Frank Smith’s unusual combination: Boxing and fishing

Frank Smith’s life in boxing seems an odd fit for fishing, but their hooks can overlap in life.

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Frank Smith fighting Jesse Martin in Golden Gloves in the 1970s. Provided

Frank Smith fighting Jesse Martin in Golden Gloves in the 1970s.

Provided

A fishing-hook pin decorated the bill of Frank Smith’s white baseball cap. The souvenir came from a crappie-fishing trip to Grenada Lake in Mississippi.

Smokey Robinson wafted through the empty boxing gym at 4716 S. Ashland as we talked before the after-school crush.

Smith knows hooks, fishing and boxing. On April 14, he was inducted into the centennial class of the Chicago Golden Gloves Hall of Fame.

It was a side of him I knew nothing about. I knew him as Frank ‘‘Cat Daddy’’ Smith for fishing.

Live long enough, you learn things.

In Smith’s case, live long enough — 68 — you teach boxing to thousands.

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I bump into Smith occasionally, such as last month at the first night meeting of the Chicago Fishing Advisory Committee. More often, he pops up in photos and fishing reports sent by BoRabb Williams.

At the committee meeting, Wayne Hankins leaned in and said, ‘‘Frank went into the Golden Gloves Hall of Fame.’’

I think Hankins sensed my disbelief. Smith might hit 130 pounds if he had just eaten a 20-ounce steak and a baked potato. But Smith is a Hall of Famer, the first to win titles in three weight classes of the Golden Gloves: flyweight (1973), bantamweight (1974) and featherweight (1975).

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I’ve covered many things, but I never had set foot in a boxing gym until Smith invited me to see Aaliyah Johnson. He’s training the 16-year-old sophomore, who won a Golden Gloves title April 15, for nationals.

I was early enough that Smith spread out old photographs and news clippings of both Mayor Daleys, Laila Ali, Leatitia ‘‘Baby Girl’’ Robinson and more.

News clipping of Frank Smith with Mayor Richard J. Daley and boxing instructor Gene Kelly. Provided

News clipping of Frank Smith with Mayor Richard J. Daley and boxing instructor Gene Kelly.

Provided

Frank Smith with Mayor Richard M. Daley. Provided

Frank Smith with Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Provided

When he showed me the ring, mats and bags in the back room, Smith suddenly said: ‘‘Put on a pair of gloves. Let’s see what you got.’’

He gave me an intense lesson on boxing — moving around the ring, hitting the bags, keeping my face covered — that was humbling.

†††

Frank Smith with a signature catfish. Provided by BoRabb Williams

Frank Smith with a signature catfish.

Provided by BoRabb Williams

Asked about his ‘‘Cat Daddy’’ nickname, Smith said: ‘‘I catch a lot of catfish when we go to Monster Lake, Braidwood, LaSalle, Rend Lake.’’

‘‘He’s the catfish king, baby, but he is really the crappie master,’’ Williams clarified.

Smith said his most memorable fish is a 3-pound crappie from Grenada Lake.

‘‘But I was catching lots of 2.75s, too,’’ he said. ‘‘In fact, I had crappie [to eat] this morning.’’

When I asked whether boxing and fishing go together, Smith said: ‘‘Not really. But if you have a nice [boxing] tournament, then get away and get on that water. it is worth it. That is where you find yourself.’’

The last line is the definition of fishing.

Frank Smith with a big crappie from the Calumet system. Provided by BoRabb Williams

Frank Smith with a big crappie from the Calumet system.

Provided by BoRabb Williams

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After they moved to the Wentworth Gardens housing project, Smith’s mom, Amanda Samuels, got him into boxing.

‘‘I was somewhat of a bad kid,’’ Smith said.

He trained with Gene Kelly.

‘‘I was a little, skinny kid, first championship at 85 pounds,’’ Smith recalled.

He fought in Chicago Park District, Catholic Youth Organization, AAU and Golden Gloves tournaments. He had brushes with greatness with Sugar Ray Leonard and the Spinks brothers.

Because of his slightness, Smith said: ‘‘I was just a boxer. I had problems knocking them out. I had 59 fights with nine losses. . . . I had a good one-two. Stole my boxing style from Sugar Ray Leonard.’’

But Smith couldn’t pass a physical for a pro license because of a heart murmur.

So he worked in physical education for the park district. In 1987, his supervisor asked him to put a team together. His team of 12, including a woman, made the finals of the Presidential Cup and won.

He didn’t have a knockout style, but he could develop fighters.

‘‘Many of them didn’t have father figures, and I became that for them,’’ he said.

The ones he most remembered were his sons, Darres and Frankie Jr., and others such as Shawn Simpson, Destyne Butler, Joshua Bunting, Catrelle Wright and Dwayne Williams, whose mom called him ‘‘Nose.’’

‘‘I wouldn’t have my program without Darrell Johnson,’’ Smith said. ‘‘We called him ‘Heavy.’ He had the defense; I had the offense. . . . I was very stern as a coach, militant as a coach. We did good with what we had.’’

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Smith learned fishing from his dad, James.

‘‘Seemed like he was out every day catching buffalo and carp with cane poles,’’ Smith said. ‘‘When I started working, I fell back off fishing. One night after work, I saw them fishing at Jackson Park for salmon. That got me back into it. Took off from there.’’

†††

Smith is retired from the park district but helps at the boxing gym (a former clothing store) on South Ashland.

As the afternoon lengthened, a mom brought in a high school boy. Smith looked him in the eye and grilled him, then told him what was expected. A 27-year-old man with boxing experience walked in cold. Smith told him to put on gloves, then worked him hard. The man’s punches exploded when they smacked Smith’s padded hands.

After a long warmup, Aaliyah Johnson stepped into the ring. It was serious. She can hit and move.

Others circle-stepped the edge of the ring. The music had changed to something aimed at a younger generation. More people arrived. I said goodbyes to Johnson and Smith.

Walking out, I wondered whether I had done enough with my life.

Some of us dance around being father figures. Others, like Smith, clutch it firmly.

Frank Smith working with Aaliyah Johnson. Credit: Dale Bowman

Frank Smith working with Aaliyah Johnson.

Dale Bowman

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