LAS VEGAS — Joe Smith Jr. will never dazzle anyone with his speed or his footwork. You’ll never see him posting videos on Instagram trying to show off his combinations the way Ryan Garcia does.
He’s not going to boast or brag or make outrageous comments in the media.
In the most blue-collar sport there is, Smith is the ultimate blue-collar worker.
That work ethic should hold him in good stead on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+), when he faces Eleider Alvarez in a WBO light heavyweight title eliminator at the MGM Grand Conference Center.
“I don’t know if I’d say this is the biggest fight of my career, but it’s definitely up there,” said Smith, who is 25-3 with 20 knockouts. “It is in a way my biggest, because I need the win. A guy like me, I need to keep winning and I can’t afford to take a night off. Alvarez is a good name for me to be fighting because he’s a top contender with a lot of skills. It’s not going to be an easy fight, but it’s definitely going to be an enjoyable fight.”
Smith rose to prominence in 2016 when he knocked out Andrzej Fonfara in the first round. But it was his next fight, a match against a then-52-year-old Bernard Hopkins, that established without a doubt that Smith belonged on the top level of the sport.
Hopkins certainly was far from his peak when he met Smith, and hadn’t fought in two years. But few in the history of boxing were smarter than Hopkins or knew more tricks. He was the chess grandmaster thrust into a 20-by-20 ring.
You don’t spend eight rounds in a ring with Hopkins, like Smith did, and not learn something. That victory not only vaulted his confidence, but made him a more dangerous opponent.
“As a trainer, you hope that after each fight, your guy gets better and learns something,” Smith trainer Jerry Capobianco said. “But a guy like Bernard Hopkins, that’s next level. You beat a guy like him and you realize you have the ability to do a lot of things.”
Capobianco said Smith is peaking but that we haven’t seen the best of him to this point.
He could use his finest performance against Alvarez, who is a former WBO light heavyweight champ. Alvarez knocked out Sergey Kovalev in the seventh round of their Aug. 4, 2018, title fight in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
He dropped Kovalev three times in that bout, the final for the 10 count.
Kovalev switched trainers after the fight and, led by Buddy McGirt, scored an impressive victory in the rematch.
Alvarez knows the challenge that Smith presents, but is intent on regaining the belt. That means a victory on Saturday is a must.
“This fight is critical for both of our careers,” Alvarez said. “I respect Joe Smith, who has proven to be an elite fighter. However, I have all the tools to beat him, and that’s what I intend to do. My goal is to become a two-time light heavyweight world champion.”
Smith hasn’t made that final step in his career just yet. He was outboxed over 12 rounds by Dmitry Bivol on March 9, 2019, in his only previous championship shot, dropping that WBA title bid by scores of 119-109 twice and 118-110.
The key for Smith is to be active and to find a way to neutralize Alvarez’s potent right hand.
But if Smith is active, that increases his chances of victory because he, too, is a big puncher.
“I feel I can knock anyone out if I land the right punch,” he said. “I can’t go out there looking for it, because that’s when you cause trouble. I have to control the pace, stay busy and be aware of the things he’s trying to do. He’s a good fighter, a decent boxer and he has that good right hand.
“He likes to set that right hand up and I have to be aware of it. I have worked so hard for this. I really have and I feel good about where I am. It’s going to take a lot of work on [Saturday], but I feel ready to do this.”
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