This Saturday night, Joe Smith Jr. (26-3, 21 KOs) will vie for the vacant WBO light heavyweight title on ESPN against co-challenger Maxim Vlasov (45-3, 26 KOs). The fight was rescheduled from February 13th, due to Vlasov testing positive for the coronavirus. The WBO title is up for grabs after it was vacated by Saul "Canelo" Alvarez in December of 2019 after he knocked out then-champion Sergey Kovalev. As an amateur, Smith won the 2008 New York State Golden Gloves, defeating Sean Monaghan. Smith Jr. decided to turn pro just one year later. Smith became a contender on June 18, 2016 when he defeated Andrez Fonfara in Chicago, destroying the heavy Polish 20-1 favorite with a first-round TKO.
Q: You beat Fonfara as a 18-1 underdog, what was that like for you?
A: “That was a night I will never forget. The crowd was really loud, and there were a lot of Fonfara fans there, that I was able to make my fans. I knew I could beat him, I really believed it. We realized that [Fonfara] left himself open when he punched, and that’s what I looked for.”
Later that year, the Smith train continued when boxing legend Bernard Hopkins hand-picked Smith as his opponent for the curtain call of his legendary career. However, the upset minded Smith had other plans, knocking Hopkins out of the ring, onto the Forum floor, in one of the most memorable knockouts in recent boxing history.
Q: The nickname, “The Common Man,” started appearing around the Hopkins fight, why was that?
A: “Well it actually began during the press conference against Hopkins. Hopkins was crafty and used whatever he could to get an advantage. At the press conference he started yelling and screaming and basically said that he was special, and I was just common. My promoter Joe DeGuardia started talking about how I was proud to be a "Common Man" and a working laborer. All of that is true and it kind of stuck. But I think I took care of that (slight by Hopkins) when I knocked him out of the ring. About a year later I saw Hopkins at the BWAA awards dinner, and he said to me, ‘hey Joe get over here so we can talk about that push.’ I think I earned a lot of respect from him and everyone else that fight.”
Q: Was it your goal to go in there and be the first fighter to knock Hopkins out?
A: “Yeah, I wanted to be the first guy to knock him out, but I must say, [Hopkins] is one tough guy man. I hit him with some clean hard shots, and he was still there, punching back. When I had him against the ropes, I hit him with a right hand that I saw basically had him out on his feet, before I hit him with a left hand that sent him out of the ring.”
After fighting nine-rounds with a broken jaw on HBO against Sullivan Barrera at the Forum, then devouring Melvin Russell in the first round, Smith would get the opportunity to fight for his first world title against Russian technician Dmitry Bivol, [a wide-decision loss].
Q: What did you learn from the Bivol fight?
A: “The Bivol fight taught me a lot about myself. I realized that to win at that level, I needed to have better movement, and be more fluid. I needed to stay busier and be more focused the whole time, not just looking for one big shot. I wish I would have started faster in that fight.”
Q: Speaking of one big shot, you landed a massive right hand at the end of the tenth-round. Do you ever re-watch that clip and think to yourself, if only I had ten more seconds?
A: “Oh yes I do. I watch the clip of that every time. If I just pushed myself harder from the beginning, I think I could have won that fight. Maybe winning this title on April 10th will help me get back to that fight again.”
Bouncing back from the Bivol loss, Smith dominated in a due or die challenge against Jesse Harton ESPN. There was a lot of bad blood leading up to the fight, as Hart, a Philadelphia native, felt he had to make up for what Smith did to his mentor and fellow Philly native, Bernard Hopkins, four years prior.
Q: Hart seemed to really take your fight personally talking about how he was going to knock you out in honor of his mentor Bernard Hopkins. What did you think about that?
A: “He was one of those guys that was making someone else’s problems his. He was telling me he was going to knock me out, and that he had more knockouts than me, and I think at the time he only had one more knockout than me. He said at the bell he was going to come right to me and fight, so the bell rang and I ran to the middle of the ring and he started dancing around me like a ballerina and I said, ‘Dude I thought you were going to come to fight.’”
In August of 2020, coming off of the Hart victory, Smith Jr. was in a WBO eliminator, against former WBO champion Elieder Alvarez on ESPN in the Bubble at the MGM Grand. Conjuring his inner 2016, Smith Jr. tore up and dominated Alvarez, culminating in a ninth-round TKO, sending Alvarez through the ropes, similar to the knockout of Hopkins.
Q: You were the underdog again against Alvarez. Some analysts had you as a very live dog which proved to be true. How did you handle being the underdog in this fight?
A: “I don’t mind being the underdog. You have to know your skill and know that you can always win. Going into that fight was different because it was at the Bubble, and there were no fans, but I didn’t mind it because there were no distractions at all.”
Q: Alvarez was the second consecutive #1-rated light heavyweight and favored fighter that you fought in 2020. Does that play in your mind at all leading up to a fight?
A: “Anybody is a dangerous opponent. I was confident in both fights, but there is always that thought in your head that this guy can beat you. Anybody can lose, but as long as you work hard and do what you need to do, you will win. That’s what I think. I can beat anybody anywhere, anytime.”