Joe Smith – Almost There

Losses matter more in the last generation or two than they used to. 

For some boxers, they can be career crippling. 

In some ways, it wouldn’t be fair if it didn’t work that way. Once at a certain level of contention, most of the current battlers in the sport just aren’t active enough to afford a mass of defeats. Single losses under the right circumstances might not be too harmful but multiple losses make it hard to sell when there are clusters of fighters waiting for an opening with a limited time on canvas to show their stuff. 

It takes the right combination of management and opportunity to change a fortune for the blemished. Prior to the wide onset of COVID living, fans saw heavyweight Robert Helenius resurrect his career by being the first to defeat rising heavyweight Adam Kownacki. Freddie Pendleton in the late 80s and 90s, and Tevin Farmer recently, turned early adversity to winning ways long enough to snag major titles.

At the least, 31-year old light heavyweight Joe Smith Jr. (26-3, 21 KO) of Long Island, New York will always be able to say he was the man who retired, and gave the lone stoppage loss to, a modern legend in Bernard Hopkins. After this Saturday (10 PM EST), he might be able to say he got to hear, “and new…” 

Smith will have to go through 34-year old Russian Maxim Vlasov (45-3, 26 KO) to get there. Vlasov has won three straight since moving down from cruiserweight and has never been stopped.

This didn’t feel likely two years ago. Smith followed his Hopkins win in 2016 with a loss to Sullivan Barrera that highlighted some of the limitations in his game. Stay in tight quarters and rumble and Smith has the sort of heavy hands to stay in just about any fight. Barrera came off the floor and boxed smart to stay out of that wheelhouse.

It was just one loss and didn’t prevent Smith from getting to a title opportunity two fights later against WBA titlist Dmitry Bivol. Smith had occasional moments but lost nearly every round of the contest. Working under the Top Rank umbrella, Smith was able to secure new opportunities and made the most of them. 

Smith’s tough decision win over contender Jesse Hart was followed by what might be his best win to date. Hopkins was a name but he was also nearing 52 years of age. Eleider Alvarez was just one fight removed from splitting a pair of fights with Sergey Kovalev. Smith put him out of the ring and behind him in line.  

Just like that, Joe Smith was a serious contender again. It bookends nicely in the division with veteran and former champion Jean Pascal who also rebounded from a lopsided loss to Bivol to score big upsets of Marcus Browne and Badou Jack to suddenly be a factor again. 

The lesson for both men, and those wondering if they’ve lost their way past hope, are it’s never too late to punch past defeat. In both cases, being with the right teams helped. Pascal was afforded chances under the PBC tent; Smith has worked with Top Rank. Chances though are just that. The fighters do the work. Smith got it done when he needed to. Now Smith has to do it one more time. The stakes are bigger than the vacant WBO belt on the line this weekend.

The winner of Smith-Vlasov is a likely unification target for lineal and IBF/WBC light heavyweight king Artur Beterbiev (16-0, 16 KO). Top Rank is tied to all three. Smith-Vlasov is delayed from February by COVID but arrives for both men still right on time.

Win or lose this weekend, Smith won’t be done. Another chance will come. There might never be a better one than this. Getting a major title, with two more in striking distance, doesn’t line up every day. Smith is almost there. 

We’ll see if Vlasov can make almost a bridge too far.

Cliff’s Notes…

Jaron Ennis-Sergey Lipinets is every bit as intriguing as this one. Ennis looks potentially special and he’s being handled with a rate of activity and a willingness to face serious contenders before he gets to a belt that is commendable. We’ve got a solid Saturday on tap…Wrestlemania weekend is here. If it’s your thing, enjoy. As a fan, I’m excited to think Daniel Bryan, who many thought wouldn’t get a fair shake, will now say he main evented twice…Josh Taylor-Jose Ramirez is getting closer. Let’s hope more big names and big fights are too…Looking for a new show to try? Check out Made for Love on HBO or HBO Max. It’s a wild little ride…Bets of luck in retirement to Carl Frampton. It was fun watching his career.  

Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.  He can be reached at [email protected]