The Battling Surfer of Sennen

Words: Jack Copeland

Photos: Sam Smart

Now that the weeks of lockdown have ticked over into months, being so distant from the sea is likely starting to take its toll on the conditioning of British surfers. Even those who have taken care to avoid the slow growth of puppy fat around their carefully tended muscles will unwittingly be starting to suffer from the lengthy time in isolation.

As any surfer will be able to tell you, surfing is a completely unique sport which demands a level of physicality that cannot be compared to anything else. The pressures of contending with mountains of cascading seawater simply can’t be replicated with resistance bands, kettlebells, or squats in your living room. None of these ‘at-home-workouts’ could even remotely prepare a person for the physical and mental strain that a surfer is put through each time they paddle out.

Of course, the surfer stereotype paints an image of a laidback, almost lazy, lifestyle that’s dedicated to an experience which could even be seen as relaxing. However, what this stereotype forgets is that surfing, by its very definition, is an extreme sport. In its rawest form, surfing is an experience that is dedicated to triggering a shot of adrenaline, of balancing oneself upon the precipice of ecstasy and terror as you dare yourself to glide closer and closer to the edge.

Sam Smart surfing a left-hander as it barrels towards the shoreline at Sennen Cove, Cornwall. (Photo by Sam Smart)

Flashback to your sweatbands and your milky protein shake and it’s just not quite the same.

The question is then raised as to how surfers on lockdown can stay in the perfect condition for remaining ‘surf-ready’. The answer to that lies in the form of a sport that is so far removed from the sea that it seems almost ridiculous to suggest. That sport being boxing.

Ludicrous isn’t it? That one activity, dedicated to the ocean and the natural elements could tie in with another activity that’s restricted to the four corners of a boxing ring. Although, if you start to break it down, the picture does become somewhat clearer.

Boxing, like surfing, is based upon contenders having exceptional balance. After all, as soon as someone goes down in each of them, it could be game over. But, as we witnessed in Kelly Slater’s aerial manoeuvre at the 2015 Hurley Pro and in Tyson Fury’s twelfth round resurrection against Deontay Wilder, miracles can happen.

On top of that, both sports demand an unrelenting focus. Should a competitor’s attention wane for even a fraction of second, their bodies could instantly be sent plummeting to either the harsh surface of the canvas or the cold embrace of the water.

And finally, there’s the physical side of both sports which demand an exceptionally strong core as well as sudden bursts of energy from the upper body, to either chase a wave or deliver a flurry of punches.

It therefore follows that anyone who undertakes boxing workouts could successfully manage a surfing session without blowing their gasket too prematurely. And, with lockdown keeping some of us far away from a point break, it’s certainly more feasible to train for boxing while the waves remain off-limits.

One person who is well acquainted with both surfing and boxing is thirty-nine-year-old Sam Smart, an undefeated former professional boxer and professional surfer in Cornwall. The Penzance-born fighter became interested in boxing as a result of his father and grandfather likewise being fighting men, but didn’t take an interest in surfing until his teens.

Sam training hard at the Camborne and Redruth Boxing Club. (Photo by Sam Smart)

In a recent conversation with Sam, he recalled that his inspiration to take up boxing came from his dad’s reaction to him punching his hands as a toddler. He went on: “Even in his most apathetical state, he would seem to get a burst of excitement when he felt my power on his palms.

“I remember once, he came back from the pub and held his hands up for me to punch. He said to my mum: ‘Look at this Joy. This is impressive.’

“Unimpressed with Dad’s drunkenness, she replied: ‘Punch him in the face Sam.’”

Comparatively, Sam’s motivation to start surfing in his teens came from a much more psychedelic source, after he dreamed that he was suspended inside the barrel of a wave. He revealed: “Mum used to take us to the beach every day in the summer when we were kids. I remember swimming in the shore-break at Porth Curnow and having a wave break over my head.

