Joe Smith Jr. on his unlikely path to becoming a world champion: 'Never give up and always believe in yourself'

·Combat columnist
·5-min read
VERONA, NEW YORK - JANUARY 15: Steve Geffrard (L) and Joe Smith Jr (R) exchange punches during their fight for the WBO light heavyweight championship at Turning Stone Resort Casino on January 15, 2022 in Verona, New York. (Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images)
Steve Geffrard (L) and Joe Smith Jr. (R) exchange punches during their fight for the WBO light heavyweight championship at Turning Stone Resort Casino on Jan. 15, 2022 in Verona, New York. (Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images)

A boxer needs a variety of attributes in order to become a world champion. One of them, of course, is a deeply rooted self belief.

The majority of those who become professional world champions have that, built during lengthy and highly successful amateur careers. Growing up on Long Island, Joe Smith Jr. had a dream of being a professional boxer for as long as he could remember.

While most children’s dreams have them the star in the big title fight, or scoring the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, or hitting a 3-pointer to win the NBA Finals, Smith’s dream was more mundane.

“Since I was a kid, I always felt I’d turn pro and be something,” he said. “But it was hard to picture myself becoming a world champion. After a few fights as a pro, with all the ups and downs and things that happened, I was at a point in my career where I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I’m going to make it.’”

The one thing he refused to do was quit, and it paid off big-time on April 10, 2021, when he won a decision over Maxim Vlasov to become the WBO light heavyweight world champion.

At that point, the dreams were not only real, but they began to expand for Smith, the one-time union worker whose nickname is “The Common Man.”

His opportunity to complete The Dream, Part II, is on Saturday in the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, when he meets IBF-WBC champion Artur Beterbiev for three of the four 175-pound belts. Dmitry Bivol, who is coming off an impressive win over Canelo Alvarez, holds the WBA title.

Smith’s got a chance at becoming the unified champion and is two wins away from being undisputed for a simple reason: He never gave up. He had moments of self-doubt, to be sure. But he loves to fight and he just was determined to find a way. Even in his down times, he didn’t lose vision of what he wanted.

“I had those down times but I was always like, ‘Well, if you give up, the only thing is true is that you’ll never get there, so give it another shot and see what happens,’” Smith said. “And if that didn’t work, I’d give it another shot again.”

Smith showed his resiliency in his first title defense, on Jan. 15 at the Turning Stone Resort & Casino in Verona, New York. Smith was scheduled to fight Callum Johnson, whose only loss had been to Beterbiev, but Johnson had to pull out because he had COVID.

On Friday morning, about 32 hours before fight time, Smith had no opponent. He was offered Steve Geffrard, who had a completely different style than Johnson. He didn't hesitate to say yes.

“There was no way I wasn’t going to fight no matter who they put in front of me,” Smith said. “I knew I had prepared really hard for that fight. I didn’t know anything about Johnson, but at that point, I was a veteran and I knew I could adapt. I had to figure him out and adapt, and that’s what I did. I never for a minute thought of turning down the fight.”

VERONA, NEW YORK - JANUARY 15: Steve Geffrard (L) and Joe Smith Jr (R) exchange punches during their fight for the WBO light heavyweight championship at Turning Stone Resort Casino on January 15, 2022 in Verona, New York. (Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images)
Steve Geffrard (L) and Joe Smith Jr. (R) exchange punches during their fight for the WBO light heavyweight championship at Turning Stone Resort Casino on Jan. 15, 2022 in Verona, New York. (Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images)

That ninth-round KO got him the opportunity against Beterbiev, one of boxing’s hardest punchers whose perfect 17-0 record includes 17 KOs.

This low-key affair is a likely Fight of the Year contender given that both can punch and neither is a defensive wizard. Beterbiev is no worse than the second-most prominent opponent of Smith’s career, and perhaps the most.

Smith fought Bivol on March 9, 2019, and was nearly shut out. Bivol won a unanimous decision, 11 of the 12 rounds on two judges’ cards and 10 of 12 on the other.

Smith shrugs off the loss to Bivol despite its one-sided nature and says anyone who discounts him because of that is making a serious mistake.

“I didn’t have the experience then that I have now,” said Smith, who was gone 4-0 since with wins over Jesse Hart, Eleider Alvarez, Vlasov and Geffrard. “When I fought Bivol, it was a jump-up fight for me and I was coming off a long layoff. I had a victory against an up-and-coming guy [Melvin Russell] in the fight before who wasn’t really that great. But there’s a lot of difference between me now and me then.”

Smith bet on Bivol to beat Alvarez and was lamenting the fact that he only wagered $200 because his wife wouldn’t allow him to bet more. He was that confident Bivol had the style to upset Alvarez.

He feels the same way about his chances against Beterbiev. At BetMGM, Beterbiev is -700 and Smith is +500. That makes Smith quite a long shot, but he’s been a long shot for, well, as long as he can remember.

“I believe we’re similar guys, but I have a few more tricks up my sleeve in terms of speed and agility,” Smith said. “I’ve learned so much on this path I’ve been on and the most important thing is to never give up and always believe in yourself. I know what I can do more than anyone else and that’s why I believe I will do this.”

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