By Joe Engleman
It has been years since the city of Grinnell or Grinnell College supported boxing clubs or a boxing team. But international boxing star and Grinnell native, James “Smooth One” Crawford, is looking to change that.
Crawford began boxing in Grinnell at the age of eight, when Grinnell still boasted a local boxing club.
“When we first started, there were six people that were involved. We built the club clear up to about 200, over a 10-year period,” Crawford said. “Then all of sudden it started dwindling down, and I was the last one there when it was said and done.”
A fear of fighting Crawford might have had something to do with the decline in membership. Crawford boxed in 175 amateur fights and along the way managed to win five regional Silver Gloves Tournaments, three regional Golden Gloves tournaments, and the entire Junior Olympics Tournament. During that time, Crawford was named Most Outstanding Fighter in Iowa five years in a row.
While most of us might not expect “Iowa Nice” to carry over into the ring, with Crawford it certainly has – at least until the fight starts.
“A lot of people tell me, ‘Oh, you’re too nice to fight,’ and I say ‘Ring the bell, and I’ll show ya,” he said with a laugh.
Shortly after retiring from amateur boxing, he decided to give a professional boxing career a try. And he was good at it too, winning his first 18 fights.
Crawford’s professional career has taken him around the world, where he fought for an International Boxing Federation super-middleweight title.
“If you go overseas a lot, you learn to appreciate what we have here. When you start going to Romania and some of these crazy places, you realize that we got it good [in Grinnell],” he said.
Even at the ripe age of 42, Crawford stays in training shape. Boxing and training for boxing, he said, “is just like riding a bike.” He is looking forward to his next fight, which will likely be against Roy Jones Jr. in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“He’s got a good fan base there, so they’re talking about the two of us fighting over there. If that fight comes together, that’s who I’ll fight next,” he said.
However, time away from the ring gives Crawford the chance to reflect on and appreciate all the opportunities that professional boxing has given him.
“I enjoy it,” he said. “Just to say I’ve done it and traveled. I’ve been to Madison Square Garden, met Sugar Ray Leonard, Larry Holmes, Leon Spinks, Joe Frazier. The people I’ve been around and met through boxing—these legends—it’s just been a great opportunity.”
Crawford wants to share the opportunities he’s experienced with the Grinnell community by opening up a new boxing club.
“I’m in the process of opening a gym in Grinnell. If something opened up, I’ll start training some guys to fight,” he said.
One major disappointment was that the Grinnell Boxing Club closed down before Crawford reached the peak of his amateur career.
“When I fought in the Silver Gloves Tournament and Golden Gloves Tournament, that was with clubs from other towns. Grinnell has faded out as a boxing club itself, so that’s what I want to try and re-open.”
Boxing taught Crawford a lot, and he views opening the club as just another way to share his skills with the community.
“What I learned from [boxing], when I was eight years old, was to respect people. You may be a fighter inside, but you also learn a lot of discipline,” he said.
Hopefully most students at the College haven’t taken as many punches as Crawford has, but we share at least one thing in common with him: a sense of gratitude towards this town.
“I just want to say thanks for all the support that this town has given me,” he said.
Crawford’s boxing club will be opening soon near the Prairie Fire Gymnastics club on Industrial Avenue. Although the club hasn’t been officially named yet, there’s at least one guarantee about it: the name “Smooth One” will be in there somewhere.