“One night, although I had never surfed or ridden a wave, I remember dreaming that this big hollow wave broke over my head in slow motion but paused at the moment I was completely barrelled. I was in awe of this cylindrical room of ocean that surrounded me as I looked around, experiencing my first ever barrel before ever going surfing. Every time I get barrelled, it reminds me of this vivid nostalgic dream.”

Sam attempts to get some air on a three-footer at Gwenver Beach in Cornwall. (Photo by Sam Smart)

Sam began surfing at thirteen, when his family moved from Penzance to Sennen Cove, whereupon surfing became a convenient and much more thrilling escape from daily life than football, which had been his priority pastime up until the move.

Boxing later became a much more dominant part of Sam’s life when he entered into his late-teens and made a bad habit of getting into fights on nights out. During our chat, he confessed: “I was always confident in my ability [to box] and soon found myself getting into fights. I used to get concerned when I went into town for nights out because I was both scared and excited about getting into another fight. I was basically an angry kid.”

At the age of twenty-one Sam found himself in the Camborne and Redruth Boxing Club where he found a productive outlet for his eager fists. Initially, the coaches at the gym believed that he was simply an arrogant surfer, wild and uncouth, but the regimented lifestyle of a fighter quickly captured Sam’s interest as he fell in love with the calculated recklessness of boxing.

Throughout the course of his amateur career, Sam had a grand total of twenty-five fights with twenty-one wins and eleven knockouts. An impressive record by anyone’s standards. And this is made all the more impressive by Sam winning his first sixteen fights, claiming three area titles, and reaching an ABA national novice final as well.

Sam fighting the very tall Kelvin Young for the ABA’s Western Counties Regional Title. (Photo by Sam Smart)

Recounting one amateur bout as the high-point of his boxing career, Sam stated: “I remember climbing into the ring and overhearing a guy, sat at ringside, say: ‘I’ll put a tenner on Blue.’ I was Red, so I was pissed off. I turned around and told him that he was going to lose his money. The guy I was boxing was a marine and had just knocked out a good, tall fighter.

“It was a competitive bout and I stopped him in the second round. I looked over my shoulder and a stranger in the audience was really fired up. I could see his veins poking out of his neck as he screamed for joy. I then looked across and saw my granddad, my uncles, my dad, my brothers, and my friends all doing the same thing. I had a feeling of power and respect, the likes of which I had never experienced before.

“Before boxing, I would always put up this strange façade. But that moment was genuine, and I was calmly wrapped up in the overwhelming sense of achievement.”

It took some time for the battling surfer to turn to professional boxing, however. Despite finding his boxing gym at the age of twenty-one, Sam didn’t delve into the world of professional fighting until he was twenty-nine-years-old, an especially late-age for the middleweight division.

The debut fight took place at York Hall in Bethnal Green, a venue steeped in boxing history, and was against a seasoned gateway fighter in the form of Duncan Cottier (who’s boxing record now stands at 3-83-3). Taking place during the height of the festive season in 2009, those in attendance were certainly gifted their money’s worth as the six round fight went the distance and resulted in a points decision win for Smart.

Sam sends a spearing left-hand jab into the chest of Duncan Cottier in his professional debut at York Hall, Bethnal Green. (Photo by Sam Smart)

Just over three months later, Sam stepped between the ropes yet again to fight at the Civic Hall in Trowbridge against Bobby Wood (4-24-0), ending the fight by technical knockout. Another three-month interval separated this second win from the third and final in Sam’s career, which was another technical knockout against Danny Goode (13-8-0) in Torquay.

Torquay_SamSmart_DannyGoode (2)
Sam delivers a devastating uppercut just above the belt-line of Danny Goode in his third and final professional bout. (Photo by Sam Smart)
With a bloodied nose, and looking as though he regrets every life decision he’s ever made, Goode staggers back against the ropes
Sam (with a broken jaw) taking a quick picture with his trainer, Dave Smith, after beating Danny Goode in Torquay.

