This Saturday night on ESPN from Atlantic City, Top Rank will present a pivotal light heavyweight main event between Jesse Hart and Joe Smith Jr.
We say “must-win” a lot in boxing. Things are rarely, truly “must-win.” For instance, the loser of this fight on Saturday may not have an immediate big fight to go to, but they’re both 30 years old with some credibility. There will be avenues to title fights even for the man who comes up short this weekend. That doesn’t do much to hype or promote a fight, of course, but I am the promoter.
This is an important fight for both, however, so “pivotal”? Yeah, I’ll say pivotal. If Hart or Smith want a title fight next, or some other type money bout, then they have to win Saturday. And, of course, they both want the money fights to come their way.
It’s also a matchup with a little bit of beef to it, though in a roundabout fashion. Philadelphia’s Hart, a second-generation fighter, has said it still stings that Long Island’s Smith so brutally retired the great Bernard Hopkins, a Philly legend, just over three years ago.
That night at the Forum in Inglewood, California, Smith was too big, too young, too strong for a 51-year-old Hopkins, knocking him out of the ring and out of the sport early in the eighth round. Hopkins had never been stopped before. The old pro thought he was picking a limited opponent he could pick up another crazy win against after two years out of the ring, but Father Time rang the bell hard on B-Hop that evening.
Maybe that sounds like it’s just marketing, the Philly kid coming for revenge for a Philly idol. But it’s hard to watch or listen to Hart talk about it and think there’s anything manufactured about this to him.
“It’s deeper than any title,” Hart told FightHype. “It’s personal. That little boy (Hopkins inspired) is hurt. That little boy is crying. I cried in my room for two days straight. The only one who could get me out the room after that fight was my daughter.”
“That shit was hurtful to me,” he continued. “My inspiration, my Hulk Hogan, my Michael Jordan, my Rocky Balboa, my dream, my idol, the guy I put on that pedestal as a kid, that little boy was hurt. I don’t care about selling tickets, I don’t care about the purse — if Bob Arum said, ‘You’re gonna fight in the basement with 40-ounce gloves on,’ it’s something I need to get out. I need to let this out so I can move on and get a Beterbiev fight, a Canelo fight. I need to get this out my system.”
Hart and Smith have gone back-and-forth at pressers and what have you about this topic. It has deep meaning for Hart. For Smith? Maybe not so deep. He just did his job against Hopkins.
“It looks like I am going to have to let Philly down one more time,” he recently said about this fight.
Eugene “Cyclone” Hart was a pro fighter from Philly, his career starting in 1969 and ending in 1977, with one more fight in 1982 that ended badly. He was a puncher, retiring with a record of 30-9-1 (28 KO), but he was also stopped in eight of his nine defeats. He lost to some really good fighters and even some greats, mind you, including Marvin Hagler and Vito Antuofermo in 1976 and 1977 at the end of his career.
Eugene wasn’t a great, which is not meant as a knock. He was a good fighter, well-known in his city. His son Jesse is trying to get to a level that the father never did, trying to win a world title.
In his 41 professional fights, Eugene fought in Philadelphia 36 times. Jesse has fought in the city just four times in his 28 pro bouts. Philly just isn’t the hotbed of boxing action it used to be, although the city still sends its fair share of fighters into the game. It’ll always be a boxing city, even if we’re long removed from the glory days of the Blue Horizon wars and big fights at the Spectrum.
And Jesse Hart is doing his best to carry on the legacy. He had blown away most of his opposition before taking a pretty big step up to face Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez for the WBO super middleweight title in Sept. 2017, and he went down in the second round. But he showed great resilience in that fight, coming back to make it close and arguable, though he lost the unanimous decision on scores of 114-113, 115-112, and 115-112.
After three wins over lesser opponents, he went after Ramirez and the same title again. Once more, he came up just short, this time by majority decision (114-114, 115-113, 115-113) in Dec. 2018.
