Julian Smith’s entire life has been a fight. It hasn’t always been in a ring, but he has been punching back since Day 1.
His mother, Natalie Bibbs, had a difficult pregnancy, but Smith fought to be born and won. When he was 6 months old, Smith contracted meningitis but fought to survive and won. Growing up deaf because of the meningitis, Smith fought the stereotypes associated with his disability and won again.
‘‘He has never allowed his disability to control his life,’’ Bibbs said. ‘‘He’s used it to empower himself and inspire others along the way.’’
Smith, now 27, was a freshman in high school the first time he put on a pair of boxing gloves. His brother, Brandon Smith, came home one day, took him out back, slid on the red mitts and said, ‘‘We’re gonna box.’’
Brandon wanted to condition his younger brother to be tough. He wanted Julian to know he could take care of himself, especially growing up in south suburban Robbins.
Despite their seven-year age difference, the two were inseparable. Julian would follow Brandon everywhere, Bibbs said. They spent hours sparring in the yard, and Brandon never took it easy on Julian. He pushed him to the brink of his pain threshold, and that was the beginning of Julian’s life as a boxer.
Years later, when he was 22, Julian’s next fight would knock him to the canvas.
It was 2 a.m., and Bibbs was awakened by a phone call. The voice on the other end told her Brandon had been shot. He had gone to a party with old friends. An altercation escalated, guns were drawn and Brandon was killed.
‘‘We [sped] to the hospital,’’ Bibbs said. ‘‘I didn’t even wake Julian up; I just left. When we got there, the doctors were still working on him. Shortly after that, they came out to tell me that he had passed away.’’
Julian lost a part of himself when Brandon died, but he didn’t lose the strength his brother had given him the day he brought home that first pair of boxing gloves.
After his brother’s death, Julian told his mother he wanted to fight to keep his brother’s memory alive in the ring. Within a year, Julian was training with Pierre Scott, a local trainer with his own history in the ring.
‘‘He would get in the ring with anybody,’’ Scott said of Julian’s early training days. ‘‘I would have to tell him you can’t get in the ring with heavyweights.’’
The two developed an immediate bond. Scott calls Julian his son.
In boxing, the trainer and boxer must be in harmony. For Scott, that meant learning how to communicate with Julian. He didn’t know sign language, but they figured it out together.
In the beginning, Scott simply would show Julian — who trains out of Hammond, Indiana — with his hands what he wanted him to do in the ring. As Julian’s talents grew, they needed a better way to communicate during bouts.
‘‘I didn’t want him to take his eyes off his opponent,’’ Scott said. ‘‘I came up with the idea to use bright towels.’’
Scott flashes towels from the corner while Julian dances across the ring, each towel symbolizing something different.
Critics said Julian would be at a disadvantage by being deaf, but he never saw it that way. In his mind, he has an advantage. He might not be able to hear his opponent, but they never will understand his boxing language with Scott.
On Friday night, Smith competed in his fifth Golden Gloves tournament. His entire family, including Brandon’s 5-year-old son, ‘‘Little’’ Brandon, was ringside as Julian became a Golden Gloves champion with a second-round knockout of Jeremiah Hinton in the 152-pound open division.
As Smith warmed up for his championship bout in the basement of Cicero Stadium, throwing quick jabs and powerful hooks, ‘‘Little’’ Brandon watched nearby. Julian taught him how to box, just like ‘‘Little’’ Brandon’s father taught him 12 years ago.
‘‘Brandon would tell me he was proud of me,’’ Julian said. ‘‘He would say he was proud of me for fighting, for being strong no matter what’s in front of me.’’
Julian has dreams of becoming the first deaf world champion, but he has dreams for his community, too. Since his brother’s death, boxing has become a vehicle not only to keep his brother’s memory alive but also to spread a message against the gun violence that plagues Chicago.
‘‘Pick up the gloves and put down the guns,’’ Julian said.