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Jez Smith: Reasons For Optimism

Jez Smith always believed he had the talent required to forge a successful career in boxing, he simply needed the right opportunity.

During his first four years as a professional, Smith endured the tribulations that many fighters who do not have the clout of a major promoter behind them experience: false dawns, empty promises and fights failing to come to fruition.

Smith (12-3-1, 5 KOs) had waited for over 12 months for the chance to challenge for the Southern Area welterweight title when he faced Samuel Antwi, in 2019. Smith was adamant that this was the moment he had been waiting for, his opponent had other ideas. Antwi crushed Smith’s hopes of a breakout win by sending the Harrow man to the canvas on four occasions before obliging the referee to halt the contest in the in the eighth round.

Despondent, Smith was done with the sport. Balancing the rigours of training with working a physically demanding job became too much. If meaningful bouts were hard to come by when he was undefeated, he doubted they would be forthcoming after a devastating defeat. Yet the allure of the sport is strong, and Smith simply couldn’t shake the belief that he was capable of so much more. Before long, he was again searching for opponents. His calls went unanswered, until last July, when suddenly he became a man in demand.

As professional boxing returned from its pandemic-induced hiatus, travel restrictions meant that it was not possible to important a hapless Hungarian to face a rising prospect. This series of events meant that for the first time in his career, Smith had options.

The 27-year old’s return to the ring was not a successful one, as he was stopped by Caoimhin Agyarko in the ninth frame. However, he remained undeterred, and his faith proved to be well-founded four months later when he outpointed the then-unbeaten Ben Ridings. That victory secured him a shot at former European welterweight champion, Kerman Lejarraga. The Spaniard had forged a reputation as the latest ‘Brit Basher’ having previously beaten Denton Vassell, Bradley Skeete, Frankie Gavin and Tyrone Nurse, with only the later hearing the final bell.

Smith was confident he could succeed where his compatriots had failed. He believed he had identified weaknesses in his rival that he could exploit. In the third stanza, he demonstrated that his pre-fight belief was correct as he dropped his opponent with a right uppercut. The following round, the same shot produced an identical outcome. Smith sensed he was on course for a career-changing win. However, Lejarraga was far from finished and forced Smith to his knees in the sixth. Under fire in the following three minutes, the referee had seen enough, despite the protestations of an incredulous Smith. While the outcome does not sit well with Smith, he believes he demonstrated he belongs in such illustrious company.

Picture By Dave Thompson/Matchroom Boxing

He is not naïve, he understands he will have to continue to take opportunities in the away corner, often at short notice, but is confident he can capitalise on these chances, even if the deck is stacked against him.

“I’ve always said I want to be in exciting fights,” Smith told Boxing Social. “I’m an exciting fighter to watch so I don’t want to be one of them fighters that fights journeymen. I want to fight the best and start proving that I belong on the big stage with them. I believe after my performance against [Lejarraga] that I can keep proving to people that I’m getting better and better. I do belong on this stage performing with these fighters.”

This optimistic outlook is in stark contrast to the mindset Smith developed as he became increasingly disillusioned with sport two years ago. The belief in his own ability was ever-present, but the business side of boxing caused frustration to build. Smith had to sit by and watch boxers he believed possessed less talent than him fight on televised shows, simply because they sold more tickets.

Taking himself to the gym after a hard day’s work became an increasingly arduous task. It felt futile. However, as the months went by, that self-belief began to build once more. Before long, Smith was defiant, he refused to become another ‘what if?’ Eventually, his luck turned. While he acknowledges that Covid-19 has had a detrimental effect on the lives of millions across the world, he is one of the few fortunate beneficiaries.

“I couldn’t find opportunities and because I couldn’t find those opportunities, I thought: ‘This isn’t for me,’” he recalled. “I was getting frustrated. I’m a part-time pro boxer because I have to go to work still. I’m on a roof every day and going to the gym in the evening. It is difficult. Trying to keep your weight down, keeping on top of your training is hard work. At the time when I wasn’t getting any opportunities, I just got fed up with it and thought: ‘You know what, I’m going to walk away and keep my head up.’

“However, when you get a call asking if you want to fight, me being a fighting man, I wasn’t going to say no. Taking that fight on short-notice against Caoimhin Agyarko and the Ben Ridings fight has kept me busy. The pandemic has been terrible to some fighters, but it has been really good to me. I’m really grateful and lucky [that] I’ve been given them opportunities. I think I’m proving that I belong on these TV shows. Hopefully, I can keep getting more work and hopefully, I can keep proving people wrong by putting on big performances and exciting fights for the fans.”

Smith also had some good fortune with the circumstances surrounding the Agyarko fight. Despite taking the fight at 10 days’ notice, Smith was in reasonable shape as he had previously been preparing to participate in Al Siesta’s ‘Kold Wars’ series in Belarus, when the bout fell through. As such, he did not struggle to make the 160lbs weight limit.

Agyarko is believed to be amongst the best middleweight prospects in the country having lost just 11 of his 130 amateur contests. The Belfast man also has a reputation as a spiteful puncher, yet Smith was unperturbed. As soon as the offer was received, Smith accepted without hesitation. Smith was certain he could win but found himself on the floor on three occasions before being stopped in the ninth round. Despite his confidence being misplaced, he took positives from his performance.

“I always take fights believing I can win,” Smith said. “With the Agyarko fight, I think I showed that up to six, seven rounds, I was well in the fight, and it was really close. The last couple of rounds, all they showed was that I’m not a middleweight. Being out of the ring for 18 months, there was a little bit of ring rust in there. Taking nothing away from Caoimhin, he was the better man on the night, and he got the job done.”

