If the oddsmakers and experts are right, WBO light heavyweight champion Joe Smith Jr., as a 9-to-1 underdog, is headed into an impossible challenge this Saturday against two-belt world light heavyweight champ Artur Beterbiev at New York’s Madison Square Garden Theater. But that’s nothing new. Nothing in the blue collar fighter’s boxing career has been easy.
As a matter of fact, Smith was supposed to be done and settled into his “common man” blue collar life years ago.
In 2017, after a tough loss to Sullivan Barrera, the Long Island/Suffolk County native used his boxing earnings to open the Team Smith Tree Service with his father. The high-profile defeat seemed to mark the end of his unlikely run near the top of an increasingly tough 175 lb. division.
Smith, who worked a full-time construction job throughout his pro career, had managed to parlay two heavy hands, persistence, and a will to win into a very solid run. Back-to-back KO upsets of Poland’s Andrzej Fonfara and then Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins, who Smith, literally, knocked through the ropes and into retirement, gave him a high-profile and seemed to guarantee big money for the underdog, working man’s battler.
But those big-money fights never came, due in large part to dubious business decisions from his team and general bad timing. He missed out on title opportunities against the likes of Adonis Stevenson, Sergey Kovalev, and Andre Ward. Instead, his people pushed him into the high-risk/low-reward HBO undercard bout with Barrera, which he lost via unanimous decision.
Two years later, Smith was brought in as an opponent against WBA light heavyweight champ (and recent Canelo Alvarez conqueror) Dmitry Bivol and fulfilled his role as a game, but ultimately doomed title challenger. He would drop a one-sided unanimous decision to the Russian in what turned out to be a stylistic mismatch.
But persistence, just as much as his thudding right-handed power, has been a defining characteristic in Smith’s career and it kept him afloat in a boat that seemed to already be half-sunk.
Big wins over contenders Jesse Hart and Eleider Alvarez led to him getting one last title shot, for the vacant WBO light heavyweight title against Maxim Vlasov in 2021. This time, the Long Island battler made good on his Cinderella story and delivered a happy ending with a majority decision over the Russian.
Now, with one title defense under his belt, Smith appears to be in deeper, more turbulent waters than at any point of his tempestuous 13-year pro career.
Defending WBC and IBF light heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev is considered one of boxing’s most dangerous men and he has the undefeated record and 100% KO rate to prove it. Gifted with one-punch knockout power in both hands and the mindset of an apex predator, the Montreal-residing Russian is coming off a bloody beatdown of highly-regarded challenger Marcus Browne last December.
Smith comes into Saturday’s 3-belt unification bout with a five-year age advantage over the 37-year-old Beterbiev and a 3-inch edge in reach. Smith also has prodigious one-punch power, especially with the right hand, and Beterbiev has been wobbled by big shots before. But, overall, Smith is not being given much of a chance.
And that’s okay with Smith, who’s been the underdog in all of his big fights.
“I enjoy being the underdog,” Smith told the ESPN cameras during the Beterbiev-Smith preview show to hype the event. “I’d rather be the underdog because it makes me want to push harder and stronger. It just makes me want to prove everyone wrong.”
For Smith, being the underdog is part of who he is and part of the constant struggle he’s needed to build himself up to where he’s at now. Never a blue-chip prospect or an amateur standout, Smith’s stubborn will to push forward has made up for his comparatively modest skill set and lack of elite-level athleticism. He hopes to parlay that never-say-die mindset into a decisive victory over Beterbiev this Saturday.
“I’ve learned so much on this path I’ve been on and the most important thing is to never give up and always believe in yourself,” Smith told Yahoo! Sports. “I know what I can do more than anyone else and that’s why I believe I will do this.”