The people who don’t know or have not yet met Jonovan Smith might wonder at first if he is a giant pain.
Here’s a kid who has it all. Striking features, physical presence, a sharp mind, and who answers questions with full sentences. His future seems boundless. It would be easy to anticipate Smith being excessively arrogant, narcissistic, dismissive, or at best indifferent.
Sorry to disappoint all you potential haters out there. Talk to him at all and you’ll find Smith, 17, a two-time City wrestling champion from Birmingham Community Charter High, to be thoughtful, selfless, well-mannered and endlessly upbeat.
Except on the wrestling mat where, at 182 pounds, he is tremendously competitive and singularly driven to be the best he can be. Which, right now is pretty good.
“I think he is the most positive, most energetic person I have ever met,” Birmingham Wrestling Coach Jim Medieros said. “At every tournament someone tells me how much they love his positivity, and how he reaches out to other kids and hugs everybody.”
Smith will be representing Birmingham this weekend at the 41st annual Floyd “Doc” Buchanan Varsity Wrestling Invitational (formally known as the Clovis Invitational Wrestling Tournament) at Clovis High in Fresno. It is considered by many aficionados to be the No.1 tournament in the state, and among the top five in the country as an invitational.
A great place to begin a campaign to prove he’s one of the best wrestlers not only in the City Section, but everywhere else.
“City, State, Nationals — a Triple Crown,” Smith said, wearing a beaming smile while discussing his goals. “And trust me ladies and gentlemen, when I say I’m coming, I am coming…there are people who understand.”
His father, Fernando Smith, who studied martial arts and has worked as a movie stuntman got both his sons, Jonovan and older brother Fernando Jr., into jujitsu very early to provide a release for the tremendous amounts of energy they seem to carry around.
But things for Smith changed around his seventh birthday.
“I discovered wrestling,” he said. “I remember because I was doing jujitsu at the time and already had a good ‘grappling’ sense. I saw my dad wrestling in a gym we were at at the time. It was under a coach who had a real passion for grappling sports….and when I saw my father wrestling a couple of people I said, ‘uh, what’s that?’ He said ‘it’s wrestling.’ I asked could I try.”
Both he and Fernando Jr. took to the new sport for them, and soon entered their first tournament. Fernando Jr. finished fifth in his weight class. Jonovan won his weight class — and was hooked.
“Every time I won I had this big smile and threw my arms up,” Smith said. “And they were legitimate kids who knew how to wrestle and get good positions. But I pinned them all. I hadn’t even done a jujitsu tournament. It was my first tournament in any sport.”
Perhaps it’s a miracle that Smith didn’t evolve into a bully because of his burgeoning skills. His father made sure he didn’t, Smith said, adding he is grateful.
“From a very young age my father told me ‘if you ever bully anybody, I will show you what a bully looks like,’” Smith said. “And I would never, from that man, want to know what a bully looks like. He’s checked me a couple of times, I’m not even gonna lie.
“And in my heart, I’ve always loved being around people. I’ve never thought of being mean to someone else — unless someone pushed me. If they put their hands on me they would be sorely mistaken. But as soon as they got put on the floor, it was pretty much over.”
Smith continued developing in youth club wrestling, including one at Birmingham. He admits he was still “chubby and blubberish” when he began the ninth grade. But he made the wrestling team as a freshman and has never looked back.
“He’s about as good as it gets,” Medeiros said. “He is strong, fast, athletic, and technical. He has a lot of weapons. And he is in really good shape as far as conditioning — he only does wrestling.
“I’ve had him for four years. His growth has been gradual. But once he gets something, he takes it to another level. He has come a long way. Last year [he won] his second City title. His freshman year he did not place in City. As a sophomore, he barely won. But last year he was dominant. He placed in the state last year, and is definitely [a state] contender this year.”
Medeiros is not the only wrestling coach with praise for Smith.
Kenny Johnson runs a pair of private wrestling clubs in Redondo Beach and Gardena. Johnson wrestled under the legendary Dan Gable at the University of Iowa, is a two-time Pan-American Games champion and trained for six Olympics. Smith works out at the club in Gardena.
“I don’t care if a kid or adult is good or bad. What I care about is how important is it to you. And that determines who I train,” Johnson said. “I am making a commitment to them and taking time away from others. Kid or adult, I need to know you are serious.”
He said Smith was serious from the beginning. “He’s a kid who likes to have fun., But when it’s time to work….the sport is very unforgiving. Lots of lows and highs, and more lows than highs. You have to find fun in the training. He will go to the best fighters and work. He has no fear. He wants to challenge himself.”
Like Medieros, Johnson is expecting Smith — who recently had his personal 31-match winning streak end — to enjoy a strong senior season. “Top 3 in the state. We’re gunning for titles, but state titles are hard to come by. I want to see him in the Top 3. That’s a great season.”
Whatever happens, Smith will approach it with a smile and determination, and end it with a hug.
He’ll also throw in a suplex or two.