Although Sam’s late entry into the professional ranks of boxing could easily explain his swift departure from them, I felt compelled to ask why his career ended so soon and when, moreover, he was still unbeaten. He replied: “I was too old and too injured to continue. I shattered my metacarpal but, in my heart of hearts, I honestly think I didn’t believe in myself enough.

“Even though I thought I was good in myself, I must have believed somewhere that I couldn’t do it. I would’ve liked a few more fights to understand this mental dilemma, but the bottom line is that it’s a young man’s sport. I really felt like boxing was ‘my thing’, and I still do, but it’s a tough game when you’re at Lands’ End, with no backing, and you’re on the wrong side of thirty.

“I got depressed when it all ended. It was a frustrating time for me because I was unbeaten as a professional, but I found solace in putting my energy into other things.

“Depression is real, but only when you’ve been through it. I felt like I was wearing a blind fold and, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t see the light. I couldn’t take it off. As I’ve moved forward, I learned that being productive, honest, and respectful are all I really need in life.”

While Sam admits that his love of boxing overruled his passion for surfing, he sporadically flitted between the two sports throughout his life. Sam’s professional surfing career even predates that of his boxing and has continued long after its conclusion, with his presence noted at various events on the UK Professional Surfing Association’s Pro Surf Tour.

Sam hacks at a cheeky four-foot left-hander in Bristol, Somerset. (Photo by Sam Smart)

Speaking about his relationship with surfing, Sam humbly said: “I was pretty crap and I still have many insecurities about my surfing. I could have done better if I took it more seriously, but boxing was the more serious sport in my twenties. However, if I spent the amount of hours training for boxing as I did in the ocean, I believe I would’ve been a world champion.

“I enjoyed this catastrophic dynamic but, obviously, my attention would turn to boxing while training for fights. Now I partake in both sports and I feel blessed to have two passions which I have so much respect for. As I did then, I drift in and out of both, depending on what’s inspiring me at the time.”

Going on to compare the professional scenes of boxing and surfing, Sam added: “I don’t like the aesthetics of surfing. It’s dominated by privileged kids who carry this ego which comes with being a good surfer.

“What surprised me is the amount of reverence people in surfing seem to have for those who can surf well. I personally don’t give a shit how well anybody surfs and credit individuals for how they are as people rather than their ability, which sadly seems to be the thing these days.

“On the whole, surfers are great people who are friendly and care for the environment. But boxing is like nothing else and so are the people who partake in these pugilistic practices.

“Boxing is pure. It’s a raw thing to get into. You can go wild and be rewarded for it. You can be a gentleman who’s allowed to let loose in a controlled environment. I see it as a true revealer of character.”

Sam currently lives with his family in St Just and runs the Smart Surf School with his wife, Hollie, and his two brothers, Sebastian (Seb) and Lewis, but continues to train at the Camborne and Redruth Boxing Club when he has the chance.

Under the current restrictions though, the boxing club, like the beach, is currently off-limits and so Sam has had to content himself with training at home. As was stated in the very beginning of this article, boxing workouts can be very beneficial to surfers who are aiming to stay in condition whilst under quarantine, but Sam only believes this to be the case some of the time.

He argued: “Boxing exercises like shadow boxing, press ups, and abdominal work outs require no fancy gym equipment and provide great results, but I believe surfing and stretching are the best exercises for surfing itself.

“Surfing promotes core strength and upper body strength because you’re paddling for the majority of the time. This prepares your lungs well for punching a bag (or an opponent). Plus, it also promotes balance and mobility which are key attributes in the sweet science [of boxing]. I liked walking into a boxing gym, fresh off of the beach, because it made me feel fluid and relaxed.

“However, after long periods of boxing training, I would go surfing and feel too stiff from a lack of stretching and from the newly developed muscle. I also only had around five percent body fat, so I really felt the cold in the winter, and I would always be on the cusp of getting ill or getting injured.”

Perhaps then, surfing and boxing compliment one another more in theory than they do in practice. But, in the absence of any opportunity to paddle-out and surf, it can’t hurt to try out a few rounds of shadow boxing in the meantime.

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