the stands and poked one of the guys in the chest and [the spectator fell over backward].” 

He was never officially reprimanded for this incident, but Terry did notice a distinct decline in the quality of his assignments for quite some time. That might have been due to the mystery, still unsolved 25 years later, of how the heckler got a bloody nose from being poked in the chest.

Terry Smith died of complications from Alzheimer’s on June 29, 2011. He was 76 years old, and survived by his wife Johnette, son Brad, and daughter Jennifer.