100 in 100: Duplin County’s James Smith, boxing’s Bonecrusher

The Shaw graduate and Army veteran won the WBA heavyweight title in 1986

Magnolia's James "Bonecrusher" Smith, right, knocked out "Terrible" Tim Witherspoon in the first round of their fight at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 12, 1986, to win the WBA heavyweight championship. (Wilbur Funches / AP Photo)

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

Duplin County

James “Bonecrusher” Smith

Smith didn’t set out to become a professional boxer, let alone a world champion. In fact, he had given up athletics after playing two years of football at Shaw and joining the Army. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Magnolia native only took up the sport after being noticed by the coach of the base boxing team while stationed in Germany.

He turned out to be a natural, winning 35 of 39 amateur fights in such impressive fashion that he gave himself a colorful nickname. “My punches were so hard, I crushed a few bones, broke a few noses, fractured a few ribs,” he said. “So, Bonecrusher.”


James “Bonecrusher” Smith gets a hug from his wife, Reba, after defeating Tim Witherspoon for the WBA heavyweight championship on Dec. 13, 1986, in New York. (Wilbur Funches / AP Photo)

Despite his success, Smith stopped boxing after his discharge from the Army. He was working as a prison guard in Pender County when he was approached by a promoter to serve as a fill-in after a fighter pulled out of a televised ESPN bout against heavyweight contender James Broad. Needing some extra money to buy Christmas presents, he agreed, making his professional debut in November 1981 at the age of 28.

He lost that first fight. But won his next 14, 12 by knockout, to earn a title shot against undefeated Larry Holmes. Although that didn’t end well — the fight was stopped in the 12th round because of a cut — he earned another chance in 1986. And, again, it was as a late replacement for another fighter. This time he made the most of the opportunity by scoring a first-round knockout of Tim Witherspoon for the WBA title.

Smith was the first fighter with a college degree to win the heavyweight championship. But he didn’t hold the belt long. In his next fight, on March 7, 1987, he lost a decision to Mike Tyson. Smith continued to fight until the age of 46, finishing his career with a 44-17-1 record with 32 knockouts. He later became an ordained minister and, in 1995, helped establish the N.C. Boxing Commission, serving as its first commissioner.