By Smith’s own admission, he is not a 160lbs fighter, yet four months on from the Agyarko defeat, Smith found himself competing one weight class higher. Smith had been out of the gym and was far from fighting fit, but once again, he accepted the fight.

Initially, he was unfamiliar with his opponent, Ben Ridings, but that did not matter, it was the chance to fight live on Sky Sports on the undercard of a bill headlined by Conor Benn. After a brief reconnaissance mission online, Smith knew he had the beating of Ridings and agreed to the bout. Even if he was out of shape, he was certain he had enough ability to overcome his novice rival. On that occasion, Smith was proven right as he won by a score of 60-54 on the referee’s card. Smith knew that victory could be the catalyst for further opportunities.

“I took that fight on four days’ notice, when I wasn’t training or nothing,” Smith said with a laugh. “I was overweight, to be honest, really overweight. I lost six kilos in The Bubble that week, just to make 166lbs, not a lot of people know that. I made 166lbs, which I should never have been boxing at; I’m not a super-middleweight. Before I took the fight with Ben, I had a little look on YouTube and no disrespect to him, but for me, if I couldn’t beat someone like Ben Ridings, I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, if I’m going to go as far as I think I’m going to go. It was a must win, for me and I knew I could beat him on 20 per cent fitness. Even though I won every round, that performance was a two out of 10.”

Jez Smith caused an upset on four days’ notice on the Benn-Formella bill. Picture By Dave Thompson/Matchroom Boxing

Smith’s belief and effort earned him another shot in the away corner on a Matchroom show, this time, at his natural weight of 154lbs and with six weeks’ notice which was then increased when the show was moved back a further three weeks. The catch was that he was facing the vaunted puncher Kerman Lejarraga, in Barcelona.

Despite the magnitude of the task in front of him, as ever, Smith was certain of victory. On paper, his belief would have, at best, looked misguided, at worst, delusional. There was a gulf in class between Ridings and the Spaniard, but Smith had studied his opponent and spotted chinks in his armour.

The two knockdowns scored by the Englishman affirmed that his confidence was more than just mere bluster. Lejarraga appeared to be significantly affected by those blows, twice spitting the gumshield to buy himself more time. On both occasions, the referee, Alfonso Monroy, refrained from admonishing the home fighter for utilising the tactic. The lack of consequences for the actions of the Spaniard irked Smith, and that feeling was intensified when the referee halted the bout, even though few of Lejarraga’s punches appeared to land cleanly in the fight-ending barrage.

Smith was overcome by a sense of injustice. The outcome still does not sit right with him, although he is trying his best to move one from it. Smith is of the belief that he demonstrated beyond doubt that he belongs in such company. Few in the sport have ever truly had faith in Smith, but his self-belief has been unwavering. While it would be understandable if he felt his chance to transform his career had been cruelly robbed from him, Smith feels invigorated by the belief he now has demonstrable evidence of his talent.

“I do believe in my ability, and I do believe I’m getting better and better each fight,” he said. “There’s a big difference between knowing where I stand and being delusional. People say to me: ‘Why did you take the fight with Kerman; he’s boxed at European level?’ Watching him and knowing what I can do in the gym, as much as it looked like he was levels above me on paper, I knew I could do things that would expose him. I knew I had the beating of him, I would have beaten him if it hadn’t been for the referee.

“There’s a lot of things I still need to work on, but overall, I was happy with the performance. The first five rounds, you could see I was in cruise control, I was boxing really nicely, sticking behind my jab. I got caught with a big shot in the sixth which dropped me, I was taking the seventh to recover and come back stronger in the later rounds. I knew I had that in me, from the scales, you could see the condition I was in, I knew I had them later rounds in me. I was gutted I didn’t get to showcase and show people that. The referee jumped in, in the seventh and stopped it for,” Smith paused to look for the words, but ultimately, he still can’t fathom the referee’s decision.

“I don’t know what reason. I was in shock, but you could see from my reactions that I was hugely disappointed. I was gutted, proper gutted. I know referees only get a split second to make a call, but c’mon now, you could see I wasn’t hurt. I don’t think any of the punches even hit me. I was gutted at the time; I’m still gutted about it now. I can keep going on about it, but it is, what it is, I can’t change the outcome now. I’m straight back in the gym and working hard.”

Smith had hoped to face Lejarraga again and was willing to travel to his opponent’s home city of Bilbao. However, his chances of an immediate rematch were dashed when the European Boxing Union ordered the Spaniard to face Dylan Charrat for their vacant super-welterweight title.

Smith still harbours hope of one day righting the perceived wrong, but in the meantime, he is hopeful of getting involved in the highly competitive domestic 154lbs weight class. While many of the top names currently have fight dates, Smith is, yet again, waiting for the phone to ring for his opportunity.

“It’s thriving at the moment,” he said of the British super-welterweight division. “You seen the [Ted] Cheeseman and [JJ] Metcalf fight, it was an absolute war. You’ve got Sam Eggington, Troy Williamson, Kieran Conway, Anthony Fowler, and Scott Fitzgerald making his way back. There’s so many exciting fights out there and I just want to put my name in the mix with them. After taking the fight against Kerman, who is a former European champion and ranked a lot higher than all these British guys, I’ve hopefully proven to the promoters that I can mix with these sorts of fighters. Hopefully, you’ll see me in big fights this year.”