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Joe Smith Jr. tired of knocking, ready to break down door

07

Joe Smith Jr. was two days from an opportunity to realize his dream. And then it was gone.

Russian Maxim Vlasov, who Smith was set to fight for the vacant WBO light heavyweight title on Feb. 13 in Las Vegas, tested positive for COVID-19 and the fight was postponed indefinitely. Smith was left “devastated,” he said.

The fight was rescheduled for this Saturday in Tulsa, Okla. And while the sting of his disappointment lingers, Smith believes it will have been worth the wait.

“Honestly, I’m still not over it,” Smith said. “… I’m just focused on getting in there and finally getting this win behind me. It has been a long coming.”

In more ways than one.

Smith (26-3, 21 KOs) burst onto the boxing scene in June 2016, when he knocked out the favored Andrzej Fonfara in only 2 minutes, 32 seconds into their fight. His skill set wasn’t polished but his power, it became obvious, was special.

The Long Islander (N.Y.) followed that six months later with an eighth-round knockout of Bernard Hopkins, who was knocked through ropes, onto the ground and into retirement.

Smith seemed to be headed for big things. And then he stalled.

He lost a clear decision to Sullivan Barrera in July 2017, stopped journeyman Melvin Russell in one round almost a year later and then was easily outpointed by WBA titleholder Dmitry Bivol in March 2019.

It seemed as if Smith had hit a ceiling. The power would always be there – he managed to hurt Bivol once — but it appeared that he didn’t have the skill set to cope with a particularly good, athletic boxer.

Smith’s response to that perception? He went back into the gym and worked hard to improve. And he did. He believes he would do better in a rematch with Bivol than he did in their first encounter.

“Another shot at Bivol would be a lot different this time around,” he said. “I have a lot more experience. The first time I fought him I was looking for one big punch. Now I’m putting my combinations together, moving better.

“I believe it would be a totally different fight.”

Smith displayed evidence of his improvement after the Bivol setback, surprising some by defeating Jesse Hart by a split decision in January of last year and then stopping former titleholder Eleider Alvarez in seven rounds seven months later.

That set up the fight with Vlasov (45-3, 26 KOs) for the vacant title. If he wins, he’s a prime candidate to face IBF and WBC titleholder Artur Beterbiev for three of the four major 175-pound belts and an exalted position in the sport. And, of course, that rematch with Bivol is another possibility.

But he understands that Vlasov could spoil everything.

“I definitely have a tough task ahead of me,” he said. “I know Maxim is a tough, durable guy. All the opportunities I’m looking at if I win this fight could be his if he wins.

“I know a lot is on the line. I have a lot to look forward to. I have to go out there, give 110 percent and make sure those opportunities come my way.”

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