In 2020 the annual accolades were thrown the way of talented individuals like Teofimo Lopez and Tyson Fury but let’s not forget about the man who retired Bernard Hopkins.
Joe Smith Jr. (26-3, 21 KOs) may forever be known as ‘that guy’ but last year his back-to-back wins against Jesse Hart and Eleider Alvarez reminded us all that he is a legitimate world title contender at light-heavyweight. Those were a couple of make-or-break fights where Smith had to prove he had the minerals and abilities to bounce back from his comprehensive points loss to WBA champion Dmitry Bivol in March 2019. History might have been different, however, had his overhand right landed on the champ’s face 30 seconds prior to the end of round 10 rather than right on the bell.
What might have been, and the retiring of a legend are tags that Smith will see put in the shredder should he beat Maxim Vlasov for the vacant WBO light-heavyweight title on February 13 in Las Vegas in a show promoted by Top Rank, in association with Joe DeGuardia’s Star Boxing and Patriot Promotions.
“I know he [Vlasov] has a lot of experience,” the 31-year-old told Boxing Social. “[He is a] very busy fighter who throws a lot of punches. I just gotta be ready to go 12 hard rounds. I got to be in great shape.”
On paper, this looks a terrific opportunity for the Long Island native to win the world title that Canelo Alvarez vacated to move back down to 168lbs. Had Smith not got the wins over Hart and Eleider Alvarez then his championship chances would have been in dire straits. The win against Alvarez was a case of winner stays on. The Colombian was sent through the ropes, just like Hopkins over four years ago, and failed to beat the count from referee Tony Weeks in round nine.
“It was definitely make or break,” Smith said of his 26th pro career win in August. “I knew going into that fight I needed to win to get a title shot and to really move forward with my career. It was a huge win for me.
“I’m very glad I was able to get in the ring two times last year,” he added, knowing not many fighters had that opportunity during the Covid-hit 2020. “It was great. Kept me on track. I’m grateful for that and I’m looking forward to getting back out there to start this year off with a win.”
Smith is a man of few words. The basic line of questioning gets you what you put into the conversation. However, once you to start to open the chatter up the New Yorker begins to open up a bit more and gives you the kind of responses that befit the man himself. Honest, genuine and humble. For instance, did he ever have doubts he could become a world champion after losing to Sullivan Barrera and Bivol? And for a blue-collar (former union labourer) guy like Smith, who owns a tree service business with his father, what would becoming a world champion mean to him?
“I always felt like I was capable of doing it but there were always doubts that I would get to that point to get a shot,” the first answer began. “After a couple of fights I was like, ‘Wow, I’m this close I just gotta keep pushing and I’ll get there’ and here I am. I’m here again.”
Second answer: “It just shows you can accomplish anything if you work hard for it. Becoming champion of the world is a tough thing to do. I made it this far and I’m going to accomplish it. It’s a big accomplishment for me. I can’t wait.”
It takes a lot to remove Smith from the light-heavy title picture. Eleider Alvarez gave as good as he got but the former world champion was bloodied and outgunned. Bivol, in the 12th round against Smith, almost had his man out of there. A few more seconds and it might have been so. Smith stood and took the punishment. Whatever he’s built of it will take a man of size and brute power to properly deal with the American.
Smith has learned a great deal since his pro debut on Halloween 2009. There have been bumps along the way but like he said, “Here I am”. He’s still standing but since the loss to Bivol there have been some issues to correct.
“I’m more busy and sharper in there [the ring]. When I was fighting Bivol I was not busy enough. I needed to work on my footwork and let everything flow better. I’ve been working on it and I feel like I’ve improved a lot. I think I’d be a different fighter again if I fought him again.”
Smith wants another shot at Bivol. He wants a battle of power and chins against the M.I.A. WBC and IBF champion Artur Beterbiev. The bearded Russian frightens many, but the vulnerabilities are there. Smith is well aware of the fact that the 36-year-old hasn’t fought in 15 months. It doesn’t bother him, but he did say, “Usually if you don’t fight in a year, they strip you and of your ranking, too.
“They’re feeding him [Beterbiev] the right guys,” he added. “They’re giving him easy fights. I think he needs to fight soon otherwise give up the belt. A champion should be defending their belt every once in a while but it seems like every time he has a fight coming up he’s either injured or something else comes up where he can’t fight.”
Smith wants to accelerate his career should he emerge victorious against Vlasov. He wants unifications against Bivol and/or Beterbiev. Time isn’t running out; Smith feels as though he is in his prime, but he realises that the older he gets the harder everything in boxing will become.
Whether the fight against Vlasov is difficult remains to be seen but Smith is a man who thrives on getting his head down and grafting. In the last four years, he has taken on the likes of Andrzej Fonfara, Bernard Hopkins, Sullivan Barrera, Dmitry Bivol, Jesse Hart and Eleider Alvarez. For those half dozen fights, his record reads won four and lost two. He feels that a world title win is overdue. He has passed the tests, ticked the boxes and fought men who are as tough as they are talented. The finishing line is close for Joe Smith Jr.
“I’ve put in the work; I’ve beat the best and I just got to do it one more time and I can be a champion. I’m due for a title now.”
Main image and all photos: Mikey Williams/Top Rank.