Amber Williams/ Round By Round Boxing

This Saturday, one of boxing’s biggest punchers, Joe “The Irish Bomber” Smith Jr. (26-3, 21 KOs), gets his best shot at a world title.

The ESPN card, which will feature rising heavyweight prospects, Efe Ajagba (14-0, 11 KOs) and Trey Lippe Morrison (16-0, 16 KOs) promises knockouts.

However, Smith is by far the most explosive of all of them, pound for pound.

Efe Ajagba is a Heavyweight prospect to watch.
Marilyn Paulino/ Round By Round Boxing

Smith is challenging for the vacant WBO 175 pound strap–a title vacated by Canelo Alvarez after he dethroned former Light Heavyweight boogeyman, Sergey Kovalev. Across from Smith is the game Russian challenger, Maxim Vlasov (45-3, 26 KOs).

For what seems like first time in his career, the “Common Man,” as he was dubbed during the run-up to his bout against Bernard Hopkins, is the substantial favorite (-330, according to MyBookie).

Despite winning the much-coveted New York Golden Gloves title in 2008, Smith turned professional with little fanfare. He only had 50 or so amateur fights, but still accomplished a great deal. Per BoxRec, Smith was able to win a total of 11 titles in a comparatively brief amateur run, which included a Title World Championship in 2006.

Such amateurs are usually afforded some attention in their early professional days and, through six bouts, it appeared as if Smith was going to get it. However, a broken jaw at the hands of unheralded Eddie Caminero in 2010 kept him out of the ring for a year and made him a bit of an afterthought.

Smith fought on some high profile undercards but, for the next six years, faced middling opposition, at best. His shot at the big time came as an 18-1 underdog against former title challenger Andrzej Fonfara (then 28-3, 16 KOs.) Fonfara had given then-champion Adonis Stevenson all he could handle, and was taking the fight against Smith in front of a home crowd in Chicago.

The Bomber floored Fonfara with a looping right hand on the chin in round one, and finished him soon after. The crowd was stunned. In a recent interview, Smith shed some light on his feelings regarding that moment.

“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.”

Smith’s obliteration of Andrzej Fonfara in 2016 was his coming-out party.
Amber Williams/ Round By Round Boxing

Smith followed that effort up by knocking the living legend, Bernard Hopkins, out of the ring, and out of boxing. When speaking about the trash talk by Hopkins in the buildup, he simply said, “I think I took care of that.”

That December knockout capped off a whirlwind 2016 for the Union 66 Construction Laborer.

The blue collar attitude implied by his occupation permeates his every moment in the ring. The ever-balanced boxer-puncher is dangerous from the opening bell, through the end of the twelfth round. His recent losses attest to that fact. Former title challenger Sullivan Barrera (22-3, 14 KOs) broke Smith’s jaw in round two, but was unable to put his man away inside the ten round distance. The main reason? Respect for Smith’s power kept Barrera at a distance.

Dmitry Bivol (17-0, 11 KOs), thought by many to be the class of the 175 pound division, can attest to the same fact. In Smith’s only title shot to date, Bivol was putting on an absolute clinic. He beat the Irish-American New Yorker from pillar to post all night, and looked to be ramping up for a stoppage.

The consummate workman in Smith never stopped pressing the action, and was able to land a hard overhand right on Bivol’s temple. The shot came just as the bell sounded to end the tenth round, and left Bivol visibly staggered – his corner, flustered.

Smith gave everything he had in the eleventh, but couldn’t quite get it done. In the twelfth, Bivol cruised to seal his victory. Even in defeat, the message that Smith was dangerous for all 36 minutes of a championship fight had been emphatically delivered.

Dmitry Bivol
Even the supreme Dmitry Bivol had a close call with Joe Smith.
Ed Mulholland/Matchroom Boxing USA

Now, on Saturday night, Smith has a chance to reach the pinnacle of professional boxing. The man across from him is no slouch himself. Vlasov’s trio of defeats have all come against champions or world title challengers, including Krystof Glowacki at Cruiserweight. But, there is a general feeling that the Russian has slipped a little at age 34.

With Joe Smith’s monumental 2020, which saw wins over Jesse Hart (26-3, 21 KOs) and Eleider Alvarez (25-2, 13 KOs), he looks to score an emphatic knockout to secure a world title. On being the underdog against the latter, Smith simply said, “I don’t mind being the underdog. You have to know our skill and know that you can always win.”

Self-belief seems to be a common thread among fighters of his ilk.

With the explosive pair of Heavyweights also on the card, knockouts are a certainty this Saturday on ESPN. Don’t miss it.

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