Top Rank’s ESPN schedule for 2020 will kick off on Saturday, Jan. 11 from the Hard Rock in Atlantic City, with light heavyweights Jesse Hart and Joe Smith Jr meeting in a pivotal main event.
Hart (26-2, 21 KO) and Smith (24-3, 20 KO) are both still contenders in the 175-pound ranks, and a win could put either man in strong position for a title shot or at least another big fight next year, as Top Rank has a big stake in the division with titleholder Artur Beterbiev under their banner, plus the likes of Sergey Kovalev, Eleider Alvarez, Oleksandr Gvozdyk, and Gilberto Ramirez in their ranks.
The 30-year-old Hart moved up to 175 after a second loss in a 168-pound title fight to Gilberto Ramirez last December, debuting in the division on June 15 with a decision win over Sullivan Barrera.
Smith, also 30, is still best known for what he did in 2016, upsetting Andrzej Fonfara on NBC and then retiring the great Bernard Hopkins by knocking him clean out of the ring on HBO that December. He’s lost two of three, dropping a decision to Barrera in July 2017 and then another one to Dmitry Bivol in March of this year.
“This is personal. Bernard inspired me to be what I became,” Hart said. “I wouldn’t be right if didn’t avenge that defeat. I can’t move forward unless I beat him. This is a Philly thing. It’s more personal than business for me. I want a world title shot at light heavyweight, but I have to get through this guy first.”
”I am back in the gym and feel great,” Smith said. “I am focused and ready to bring everything I have. Jesse Hart might want to make this personal, but I didn’t even know who he was before this fight was brought up. I am ready for this. It is going to be a great night.”
The show is also tentatively slated to feature the return of former secondary middleweight titleholder Rob Brant, who will be staying busy before likely facing the winner of the Dec. 23 fight between Ryota Murata and Steven Butler.