Bernard Hopkins vs Joe Smith Jr
Record: 55-7-2 (32 KO) ... Streak: L1 ... Last 5: 3-2 ... Last 10: 6-2-1 (1NC) ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 6’1" / 75" ... Age: 51
Notes: Hopkins is ageless, kinda, but also he’s not. I mean, he’s more ageless than most fighters or human beings, but being truly ageless would mean he’s never declined. He has.
B-Hop has been out of the ring for just over two years now, and while he keeps in phenomenal shape, there’s surely going to be some rust. Also, he’s 51 years old. And the last time he fought, he lost every round to Sergey Kovalev and looked flat-out physically overmatched.
Joe Smith Jr is not Sergey Kovalev, but he is young, in his prime, and strong. Hopkins has called him an "ordinary" fighter, and frankly compared to the things Hopkins has accomplished, that’s probably true. A win over Andrzej Fonfara, no matter how impressively executed, is "just" a win over Andrzej Fonfara.
That said, when’s the last time a Hopkins win really impressed you? I go back to 2011, when he defeated Jean Pascal in their rematch. Since then, his wins have been over Tavoris Cloud, Karo Murat, and Beibut Shumenov, all fights where he was the clear favorite. So it’s been a full five years plus since Bernard has had one of those Bernard Hopkins moments, defying odds and making us shake our heads in disbelief at his amazing, timeless talent. In his last two fights with those considered actual top heavyweights, he’s clearly lost to both Chad Dawson (2012) and Kovalev (2014).
So, really, this fight depends on what Joe Smith Jr actually is or is not. If Joe Smith Jr has the ability to be a top 175-pound fighter, Bernard Hopkins might not be leaving with his hand raised. If he is, as Hopkins shouts, simply ordinary — like Shumenov, Cloud, or Murat — then Hopkins will probably grind one out.
As for his mission to score his first stoppage win in over 12 years, it’s most likely not happening. As a light heavyweight, Hopkins is 9-3-2 (0 KO). The fact that he’s been a two-time light heavyweight champion says a lot about just how special he is tactically as a professional fighter, because he’s really not built for the division. He’s a middleweight who has been fighting two weight classes heavy for a decade. He’s really got no power at the weight, and has made his bones outthinking opponents. All in all, it’s been a remarkable second career for someone whose first career was Hall of Fame worthy already.
Joe Smith Jr
Record: 22-1 (18 KO) ... Streak: W16 ... Last 5: 5-0 ... Last 10: 10-0 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 6’0" / N/A ... Age: 27
Notes: Smith is here because he scored one of the more surprising wins of 2016, his TKO-1 victory in Chicago over Andrzej Fonfara on June 18. That was a fight laughed at when it was signed, if mostly because the idea of it being a main event on NBC made PBC’s big "we’re on network TV! wow!" stuff seem overblown and kind of ridiculous, an outdated idea of where boxing may or may not flourish, as if we are still in an era where network TV is different than basic cable, like there are millions upon millions of viewers out there without cable or satellite subscriptions who nonetheless watch a lot of TV, plugged in only at the network level.
I’m sorry, I got off topic for a moment there. I will save my "network TV is not boxing’s savior" bit for another time. Or not. It’s an outdated idea. Anyway, Joe Smith Jr, this guy, here’s what we know about him: he stopped Andrzej Fonfara in 2:32.
That’s about it. He’s beaten other guys like Will Rosinsky, Tyrell Hendrix, Michael Gbenga, and Cory Cummings, but those aren’t even fringe contenders. He’s had one notable fight in his career, and he made it count. Now he gets an opportunity to retire a living legend. Not bad for a kid who lost his seventh pro fight at the Aviator Sports Complex in Brooklyn, six years ago.
Smith will be able to live off of the Fonfara fight for one to three more outings after this one, probably. If he loses to Hopkins, he’ll get more opportunities just because that one time he did the thing. But a loss to a 51-year-old Hopkins would probably tell us that he’s not going to be a legitimate top fighter. And if he does win, the fact that Hopkins is 51 and has only beaten mediocre sorta-contender types in the last five years would still leave some questions for him to answer, but he’d get good money to answer them, so there’s that.
Matchup Grade: B-. It’s an old man and a guy whose biggest win might have been a fluke against an opponent who overlooked him. But for an old man and a guy whose biggest win might have been a fluke against an opponent who overlooked him, it’s a meaningful fight. Either way, we say goodbye to Bernard Hopkins. Probably. Maybe.
