Joe Smith Jr primed for world title tilt in tribute to ‘The Common Man’

The New York fighter takes on Russian Maxim Vlasov in Tulsa on Saturday looking to win the vacant WBO light heavyweight world title

Jack Rathborn
Assistant Sports Editor
@JackRathborn
Friday 09 April 2021 15:18
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Joe Smith Jr is primed for his second shot at a world title
Joe Smith Jr is primed for his second shot at a world title

The hurt is still vivid for Joe Smith Jr after learning of Maxim Vlasov’s positive Covid-19 test in February, which scuppered the pair’s WBO world light heavyweight title fight at just two days’ notice.

Not only was the New Yorker, from Long Island, forced into patiently waiting for his second opportunity at the biggest prize in the sport, after falling short against unbeaten Russian Dmitry Bivol in 2019, but it forced him into a difficult conversation with his wife.

His wedding was scheduled for the week after the fight in February and though the couple went through with the ceremony, they opted to postpone their honeymoon until after this Saturday’s rescheduled date in Tulsa.

“She was a little shocked,” Smith Jr tells The Independent after delivering the news. “It was a stressful time. But she knows what’s on the line. She was on board with me and everything.

“I had to make sacrifices, for example my wedding, while I had a great time, there were things I couldn’t do and I had to reschedule my honeymoon.”

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Smith Jr, who owns a tree surgeon business, has also been unable to see his daughter throughout this elongated camp, which only compounds the newfound pressure entering this weekend as a favourite.

Known as ‘The Common Man’, which was initially an insult from Bernard Hopkins in reference to his time working as a labourer, the 31-year-old has often thrived as the underdog. His sharp-shooter style was too much for Chicago’s big ticket-seller Andrzej Fonfara and sent the legendary Hopkins into retirement following that iconic finish through the ropes. In fact, Smith Jr further endeared himself to fans by wiping out former world champion Eleider Alvarez in similar fashion to Hopkins, leaving the Colombian sprawling.

“I’m constantly motivated to get in there and prove people wrong,” he adds. “I’ve got a lot on the line in this fight, it’s my future, I’ll do whatever it takes to win.

“He’s an aggressive guy and very busy. I’ve got to adapt to whatever he brings and get the belt.”

Smith Jr’s earliest boxing memories as a child involve hours studying highlights from Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr, but it was Bivol who eventually taught him the importance of complimenting brutality with the sweet science. In one of the sport’s most compelling divisions, Smith Jr could rapidly elevate his status with a unification on the horizon beyond this weekend, either in a rematch against Bivol or against another fearsome Russian Artur Beterbiev.

“I’m definitely pursuing the rematch,” Smith Jr insists. “Especially because he has one of the belts and the fact that he beat me, I’d love to avenge that fight.

“I’d like to fight at home as well, I want the big fights, the world championship fights and to unify after getting past Vlasov.

“But I believe that fight [against Bivol] changed me for the better, I learned a lot, I am now working on my movement, putting my punches together better and just being busier. It has made me a much better fighter overall.”

The vulnerability of Beterbiev, now 36, following multiple knockdowns in his career, and Smith Jr’s instinct to trade is a mouthwatering prospect later this year. The pandemic has been especially testing for Smith Jr but Saturday finally brings a chance to show just how far ‘The Common Man’ can really go.

Joe Smith Jr vs Maxim Vlasov for the WBO light heavyweight title is live on Box Nation in the UK with coverage starting from 03:00 GMT

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