Brianna Smith walked into the boxing gym looking for a workout. She found a new passion.
“I love punching people in the face,” Smith discovered.
Two years later, Smith, 21, has won consecutive state Golden Gloves titles in the open women’s 152-pound division and last summer reached the quarterfinals in a national boxing tournament.
Punching came as naturally to Smith as kicking a soccer ball, something she has done her whole life.
A three-time All-Western New York soccer player for Nichols School, the Wheatfield native rebuffed recruiting interest from bigger schools to play at Canisius College, where midway through her senior season she is the Golden Griffins’ third all-time leading scorer.
Smith led the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in scoring her freshman season, earning all-MAAC and MAAC Rookie-of-the-Year honors. She made the all-MAAC team again as a junior, and with six goals through the first 10 games of this season, she is on track to be a three-time selection.
“She has been one of the top goal scorers in the program’s history, as well as the conference,” Canisius coach Jim Wendling said. “She has good ball skills and the pure instinct to score goals. Just like Michael Jordan can just score, Brianna Smith can just score.”
After a low-scoring sophomore year, Smith began accompanying her father to workouts at Casal’s Boxing Club in Niagara Falls. Michael Smith had been a professional kickboxer in the 1980s.
“Mike was an amazing fighter,” Ray Casal said. “Very athletic. Very strong. Mike would pick the round he was going to knock a guy out in, and he did it. He had 17 knockouts and only lost once. And they ripped him off in that one.”
Casal saw potential in Brianna Smith early on. Three weeks into her training, she asked to fight in an upcoming Golden Gloves qualifier, and Casal put her in the ring against an opponent with 23 fights under her belt. Smith knocked her out in the third round.
“What an athlete,” Casal said. “She’s a tough girl, very hard worker, very athletic. She has a lot more skills she needs to learn. She’s still learning to box. She likes to slug. But what potential she has.”
“I’m definitely a brawler,” Smith said with a smile.
Boxing training improved Smith’s fitness for soccer and her mental approach to the game.
“It has made me grow as a person,” she said. “I am a totally different person from when I started boxing. I’m just a lot more mature. I handle myself in situations better. I have more of a focus on training and being the best I can be rather than just going through the motions. It’s definitely helped me narrow my focus in athletics.”
Wendling said boxing “has helped her fitness, quickness and nutrition, more than anything.”
Smith also has found a type of satisfaction in the ring that she never has experienced on the soccer field.
“I’ve always played team sports, and this is the first individual sport I’ve ever played,” she said. “I like it because all of the pressure is on me. I like depending on myself rather than everybody else.
“And it’s a phenomenal workout – the best workout anyone could ever get. I feel great when I box.”
Smith plans to compete in the Golden Gloves again in 2014 and aspires to win the national title.
Casal sees a future for Smith in boxing, kickboxing or mixed martial arts, if she chooses to pursue it.
“Another year of seasoning, one more Golden Gloves title – if she wins the nationals this year, I think she can do it,” Casal said. “She loves boxing. It’s her passion, you can tell.”
For now, Smith has unfinished business in soccer. The Griffs won just two of their first 10 games and feel they must finish in the top half of the MAAC standings in order to have a realistic chance of winning the conference tournament next month at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. “I want to go out with a bang my senior year,” Smith said. “We just need to get our stuff together and find a way to do it.”