SAN DIEGO, Calif., March 8, 2019 – Fans look to the light heavyweight division in 2019 to deliver plenty of entertaining, competitive fights. Next up is a crossroads fight featuring the fifth title defense for WBA titleholder Dmitry Bivol of Russia (15-0, 11 KOs) against power punching Joe Smith Jr. of Long Island, New York (24-2, 20 KOs). The fight takes place in Smith’s home state at the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, New York, streaming live on Saturday, March 9 on ESPN+ (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
Smith Jr., at the time still working a full-time construction job, lit up the boxing world in 2016 with his shocking knockout win over heavily favored Andrzej Fonfara. The blue-collar hero followed it up by sending Bernard Hopkins out of the ring and into retirement with a stoppage loss.
But Smith Jr.’s momentum came to a halt in 2017 at the hands of Sullivan Barrera, who came back from a first round knockdown to get a decision win. Since then, injuries and difficulties securing fights have tripped up Smith Jr. Save for a one round knockout in June 2018, Smith has been out of the ring for 20 months.
Bivol’s own momentum has slowed slightly, though he continues to win in dominating fashion. After a swift string of knockouts, he has now gone the distance against Barrera, Isaac Chilemba, and Jean Pascal. None of the scorecards were ever in doubt, but Bivol faced some tough questions from media after the Pascal fight about the lack of knockouts in 2018.
“He’s a strong guy,” said Bivol. “I saw his fight against Bernard Hopkins, and he’s really strong. He has the same age like me, he’s young. But he has some minus points like many fighters that I will use to my advantage for my win. He moves forward a lot. This is a good challenge for me, to stop him.
“I saw in his eyes when I met him, he wanted my belt. And I’m glad, because only that way it can make a good fight. To be honest, I don’t think about the belt. I just think about who my opponent is, and what he can show me in the ring. All I think about is how I should beat him,” said Bivol.
Smith Jr. says he’s full of confidence getting his title shot against Bivol, and projects plenty of confidence in his ability to seize the opportunity. “Winning a world title would mean everything to me,” said Smith. “It’s everything I have worked towards my whole life. I cannot even express how I will feel when I win this title.”
Smith says he’s worked on a lot of new skills and credited his sparring partners for their help in preparing himself for the younger, slick Russian. “Dmitry is a great fighter, very busy and active. My plan is to stay just as active and be busier than him, to outwork him. I plan to punch when he punches and make it a great fight.”
Bivol: unification at light heavyweight, or a move to super middleweight?
Bivol has stayed active both in the ring and in his effort to build his fan base. He’s attracted plenty of media attention and embraces his role as a champion who wants to unify titles in the division. His plan took a hit when Sergey Kovalev lost to Eleider Alvarez last fall, but now that Kovalev has prevailed in the rematch, Bivol hopes to get a statement making with against Smith Jr. and once again propel himself toward unification. Up until recently, Bivol has been clear about wanting to unify the division as his ultimate goal.
But recently, he’s also made comments about being willing to move to super middleweight. Bivol is small among the top light heavyweights, and makes weight with ease. “I said many times that I want the big fights,” said Bivol. “By that I mean that I want to fight for belts. If someone has a belt in super middleweight or light heavyweight division, I would be glad to fight them.”
“I’m not the hardest puncher, I’m not the quickest fighter, but I have something that helps me to be a winner,” explains Bivol. “I love this sport, because you don’t need to be the quickest or the strongest, I don’t know. I’m just one of the best. I have the best team, I have the best coach, maybe it’s because I believe in my skills.”
Prediction: Bivol prevails but Smith Jr. has a puncher’s chance
Bivol could take the safe route on Saturday and use his boxing skills to shut out Smith Jr. His footwork and balance is unmatched. He’s as fast as any man in the division. But denying fans the kind of power punching they love may help his record but not his reputation. Both Bivol and Smith Jr. will have to calculate the risk vs. reward ratio, It’s Smith Jr. who should take chances in the ring, as he has nothing to lose.
Main Events’ matchmaker Jolene Mizzone loves the matchup. “Opponents are not lining up to face Dmitry Bivol, but the champion is willing to fight anyone at any time,” said Mizzone. “Despite the buzz around Bivol, Smith is ready to step up and take on the young champion and prove he ranks among the top contenders in the stacked light heavyweight division.”
Undercards feature Hooker vs LesPierre, Johnson vs Monaghan, Kuzmin vs Dawelko
Several undercard fights have plenty of power-punching potential. Maurice Hooker of Dallas (25-0-3, 17 KOs) defends his WBO super lightweight title against Mikkel Les Pierre of Brooklyn via Trinidad (21-0-1, 10 KOs). Les Pierre’s record is dominated by lackluster opposition, and his lack of power makes him a sitting duck for Hooker unless he’s got a surprise in store. But Les Pierre should have a lot of local fan support.
In another light heavyweight bout, Callum Johnson of England (17-1, 12 KOs) takes on another local hero, “Irish” Seanie Monaghan of Long Island (29-2, 17 KOs). Both men are coming off losses and badly need wins to stay in the mix. That kind of motivation should deliver what fans love to see.
Bivol stablemate and fellow St. Petersburg native Sergey Kuzmin (14-0, 11 KOs) faces veteran Joey Dawelko of Philadelph9ia (19-6-4, 11 KOs). Kuzmin is among the rising young stars of the division including Joe Joyce and Daniel Dubois. Kuzmin stopped Joyce as an amateur, and has beaten David Price and LaRon Mitchell in his last two bouts. He’s a classic big man who can give anyone trouble and one to watch.Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. She is a veteran boxing observer covering the Sweet Science for Communities. Read more Ringside Seat in Communities Digital News. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.
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