Joseph Diaz Jr vs Horacio Garcia
Joseph Diaz Jr
Record: 22-0 (13 KO) ... Streak: W22 ... Last 5: 5-0 ... Last 10: 10-0 ... Stance: Southpaw ... Height/Reach: 5'6" / 64" ... Age: 24
Notes: We’re getting to the point in Joseph Diaz Jr’s career where we’re starting to get a sense of his true upside. Coming out of London 2012, he had really good potential despite his early exit from the Olympics (in an entertaining fight eventual bronze medalist Lázaro Álvarez of Cuba). Four years later, we’ve seen him take a few tests as a pro, and now at 24, we have a clearer picture of what type of fighter he may truly be.
I’d say "very good but not great" is his upside, with a chance that he’s going to be an action star at the higher levels. Diaz has a great motor and has shown a willingness to abandon defense at times. This year, he’s 3-0, defeating Jayson Velez on HBO, plus Victor Proa and Andrew Cancio, the latter two wins coming inside the scheduled distance. Proa was out in the second round, Cancio in the ninth. Velez went the full 10 with Diaz, but was outclassed.
If nothing else, Diaz is a fun fighter to watch, and if things break the right way in terms of matchups, I believe there are some potential Fight of the Year candidates in his future.
Record: 30-1-1 (22 KO) ... Streak: D1 ... Last 5: 3-1-1 ... Last 10: 8-1-1 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 5'6" / 65" ... Age: 26
Notes: Horacio Garcia is coming off of a draw with Erik Ruiz, a fight with wild scores (97-93 Garcia, 98-92 Ruiz, 95-95), and in May 2015 he was beaten on wide scores in Kobe by the recently retired Hozumi Hasegawa. Between those fights, he defeated veteran Raul Hidalgo by second round TKO in November 2015.
Garcia is not really a step up for Diaz, at least not on paper. Nothing indicates he’s any better than Cancio or Velez.
Matchup Grade: C-. This has all the makings of a pure showcase for Diaz, something to set him up for something bigger in 2017. The problem with that, potentially, is that Haymon clients rule the 126-pound ranks — Carl Frampton, Leo Santa Cruz, Lee Selby, Abner Mares, Jesus Cuellar, Gary Russell Jr, and Scott Quigg are all Haymon fighters. The easiest big fight to make might be with WBO titleholder Oscar Valdez of Top Rank, but is either side willing to make that fight right now? The promoters, I mean, not the fighters. Maybe someone can work some political "magic" and get a vacant title for Diaz and Ronny Rios.
Oleksandr Usyk vs Thabiso Mchunu
Record: 10-0 (9 KO) ... Streak: W10 ... Last 5: 5-0 ... Last 10: 10-0 ... Stance: Southpaw ... Height/Reach: 6’3" / 78" ... Age: 29
Notes: Usyk may have just 10 fights as a pro, but the 29-year-old Ukrainian is probably the best cruiserweight in the world right now. He had a great performance in September, going to Poland and outpointing WBO titleholder Krzysztof Głowacki rather handily, a big step up from prior opposition.
This is his big U.S. TV debut, and a great spot for him to make an impression. American networks have never fully embraced the cruiserweight division, in large part because there hasn’t been a ton of American activity in the division, particularly in recent years. But boxing is increasingly a global sport, and U.S. TV has recognized, slowly but surely, that sometimes you just have to go with a couple foreigners.
The cruiserweight division is also filled with fighters who are fun to watch, and Usyk is one of them. He’s got great skills, but also significant power, and the sort of icy demeanor we find so delightfully stereotypical of an Eastern Bloc destroyer. Thus far, there’s nothing to suggest Usyk is less than the best cruiserweight in the world, and that’s not a light statement, because it’s a good division.
Record: 17-2 (11 KO) ... Streak: W1 ... Last 5: 4-1 ... Last 10: 8-2 ... Stance: Southpaw ... Height/Reach: 5'11" / 72½" ... Age: 28
Notes: Mchunu is a capable fighter who doesn’t really match up great with Usyk. He’s short, he’s going to have a significant disadvantage in reach, and he’s proven stoppable in a TKO loss to Zack Mwekassa in 2011 and a more significant knockout loss to Junior Makabu in 2015.
Mchunu is a good fighter, has wins over Eddie Chambers and Olanrewaju Durodola, most notably, and honestly figures to be out of his depth in this one.
Matchup Grade: C+. Usyk should win. He’s expected to win, and frankly he should do so in style. Again, Mchunu is a good fighter, but this appears an awful style matchup for him.