Artur Beterbiev better be aware Joe Smith Jr. fights with powerful motivation
Joe Smith Jr. doesn’t want to ever reach for that yellow hardhat and fluorescent orange construction site vest again. That’s how the WBO light heavyweight titlist made his living for years. It was brutal. Days seemed infinite. He worked in shivering cold, and suffocating heat. His fists got him out.
This Saturday in the Hulu Theater in Madison Square Garden, Smith’s looking for his fists to carry him higher, when “The Beast” defends the WBO belt against WBC/IBF light heavyweight titlist Artur Beterbiev (17-0, 17 knockouts) on ESPN, ESPN Deportes and ESPN+ (10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT).
Both Beterbiev, The Ring’s No. 2 light heavyweight contender and Smith, rated No. 3 by Ring, realize this is the step towards being the undisputed light heavyweight world champion, with a unification fight possibly ahead later this year against WBA and Ring’s No. 1-rated Dmitry Bivol.
“This is a huge opportunity to fight for two more world titles and just to be a unified champion is an amazing opportunity,” said Smith, who regrouped and reinvented himself after his unanimous-decision loss to Bivol in March 2019 by winning four straight, including impressive victories over Jesse Hart and Eleider Alvarez in 2020. “I knew those were my last opportunities. If I lost a fight, and I didn’t give it 110-percent in the gym and stay focused, I wasn’t going to make it anywhere. Each fight (after the Bivol loss) I took as my last fight. That’s how I got here.”
But Smith (28-3, 22 KOs) knew he was the B-side of the Hart fight. It was fight for relevance. Whoever lost would be thrown on to the gate keeper scrap heap. Both needed a resurrecting victory. In a superb performance in which he dusted off his dormant boxing skills, Smith won by split-decision. Against Alvarez, who was looking to stay relevant after his decision to Sergey Kovalev in their rematch in February 2019, Smith again prevailed, that time by knockout.
He knows he’s not supposed to be the one who wins this fight, either.
“I watched the clip of that 10th round against Bivol over and over again and I thought to myself, ‘I’m that close to becoming world champion right here.’” Smith said. “I looked back at that, and the few mistakes I made, worked hard in the gym, I could fix that and become world champion. I got a chance to fight for the WBO belt and stayed dedicated every day and here we are.
“I always worked hard on my endurance, but I had to work on my boxing ability. It’s all coming together. It was actually the loss to Bivol that got me back. That motivated me to see I was that close to becoming a world champion. I knew my next fight if I didn’t improve my boxing, I wasn’t going to make it anywhere. I knew if I lost, I didn’t want to go back to a laborer’s job working every single day. It motivated me to work every single day because this is my life.
“I want to be a world champion and live the way I want to live. I wasn’t supposed to win the Jesse Hart fight. I stayed on top of him all night and I knew that’s what I needed to do, stay on top of him and make him uncomfortable. I wasn’t supposed to beat Alvarez. I beat him, too. I still have more left in the tank and I’m going to show that this Saturday.”
Smith is 32. Beterbiev, a two-time Russian Olympian based in Montreal, Canada, is 37. He is the only current titlist who has stopped each opponent he has faced. He stopped Oleksandr Gvozdyk in 10, in a fight he was losing 86-85 and 87-84 on two judge’s scorecards in October 2019.
“But he leaves himself open at times, and he’s going to give me opportunities to land my power,” Smith said. “I believe it’s going to be my night. I am ready to fire-for-fire with this guy. I know facing him is a big opportunity and beating him is going to open bigger opportunities. I’ve put in the work like I always do. You have to bring the fire against someone like (Beterbiev). I believe I’m the biggest puncher in the division. He’s going to have to deal with my power.”
This will mark the first time Smith, who’s from Long Island, will be fighting at Madison Square Garden for the first time since he was a 17-year-old amateur when he won the 2008 Golden Gloves. He always envisioned himself fighting for a title in front of family and friends.
“My emotions will be under control,” Smith vowed. “You always have to watch your emotions, and I plan on being relaxed and focused. I’ll envision myself being in an empty gym with a guy trying to take my head off.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on twitter @JSantoliquito.