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Joe Smith Jr. earned his chance to fight for the light heavyweight title, but can he win the belt?

Joe Smith Jr. did not take the path of least resistance to reach his second shot at a light heavyweight world title. As he prepares to step into the ring on Saturday against Maxim Vlasov at the Osage Casino in Tulsa, Oklahoma (10 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN Deportes and ESPN +), with the vacant WBO belt on the line, Smith has passed through the spectrum of the highs and lows that come with boxing at the championship level.

After being knocked out in his seventh pro fight in 2010, Smith (26-3, 21 KOs) had 15 wins over the next five years in the run-up to two career-changing victories: a first-round TKO over Andrzej. Fonfara, followed by a KO of Bernard Hopkins in which Smith knocked Hopkins out of the ring and ended his career with a single punch. Smith was an underdog in both fights, and would continue to carry that tag as the fights got bigger.

In 2017, Smith dropped Sullivan Barrera in the first round and appeared to be on track to take his momentum directly to a world title shot. But Barrera fought back and earned a decision victory, putting Smith’s hopes aside and breaking his jaw in the process. After another first round KO victory, Smith was back in the spotlight against one of the two outstanding world champions of the light heavyweight division, Dmitry Bivol. Bivol completely stifled Smith and denied him at all times in a unanimous decision victory in March 2019.

But Smith, now 31, didn’t take the easy way back to the top. He beat former world title challenger Jesse Hart, then knocked out former world champion Eleider Alvarez to close out 2020, setting up his showdown with Vlasov. This fight was scheduled for February 13 before Vlasov tested positive for COVID-19 two days earlier and was postponed to Saturday.

Vlasov (45-3, 26 KOs) is not easy. The 34-year-old Russian fought for long periods of his career at cruiserweight and even fought for an interim title in a division that is 25 pounds heavier than where he is currently fighting. He gave undefeated former super middleweight world champion Gilberto Ramirez all he could take when they fought in 2015.

The combined stubbornness and unwavering determination of Smith and Vlasov project a fight with a lot at stake and a lot of tension. Smith’s style in the ring follows his fighting approach, advancing at all times. Vlasov counters that with his kickback ability and his efforts to fight on the outside.

Nothing is guaranteed in boxing, and this fight represents everything Smith has been looking for in his career: world titles and big money fights. The only questions left are how Smith handles being the betting favorite this time, and if he can take the last step to the top.


Joe Smith Jr. was Hopkins’ last rival at age 51

In December 2016, Joe Smith Jr knocked out Bernard Hopkins at age 51, in what was his last fight.

The numbers: Smith Jr. (-330) vs. Vlasov (+260)

43.2: In his last 5 fights, Smith averages 43.2 punches thrown per round, according to CompuBox (the division average is 51.9). He also lands 22% of all hits.

2: This is Smith Jr.’s second title fight. He lost to Dmitry Bivol on March 9, 2019 for the WBA light heavyweight title.

1: Smith is the only boxer to stop Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins in what was Hopkins’ final fight in December 2016.

40: Smith’s opponents land 40% of power shots (division average is 37%).

19: Vlasov throws 19 more punches per round than Smith Jr. (62.3 vs. 43.2), but lands only 17% of his punches, according to CompuBox (the division average is 30%).

The complete card (ESPN +)

• Joe Smith Jr. vs. Maxim Vlasov, 12 rounds, for vacant WBO light heavyweight title

• Efe Ajagba vs. Brian Howard, 10 rounds, peso pesado

• Jared Anderson vs. Jeremiah Karpency, 8 rounds, peso pesado

• Albert Bell vs. Manuel Rey Rojas, 8 rounds, junior lightweight

• Robson Conceicao vs. Jesus Antonio Ahumada, 8 rounds, junior lightweight

• Trey Lippe Morrison vs. Jason Bergman, 8 rounds, peso pesado

• Duke Ragan vs. Charles Clark, 6 rounds, peso pluma

• Jeremiah Milton vs. Jayvone Dafney, 4 rounds, peso pesado

• Sonny Conto vs. Waldo Cortes, 4 rounds, heavyweight

• Troy Isley vs. LaQuan Evans, 4 rounds, peso mediano

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