Joe Smith Jr burst onto the scene in 2016 with crushing wins over Andrzej Fonfara and Bernard Hopkins, retiring a legend with the latter win, but it seemed like maybe the clock had struck 12 on something of a Cinderella story when he suffered losses to Sullivan Barrera and Dmitry Bivol.
But 2020 saw Smith, now 31, bounce back with back-to-back wins over Jesse Hart and Eleider Alvarez, the latter of which put him in line for a shot at the vacant WBO light heavyweight title, and restored his recognition as one of the top 175-pound fighters in the sport.
That fight is coming Feb. 13 on ESPN, when Smith (26-3, 21 KO) takes on Russia’s Maxim Vlasov (45-3, 26 KO) in the main event from Las Vegas, and Smith is now deep into training camp, something that has kept him focused in his career and life.
“I just train because there is nothing else to do,” said Smith. “I can’t go to the movies, I can’t go bowling, so while I sit at home, there are no distractions, that’s for sure. As far as conditioning, I do a lot outside and at home.”
Smith will be the favorite this time around. Vlasov, 34, has been a pro since 2005 and a solid one at that, fighting at middleweight early on, and moving all the way up to being a pretty good cruiserweight, before popping back down to light heavyweight in 2019.
He’s 3-0 since moving back down in weight, beating Omar Garcia, Isaac Chilemba, and Emmanuel Martey. The original intention was for Smith and Alvarez to meet in one semi-final bout, and Vlasov to face Umar Salamov in another, with the winners then squaring off for the belt Canelo Alvarez vacated in late 2019.
But Vlasov-Salamov didn’t come together, and now it’s Vlasov in with Smith for the strap.
“Anybody is a dangerous opponent, but I am confident that I am preparing the right way for a tough fight,” Smith said of the matchup. “I know Vlasov is a busy fighter so I will come into this fight in great shape.”
Vlasov’s activity does probably give him his best chance. He’s taller than Smith by a fair bit, and if he can keep his hands moving and keep some range, he could give the blue collar fan favorite a tough night. But Smith showed against Hart and Alvarez that he can do more than just crack, too; he’s a better fighter than he was even in 2016, having learned some from his defeats.
This one is flying a bit under the radar, perhaps, but it’s a good matchup with a major title on the line. The card will also feature former lightweight titlist Richard Commey taking on Jackson Marinez in the co-feature.