Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in February, prior to the original Smith-Vlasov date. The fight was rescheduled for April 10.
A search of Boxrec.com reveals seven and a half pages, nearly 200 professional fighters, who are called, or have been called “Joe Smith.” The name itself is a generic suggestion: just a guy, a normal guy, a regular guy, a blue-collar man, anyone in the world.
The Joe Smith in question, Joe Smith Jr. from Mastic, Long Island, who fights for the vacant WBO light heavyweight title this Saturday, has heard it all before. And he also likes it.
“I work hard,” he says. “As everyone.”
Still, with all due respect, the notion of this Joe Smith as ordinary or regular is absurd. And on some level, despite all his modesty, he knows it too.
The first guy to let Smith know he was, well, special was his eventual coach. Jerry Capobianco met Smith as a teenager at the Heavy Hitters gym in Ronkonkoma. “Jerry believed he could be a world champion the first time he met me,” Smith once recalled. “I told him he was crazy.”
The second guy was Will Rosinsky, whom he fought on the undercard of the 2015 Danny Jacobs-Peter Quillin middleweight title fight at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Smith idolized Rosinsky, as would any fighter who came of age in New York after the turn of the century. Rosinsky won the Open division of the New York Golden Gloves four years in a row, from 2005 to 2008, not to mention a United States national championship. He was favored to beat Smith. However, at the time, Rosinsky probably knew more about Smith than Smith knew about himself. Rosinsky had been in the ring with some heavy-handed opponents, including a fight with Kelly Pavlik in 2009 and training sessions with Curtis Stevens from Brooklyn. But Smith, who he trained with at Bellmore Kickboxing, could hit like any of them.
There are a million guys out thereRosinsky thought of telling his manager. Why Joe?
Smith won by unanimous decision that night. Recalls Rosinsky, “I used to tell him, ‘Joe, you’re always looking for the knockout. You need something else.’
So, of course, Smith came out that night and surprised Rosinsky with his jab.
“Ordinary?” asks Rosinsky, now a New York City firefighter (not a calling for common dudes, by the way). “It’s definitely not ordinary.”
The Rosinsky fight not only gave Smith the confidence he needed, it also laid the foundation for his career.
Six months later, he found himself in Chicago against a popular local fighter, Andrzej Fonfara, a 30-1 favorite.
“I thought it was going to be a long, hard night,” says Smith. “I really surprised myself.”
He eliminated Fonfara in the first round.
Then there was the great Bernard Hopkins, a future Hall of Famer, a fighter who had never been knocked out. Hopkins was a 3-1 favorite.
Smith knocked him out of the ring in the eighth round, sending Hopkins into retirement.
Jesse Hart? Favorite 3-1. Smith won by decision.
Joe Smith Jr. knocks Eleider Álvarez out of the ring
Joe Smith Jr. lands a brutal right-handed punch that knocks out Eleider Alvarez for a ninth-round TKO victory.
Former champion Eleider Alvarez? Favorite 2-1. Smith won by knockout, sending Alvarez through the ropes.
“He made some adjustments,” acknowledges Marc Ramsay, who coaches Álvarez and the division’s two-belt champion Artur Beterbiev. “He is not Sugar Ray Leonard, but he is big, powerful and has balls. And he will give 100 percent.”
However, that is not to say that none of this is normal. Normal boxers, like normal people everywhere, are not known for beating the odds. Maybe once. But not again. And again. And again.
Even Smith’s losses, well two out of three, weren’t normal. A couple of years ago, he managed to stagger WBA champion Dmitry Bivol in the 10th round. Still, Bivol, an excellent technical boxer, won by a wide unanimous decision. The other two, however, were the result of broken jaws.
The first was in 2010, basically a club fight against a guy named Eddie Caminero. Smith hurt him early, then Caminero caught him with a right hand in the second round.
“It hit me pretty good,” says Smith. “My jaw was completely broken on both sides, just hanging out.”
He made it through the round, and then the next. But by the fourth round, “the pain was too much,” Smith recalls. “I pushed him and left the ring. I went straight to the hospital.”
A dental analysis was the following; apparently his wisdom teeth were devouring the bone. But that seemed irrelevant at the time. When asked to describe the pain, Joe Smith becomes unusually irritable, though understandably: “It’s a broken jaw. It’s a f —. What do you want me to say?”
In fact, the jaw seems to have healed better than the memory.
“But I’m still here,” he says. “I went back to the ring and did it again.”
He is referring to his 2017 fight against Sullivan Barrera. Again, Smith hurt his opponent early, knocking him down in the first round. But Barrera caught him in the second.
“I knew it was broken,” says Smith, who once again had dental problems in the run-up to the fight.
However, this was not a club fight. It was HBO. And Barrera was not a club fighter; It was a decorated product of the renowned Cuban boxing factory, The Farm. A guy whose only professional loss at the time was by decision to the great Andre Ward.
Smith, the so-called normal guy, made a noble, if irregular, decision: Smith fought to the end, eight more rounds, with a broken jaw. “I told myself that I was not going to go,” he says. “If this is my last fight, I will stand up.”
“And here I am”.
He repeats it, not only with pride, but with a sneer for everything that is supposedly “regular.”
“If I don’t have boxing, I don’t have much,” he says. “But I didn’t go that far in my career to break my balls every day and kill myself working for other people, for a regular salary every week.”
In other words, the normal and the ordinary are vastly overrated. Smith, who is 31 and getting married next month, wants big fights and big payouts. He wants Beterbiev, the division class. He wants a rematch with Bivol. But first he needs to beat Maxim Vlasov (45-3) for the title. The Russian fighter is bigger, longer and even more experienced than Smith, who turned pro in 2009. But he’s also the underdog.
This time it’s the regular guy is the favorite, 4-1. Maybe it took bettors a long time to figure it out. This Joe Smith is special.