Ramirez moved to light heavyweight and so did Hart. Maybe Hart was starting to have a tough time making 168, but it certainly seems as though he’d have had a better shot at winning a world title at 168 had he stayed there. Top Rank has big fights available at 175, sure, but they’re against beasts. Maybe, too, Hart would rather face the beasts. Maybe he’s that sort of guy.
At any rate, the move up worked out fine against veteran contender Sullivan Barrera in June of last year. Hart won a 10-round decision on the Fury-Schwarz undercard in a fight that wasn’t pretty to watch by any means, rough and a little dirty from bell-to-bell. It proved Hart can certainly hang at 175, and he definitely has the dimensions for it, standing 6’3” with a 77½-inch reach. Those dimensions will give him some advantages against Smith, as long as he can avoid fighting too emotionally.
Smith was looking like your standard northeast club fighter from his pro debut in 2009 until his breakthrough in 2016. He’d been stopped in four by Eddie Caminero in 2010, and he mostly just fought scrub opponents for quite a while. Even his better wins before 2016 were against guys like Will Rosinsky and Michael Gbenga, not exactly heavy hitters in the light heavyweight division.
Smith was called up to head to Chicago in June 2016 to face Andrzej Fonfara, a Polish-American contender with a solid fan base and some decent wins over Glen Johnson (who was old, but still) and Gabriel Campillo before a competitive loss to titleholder Adonis Stevenson in 2014. After beating Doudou Ngumbu, he beat the hell out of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr in 2015, and followed that up six months later with a tremendous action win over Nathan Cleverly.
So Fonfara was rolling coming into his PBC on NBC main event against the unproven Smith, and most everyone — including yours truly — expected a mismatch. We got one, but it was Smith’s power that proved dominant, as he put Fonfara down twice and finished him at 2:32 of the first round.
Many felt that win was something of a fluke, and I’ve said many times that I feel there’s a fluky nature to a first round stoppage in any higher-level fight. Bernard Hopkins obviously saw an opportunity. Two years prior, the legend had been completely shut down by Sergey Kovalev, but this Smith was no Kovalev, and now he had a little buzz.
Imagine a 51-year-old Hopkins beating a guy who just scored a win like that. Defying father time yet again. So Bernard sought the fight and got it for Dec. 2016.
Unlike other fights where Hopkins had been expected to lose because of his age, this wasn’t really one of them. Everyone had seen that story play out before with guys like Kelly Pavlik and Tavoris Cloud, and Smith was expected by many to join the club of young sluggers demoralized over the distance by the crafty old fox.
Instead, Hopkins found himself knocked out of the ring in round eight, ending his in-ring career and giving Smith another big buzz win, six months after Fonfara.
The momentum didn’t last past 2016, though. Sullivan Barrera was next for Smith, and while Smith scored a first round knockdown, he also had his jaw broken early and struggled for the rest of the fight, losing a clear 10-round decision in a fight where he wasn’t able to press like he might have wanted, as so much of his focus was on staying out of Barrera’s wheelhouse.
After surgery on the jaw, Smith returned 11 months later with a tune-up win in Connecticut, then challenged Dmitry Bivol for the WBA light heavyweight title in Mar. 2019. Bivol showed no real interest in giving Smith any chance to use his power, and cruised to a wide 12-round decision to retain, outboxing the more limited Smith pretty handily.
The matchup between Hart and Smith is a good one, not only because it’s important for both guys or particularly emotional for Hart, but because if things break right, it could be plenty entertaining. Hart is long and tall and could well use his jab to stay on the outside and pepper Smith all night. But Hart also likes to bang, and has never been afraid to mix it up. He’s plenty hittable, which should give Smith the openings to flex his muscle that he did not receive against Bivol in particular. And if Hart fights as emotionally as he’s talked about this bout, he might be even more susceptible to Smith’s legit power than usual.
We’ll have more on Hart-Smith, including staff picks on Friday! Stick with us!