Stephen Smith: ‘I will do a job on Jose Pedraza’
When British contender Stephen Smith climbs the ring steps for the most important fight of his career against IBF junior lightweight titleholder Jose Pedraza at the Foxwoods Resort in Connecticut on Saturday he will experience a whole raft of emotions.
The 30-year-old Smith (23-1, 13 KOs) has been world ranked for longer than he cares to remember and waiting for this opportunity has been difficult to endure. But unbeaten for four-and-a-half years, the Liverpool man is coming off an impressive sixth-round stoppage of former European champion Devis Boschiero and enters his first world title bout with momentum, drive and confidence.
“I would say I’m at my peak and if not then I’m definitely approaching it,” said Smith. “There’s no better way to go into a world title fight than on the back of your career best performance. I feel as if I’ve matured mentally and physically so maybe it’s best that I’ve had to wait for my chance.”
Smith has another reason to be confident. The unbeaten Pedraza, who is rated No. 7 by THE RING at 130 pounds, is a novice world champion who only won the vacant belt last June when he outpointed Andrey Klimov. The talented Puerto Rican was dominant but he barely squeezed past Edner Cherry on a split decision four months later.
Smith said, “That fight was very close and I don’t think he could have argued if he lost but it depends on what you like and how you score. If you like aggression and the way Cherry drew him into a fight in the middle rounds then you could easily have scored the fight for him.
“Being honest though, I’m not reading too much into it because I don’t think it was Pedraza’s best performance. He did make a lot of mistakes and showed a lot of weaknesses but my focus is on his all-round game and I believe I can beat him at his best.”
Despite the possible off-night against Cherry, the 26-year-old Pedraza is doing something right. He represented Puerto Rico at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and won a slew of other medals, including a silver at the 2009 World Championships. As a professional, he is unbeaten in 21 fights with 12 KOs to his credit.
Smith, who himself won gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, has studied him diligently.
He said, “Pedraza, despite being orthodox, has shown that he can also box effectively as a southpaw. He completed almost 12 rounds against (Andrey) Klimov as a left-hander but, to be honest, I boxed plenty of southpaws in the amateurs and I’ve always been comfortable against them.
“When Pedraza is orthodox he likes to mix it but when he’s southpaw, he’s safety first. There’s never been a fight where I’ve said the pattern will depend on what the opponent does but it will this time. Everyone knows, when you fight a southpaw it’s completely different from boxing an orthodox fighter. Regardless, (Trainer) Joe (Gallagher) and I have covered all bases and we’re ready for whatever Pedraza does.”
Smith will be required to execute his game plan under intense pressure. As well as fighting on American soil for the first time in his professional career, he also must live up to the family name which is like an institution in his hometown of Liverpool, England.
Stephen, is the second eldest of four professional boxing brothers, all of whom have captured British titles in their respective weight divisions. At world level, Paul dropped two unanimous decisions to Arthur Abraham in WBO super middleweight title bouts, Liam currently holds the WBO junior middleweight belt and Callum is on the cusp of a WBC super middleweight title shot.
The possibility of adding even more world titles to the family cabinet is not lost on Stephen Smith.
“It’s a scary thought but it is an achievable ambition for us,” he said. “Liam is already a world champion and Callum recently won his final eliminator with a first round knockout against Hadillah Mohoumadi.
“As for me fighting in the States, that has always been a dream. I believe that if you want to make a name for yourself, you need to do it in the States. You can be a superstar in England and be relatively unknown over there. It’s just lucky for me that my first fight in America is going to be for a world title.
Smith summarized, “I put the most pressure on myself because I’m determined to win each and every fight I’m in. I believe in myself and I wouldn’t be involved in this sport if I didn’t think that way.”
Pedraza is a narrow favorite to retain his belt for the second time, but he will be facing one very focused and determined challenger who is intent on testing him to the full.
“I bring a lot to this fight and I think my skillset is seriously underestimated,” said Smith. “I’m a big puncher at the weight and I won’t go in there and just attack him like Cherry did.
“People will see the best of Stephen Smith. It’s time to prove I belong at world level which I believe I’m more than capable of doing. I will show my skills and my punching power and I will do a job on Jose Pedraza.”
Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and has contributed to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing