When Joe Smith Jr. barely defeated Maxim Vlasov to win the WBO light heavyweight championship in April 2021, a unification contest with WBC and IBF titleholder Artur Beterbiev became an instant must-see event.
Two of boxing’s most powerful punchers will square off on Saturday at New York’s Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden (10 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN+, with prelims on ESPN+ at 6:30 p.m. ET) in what promises to be an explosive action battle. Beterbiev, boxing’s only champion with a perfect KO percentage, is an 8-1 favorite, and with good reason, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
Russia’s Beterbiev (17 to 0, 17 KOs) is typically around the top of the pound-for-pound chart, if not in the top 10. He is a precision puncher who understands when and where to land his strikes, and he has the power to carry that power into the later rounds.
That was never more evident than against Oleksandr Gvozdyk in October 2019, when Beterbiev won the championship unification through 10th-round TKO after flooring his opponent three times.
However, Beterbiev is 37 years old and showed fragility in a 2018 bout when he was knocked out by Callum Johnson. And he’s been largely idle since defeating Gvozdyk. And in that time, Smith (28 to 3, 22 KOs) has made significant progress.
Here are three things to look out for in Saturday’s fight for three 175-pound titles:
The winner will be in ideal position to fight Dmitry Bivol or Canelo Alvarez.
Whoever exits with his hand up on Saturday will be one championship shy of being the world’s undisputed light heavyweight champion. Bivol, who defeated boxing’s top star, Alvarez, in May, has the other championship.
Despite the scorecards, Bivol-Alvarez wasn’t all that close, and Alvarez correctly chose to fight Gennady Golovkin on Sept. 17 instead of a rematch with Bivol.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Alvarez fought Bivol again next year. If he does, a battle between the winner and Beterbiev (if he beats Smith) becomes one of the biggest fights in boxing history.
Even if Alvarez does not return to 175 pounds, a fight between Bivol and Beterbiev is an exciting contest between two of the world’s best boxers.
Before landing the Alvarez fight, Bivol’s manager, Vadim Kornilov, stated in May that a bout between Bivol and Beterbiev was being explored. There’s no reason it couldn’t be done again.
Style-wise, Kyrgyzstan’s Beterbiev and Bivol complement each other nicely. Bivol prefers to box from the outside and use his superb jab, but he shown against Alvarez that he can also string blows together. Beterbiev loves to apply pressure in a more crowd-pleasing seek-and-destroy approach. And he, too, has a great jab.
Bivol had defeated Smith in 2019, and the bout wasn’t very close. Smith submitted Bivol at the conclusion of Round 10, but was generally dominated throughout the course of 12 rounds.
Smith’s enhanced jab and powerful right hand
If the 32 year old from Long Island, New York, is to have a chance against Beterbiev, he will need to score a one-two punch.
Smith is undeniably heavy-handed, and his jab has lately improved, allowing him to set up his massive right hand much better.
Smith’s most memorable victory was his knockout of Bernard Hopkins, which drove the then-51-year-old into retirement. But, following his defeat to Bivol, Smith went on to win possibly his finest fight, a ninth-round TKO of former champion Eleider Alvarez.
And, unlike previously in his career, Smith was much lighter on his feet in that bout, opting to box and use his jab rather than brawl.
In 2020, he also defeated Jesse Hart through decision.
Smith was knocked out in six rounds in 2010, but he has demonstrated a strong chin against world class opponents. Against Beterbiev, he’ll need it.
The influence and might of Beterbiev
For several reasons, Beterbiev has dominated the light heavy weight class for many years. But none are more impressive than his mix of power and pressure-fighting, which he combines with a sharp jab and underappreciated ring smarts.
The Montreal based fighter is extremely strong in the close, and once he begins rolling downhill, he’s difficult to stop. In December, Beterbiev bloodied and pummeled Marcus Browne into surrender.
Beterbiev always hits the target and doesn’t lose energy in the ring. He appears to be virtually tough to deal with once he gets the range with his crisp jab and begins to cut off the ring.
The only serious concern is Beterbiev’s chin. When they fought, Johnson, a hard-punching fringe contender, felled him, but Beterbiev rebounded for the KO victory. Smith is undeniably a more powerful puncher – and a better boxer – than Johnson. Smith possesses the size and strength to cope with Beterbiev on the inside as well.
Smith is unlikely to outbox Beterbiev throughout 12 rounds, but he will have an opportunity to land his fight-changing right hand. Of course, he’ll have to get past Beterbiev’s jab, power, and pressure first, a difficult conundrum that no one has solved.