Dream of Joe Smith’s trainer was reborn through fighter
Jerry Capobianco planned to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, John, a successful New York-area pro in the 1970s.
The younger Capobianco, who is now the trainer of Joe Smith Jr., won the open 178-pound New York Golden Gloves championship in 1982 – the same year Mark Breland won the 147-pound title – and dreamed of winning a professional belt one day.
Then disaster struck: At 22, he had a heart attack. He never fought again.
“That was my life at the time,” he said of boxing. “My dad (John Sr.) fought and was a trainer (who once worked with Gerry Cooney). All my brothers fought. My brother John was 10 years older than me. He was like 17 and I was around 7. I remember going to the gym in Queens where Vito Antuofermo’s trainer trained my brother.
“I was 7. I would watch and try to do the same things he did. He was my hero. I wanted to do be just like my older brother.”
Young and otherwise strong, he bounced back from the heart attack, but it wasn’t pleasant.
“I was in the hospital for about a week,” he said. “I think I slept for three days. My aorta artery stayed closed. My heart rate went down to about 22 beats per minute. It was a fluke. I guess the electrical system in my heart was screwed up. It was like those young kids playing football and then, boom, they just pass out on the field.
“I remember my father sitting next to me looking worried. I said, ‘I’m alright.’ Then I looked at the heart monitor and it looked like a flat line to me.”
Once he was released from the hospital he had no choice but to start a more typical life, which involved working for a living.
Many years passed before he thought seriously about returning to boxing in any capacity. And then, about a decade ago, fate stepped in and provided an unforeseen opportunity not far from his home on Long Island.
“They opened up a gym in my neighborhood, mostly for kids,” he said. “I went down there. That’s how it sort of started. I just wanted to hit the bag. And I would help the kids once in a while, with no attachment.
“I saw Joe. He was 16, 17. I walked over to him and said, ‘If you just turn a little this way it might work better for you.’ That was the start.”
Capobianco has guided Smith to the cusp of a world light heavyweight title after back-to-back knockout victories over Andrzej Fonfara and Bernard Hopkins, which transformed an unknown regional attraction into a potential star.
Smith will face fellow contender Sullivan Barrera on the Miguel Berchelt-Takashi Miura card Saturday at the Forum on HBO. A victory could lead to a title shot.
This wasn’t the ride that Capobianco imagined as a teenager but he is certainly enjoying it.
“It all could’ve been a waste,” said Capobianco, referring to the years he spent boxing as a youth. “All that time could’ve been a waste. Then I was just hanging around when I thought, ‘Why not try to help this kid Joe Smith?’
“And here we are. I imagined this could happen with Joe – he was a tough, strong kid – but I have to say being here is really cool.”
So there was a silver lining to the heart attack?
“There,” he said, pointing to Smith, “is my silver lining.”
Power play: There is a reason Smith (23-1, 19 knockouts) has stopped such a high percentage of his opponents: The man can crack. He took Fonfara out in only 2 minutes, 32 seconds in June of last year and knocked Hopkins out of the ring and into retirement in Round 8 seven months ago.
He said it was just always like that.
“I’ve had power since I was 13,” he said. “I stepped into the ring to spar with older guys and I could tell I had just as much power as grown men when I was that age. That’s one reason I stuck with the sport.
“I guess power is just something you’re born with.”
And it has served him well.
The union laborer-turned-contender might be a victory over Barrera away from his first opportunity to fight for a world title, as he has his eye on 175-pound titleholders Andre Ward (RING, IBF, WBA and WBO) and Adonis Stevenson (WBC). He also likes the idea of fighting Sergey Kovalev if he can’t get an immediate title shot.
Smith negotiated to meet Stevenson in April but the bout never materialized, leaving Smith without a fight for longer than he wanted. He’s only 27 yet doesn’t want to waste time.
“I would’ve liked to fight someone at that time,” he said. “Now I’ve had a long layoff. I guess opportunities are going to come though at the right time. … I’m here to make it to a world title. Whoever I have to fight to get there is who we’re going to fight.”
Smith described Barrera as “strong and tough.” Capobianco concurs but adds that Smith is stronger and tougher.
“I think Barrera is sort of made to order (for Smith),” he said. “He comes straight forward. I think Joe hits a little harder and takes a better punch. I don’t really want to say it but Joe has never been dropped as a pro or amateur. Barrera was dropped by (Vyacheslav) Shabranskyy and Andre Ward.”
Barrera got up in both instances. Could he do the same if Smith lands the right punch?
Smith admirers: Smith has become a hero of sorts to union laborers across the country. He had a chance to meet a handful of them Thursday at the Forum, next door to where the workers are building the new stadium for the Rams and Chargers.
They chatted and took photos.
“I was really stoked up when I heard about him,” said Ricardo Andrade, field representative and organizer for Laborers’ International Union of North America. “I was thinking, ‘Man, he’s our member.’ He’s really taken this opportunity and made the best of it. We have to support him, win or lose, because he’s our brother.
“It feels great to have somebody who works in the industry who has talent and doesn’t forget where he came from. He’s one of us.”
Smith only recently set aside his work as a laborer so he could focus on getting and winning a title fight but he doesn’t stay away entirely.
“I like to go back once in a while and see the guys and stuff,” he said. “I might do some work here and there but I’d like to do it on my terms.”
Read the feature story on Joe Smith Jr. from THE RING magazine.