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Joe Smith Jr. wants to make the most of his second world title chance

Joe Smith Jr. knocks Bernard Hopkins out of the ring.
05
Apr

Light heavyweight contender Joe Smith Jr. had a chance to fight for a world title in March 2019 and got routed, but he believes he learned an important lesson that night that he plans to carry into his second opportunity to win a 175-pound belt.

Smith will challenge Maxim Vlasov for the vacant WBO light heavyweight title — the one vacated by Canelo Alvarez soon after he knocked out Sergey Kovalev to win it November 2019 — in the main event of the Top Rank Boxing on ESPN card on Saturday (ESPN/ESPN Deportes/ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET) at the Osage Casino in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the number of spectators will be limited to about 800. The card will be Top Rank’s first outside of the MGM Grand conference center bubble in Las Vegas since June, when it began putting on shows without spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the co-feature, heavyweight up-and-comer Efe Ajagba (14-0, 11 KOs), 26, a 2016 Nigerian Olympian fighting out of Houston, will face Atlanta native Brian Howard (15-4, 12 KOs), 40, in a 10-rounder.

Smith-Vlasov was originally scheduled for Feb. 13 in Las Vegas, but Vlasov tested positive for Covid-19 prior to the weigh-in, forcing a postponement. But Smith took it in stride, going through with his planned wedding the following week.

“After I found out I wasn’t fighting I took the week off. I had my wedding,” Smith said on a video call with boxing media on Monday. “Enjoyed my wedding and jumped right back into (training). I worked out hard for the last couple of weeks and the last week I’ve just been maintaining and sharpening up all my skills.”

A victory will likely send Smith into a three-belt unification fight with unified champion Artur Beterbiev later in the year.

In Smith’s first title bout almost two years ago, Dmitry Bivol, the slicker, quicker and more technical boxer, befuddled Smith en route to a one-sided unanimous decision victory, 119-109, 119-109 and 118-110, to retain his title.

It was then that Smith and his career-long trainer Jerry Capobianco, who also trained Smith when he was an amateur, realized that while they did not have to make wholesale changes to Smith’s game their eyes were certainly opened to the need to make a few refinements.

Smith had always relied upon a plow-ahead, all-out aggressive pressure style. It was that fan-friendly way of fighting that was such a key to upset wins over Andrzej Fonfara by first round knockout in his coming out party in 2016 and an even more shocking eighth-round knockout of the legendary Bernard Hopkins – whom he literally knocked out of the ring to send him into retirement — later in 2016.

The style was working again in his next fight in 2017 when Smith dropped longtime contender Sullivan Barrera in the first round, but he eventually lost a 10-round decision after fighting from the second round on with a badly broken jaw that ultimately required surgery. Smith returned from the jaw injury for a quick first-round knockout of journeyman Melvin Russell in June 2018, which set him for the opportunity to face Bivol.

Smith and Capobianco did not mope around after the Bivol loss. They went about subtlety refining his tactics and it paid off with a pair of significant victories in 2020.

“With Bivol it was experience (for me),” Smith told The Ring. “He is an all-around great fighter. I learned I just needed to sharpen up on a few things, work on a little more movement, a little more footwork and just being a little more busy and not always looking for the big shot.

“That’s what I’ve been working on and it’s been improving and working in the two fights I’ve had since. I was just coming forward with (Bivol) too much rather than taking a second and trying to pick some shots here or there.”

Smith employed his adjustments and fought very well in both of the fights he had after losing to Bivol. As the underdog, he scored a knockdown and outpointed former super middleweight world title challenger Jesse Hart in January 2020 and then scored a highlight-reel ninth-round knockout of former world titlist Eleider “Storm” Alvarez in August.

“(Those wins were) huge for me. I needed those wins,” Smith said. “I knew everything was on the line with those two fights. Even with this fight my career possibly is on the line. I need to get in there and get this win so I get the bigger and better fights.”

In both fights, Smith (26-3, 21 KOs), 31, who hails from Mastic, New York on Long Island, remained aggressive but was less reckless and more thoughtful about which punches to throw. It paid off with victories that were good enough to earn him a nomination for 2020 fighter of the year from the Boxing Writers Association of America, unusual for a fighter who does not hold a world title. Smith was also nominated after his big 2016 campaign.

More notably than an award nomination, however, Smith’s 2020 wins put him in position to fight Vlasov (45-3, 26 KOs), 34, of Russia, for a world title.

“Joe always has his power and it always worked up until that point,” Capobianco said of the fight against Bivol. “So, what we did was go back a little bit to the drawing board and just (have him) stay on his toes a little more, be a little more fluid with his punches and like Joe said, it seems to work. A little more head movement, not straight in, and it’s working.”

Smith, more so than many fighters, was able to carry on a somewhat normal boxing schedule in 2020 despite the coronavirus pandemic. He fought in January, just before Covid-19 began to spread so severely in the United States, and then was back in August in the Top Rank bubble, continuing to fight thanks to the ongoing deal between his promoter, Joe DeGuardia of Star Boxing, and Top Rank.

Still, Smith said there was nothing easy about making sure he could safely fight this past summer. He said he was essentially a hermit.

“I lucked out with that,” Smith said of his normal schedule. “Also, I sacrificed a lot. I stayed away from people so I knew I would be good and ready (for the August fight). I didn’t take any chances of getting the virus. I kept myself quarantined the whole time. I haven’t been near anybody but my trainer and my (wife) and whoever I’m sparring.”

Joe Smith knocks down Jesse Hart in the seventh (Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank)

Because of the adjustments Smith and Capobianco have made, Smith said he will be ready for Vlasov, who isn’t as talented as Bivol but likes to move around in during his fights.

“I watched a few of Vlasov’s fights – the (Isaac) Chilemba fight and a couple of others. He’s a very busy guy and he’s durable,” Smith said. “He can take a good shot and he always comes back with something. He does move around here and there. He does try to use his legs.”

Vlasov’s three losses were all by decision — to Chilemba in 2011, Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez in 2015 and to Krzysztof Glowacki, when Vlasov moved up to cruiserweight to challenge for a world title in 2018.

“It’s everything right now,” Smith said of defeating Vlasov for the belt. “My whole career is on the line with this fight, so I really need to secure that belt. It would mean everything to me. It’s everything I’ve worked for. I need this win so I can move forward in my career and so I don’t have to go back to working as a laborer or relying on a paycheck every week, killing myself and working for the rest of my life. Securing the world title, which is my dream, is pretty much everything. I just want to get in there and get this guy and get that belt. That’s the only thing on my mind.”

Should Smith emerge victorious on Saturday Top Rank and DeGuardia plan to set up a Beterbiev-Smith fight for later this year in the United States. Beterbiev (16-0, 16 KOs) earned his place in the fight by knocking out Adam Deines in the 10th round to retain the WBC and IBF bets on March 20 in Moscow.

The prospect of such a major fight has also provided Smith with additional motivation against Vlasov.

“Just knowing that’s the next possibility, the next fight is motivation right there,” Smith said. “It’s a huge opportunity, so I gotta get this belt. I’d take that fight right away.

“I’ve watched a few of his fights. (Beterbiev is) a very strong guy, powerful but he’s been hit and down before and he also hasn’t fought the greatest competition I feel. So we’ll see what happens. Right now I’m focused on this fight and the opportunity to fight for another title after this.”

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