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The obscure truth behind Joe Smith Jr.'s rise

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·3 min read
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Joe Smith Jr. isn’t a guy who gets a lot of notoriety. He’s not the most eloquent boxer in the game. His backstory as a union member and blue-collar worker has obscured, however, one very salient fact as he heads into a bout Saturday (10 p.m. ET/ESPN) for the vacant WBO light heavyweight title in Tulsa, Oklahoma, against Maxim Vlasov:

The guy has morphed into one of the most entertaining fighters in the world.

Oh, even from his earliest days as a pro, Smith was entertaining. But he didn’t have the amateur pedigree and was seen as just another guy, a crude and rudimentary fighter who wouldn’t amount to much.

More than 11 years later, though, it’s time the narrative has changed. Smith is never going to win an award as the sport’s slickest boxer, but if you like your fighters to be fearless, to go for the knockout and to fight anyone, Smith is your guy.

“I always knew I could do this,” said Smith, who is a -350 favorite at BetMGM. “The Hopkins fight was the one that opened the door for me.”

That would be Bernard Hopkins, a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame and one of the greatest fighters of recent vintage. Smith burst onto the radar in 2016 when he not just stopped Hopkins, he knocked him out of the ring.

“How many guys,” Top Rank president Todd duBoef said, “have you ever seen do that to Hopkins?”

Hopkins was the second in a string of tough opposition for Smith that continues to this point. He got himself onto the national radar, and earned the Hopkins bout, with a first-round stoppage of Andrzej Fonfara earlier in 2016. After Hopkins, he’s faced Sullivan Barrera, Melvin Russell, Dmitry Bivol, Jesse Hart and Eleider Alvarez. Only Russell wasn’t considered an elite-level opponent.

INGLEWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 17:  Joe Smith Jr. reacts after punching Bernard Hopkins out of the ring for a ninth round TKO to win the WBC International Light Heavyweight title at The Forum on December 17, 2016 in Inglewood, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Joe Smith Jr. reacts after punching Bernard Hopkins out of the ring for a ninth-round TKO to win the WBC International Light Heavyweight title at The Forum on Dec. 17, 2016, in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

He faces another one Saturday in Vlasov, who has won 15 of his last 16 and is 45-3 with 26 KOs.

A win would not only give Smith, 31, his first world title and take him out of the shadows forever, but it would likely set up a bout with unified champion Artur Beterbiev.

That would be as explosive a fight as there could be made in boxing. Beterbiev is one of the sport’s leading knockout artists with 16 KOs in 16 fights since turning pro. Smith has 21 KOs among his 26 wins, meaning each man has the zip to stop the other. More than their power is their style; both are looking for the home run throughout the fight.

Smith, though, hasn’t made this methodical, slow climb by looking ahead much. He’s focused on the task at hand and knows Vlasov presents a strong challenge.

But BetMGM has Smith even-money to win by knockout, and with Vlasov coming off a bout with COVID, there has to be at least a question about his conditioning.

DuBoef expects it will be one of those under-the-radar fights that will leave everyone talking after it’s over.

“That’s the kind of fighter he’s become,” duBoef said of Smith. “You get a guy who comes to fight. It should be a great one.”

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