New Yorker Joe Smith mounted a stirring late rally to eke out a majority decision over Russian Maxim Vlasov and seize the vacant WBO light-heavyweight title at the Osage Casino in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday night.
Scores were 115-112, 115-113 and 114-114 with Smith winning the last two rounds on all three cards in a close call.
In the 11th round, Smith hurt Vlasov with a right hand that forced the Russian to hold before the New Yorker dropped his crouching foe with a blow to the back of the head. Referee Gary Ritter allowed Vlasov to recover in his own corner rather than a neutral one. Smith felt the sequence robbed him of a knockout, but it proved not to matter on the cards.
A jubilant Smith (27-3, 21 KOs) said: “It’s a great feeling. It was definitely a close, tough fight. I give it to Vlasov. Great fighter. He really put on a great show tonight and toughed it out. I believe that [11th] round where I hurt him there… I believe he had his head down, and I should’ve got the knockout. I think I would’ve got the stoppage in that round, but he pulled it off and made it out on his feet. I believe I got the victory tonight because they saw I landed the harder shots. He landed a lot of punches. It was a great fight.
“I want the other belts. I want the big fights out there. Now I gotta get back in the gym and keep working on my technique and stuff. I believe I’m going to start unifying belts.”
A crestfallen Vlasov (45-4, 26 KOs) disagreed with Smith’s view and believed he was the rightful winner, perhaps with some justification.
“This was a very hard-fought, competitive fight,” said Vlasov. “I thought I was winning rounds and was well ahead. Against the aggressive style of Joe Smith, I came forward the entire fight. I felt confident I was winning and was securing rounds in the bank with the judges. I never felt that I was behind at any stage of the fight. This was my opportunity to show the world I was a world champion and I did that, and Joe Smith knows I did that.”
There wasn’t much between them and Vlasov gave Smith a rigorous assessment of his championship credentials. The New Yorker was cut over his left eye early and stretched to the limit by former cruiserweight Vlasov, whose natural size, industry and resolve posed problems.
The Russian worked tirelessly, but the more solid shots of Smith impressed the judges. He wobbled Vlasov with a left hook in the seventh, but it was emblematic of a back-and-fore encounter that the Russian roared back in the following session, winding Smith with his feverish workrate.
Smith’s eye was closing and he was riddled by right hands in the ninth, but just as the fight seemed to be slipping away he found a strong finish in the final two rounds to clinch a hard-fought victory.
In the chief support, Nigerian heavyweight contender Efe Ajagba (15-0, 12 KOs) scored a crushing third-round knockout of Brian Howard (15-5, 11 KOs), courtesy of a hefty right hand.
“I felt good. I tried to pick the punches, use the jab. This guy is very slick sometimes. I tried to do the job,” said Ajagba after his highlight reel KO. “He was shaky, so when I went back to the corner after the first round, my coach told me to take my time, start with the body, leave the head.
“I trained for this fight, took my time, started with my boxing foundation, and came back strong. This camp was the best one for me, the best camp ever in my boxing career. It’s my time to shine, so I’m coming for the heavyweights.”
Main image: Mikey Williams/Top Rank.