Joe Smith Jr. is the 2016 TSS Breakthrough Fighter of the Year

JOE SMITH JR’S BREAKTHROUGH YEAR — At the onset of 2016, an Irish-American light heavyweight from Long Island was attracting some buzz. His name was Seanie Monaghan. Farther out on Long Island, another Irish-American light heavyweight was laboring in obscurity. His name was Joe Smith Jr. As we enter 2017, Monaghan, who fights under the Top Rank banner, remains undefeated (28-0). But Joe Smith Jr. has surpassed him in name recognition.

All it took was two fights for Smith to catapult out of nowhere and be reckoned a force in his weight class. The first came on June 18 against Andrzje Fonfara in Chicago. It was a PBC promotion televised on NBC.

Smith entered the contest with a 21-1 (17) record, but no one gave him a snowball’s chance. Fonfara was coming off two big wins, having dominated 48-1-1 Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. en route to a ninth round stoppage and then turning away former WBO 175-pound titlist Nathan Cleverly by unanimous decision in a rousing good fight. Moreover, the Chicago-based Fonfara was fighting in his adopted hometown at the UIC Pavilion where he had never lost in 16 starts.

Smith hadn’t previously fought on television, but he rose to the occasion. At the 2:02 mark of the opening round he landed a mammoth right hand that knocked Fonfara on the seat of his pants. Fonfara rose on wobbly legs and Smith tore after him, landing 14 unanswered punches before the referee intervened. The shocking first round knockout was greeted with an eruption of joy at the Laborers Union 66 Union Hall in Melville, New York, where Smith’s co-workers had gathered to watch the fight.

Bernard Hopkins saw something in Joe Smith that led him to believe that the 27-year-old Long Island construction worker was the perfect foil for his farewell fight. Hopkins was myopic.

Smith and Hopkins met on Dec. 17 at the Inglewood Forum. Although Bernard Hopkins was one month removed from his 52nd birthday, Smith was again thrust in the role of the underdog. “Hopkins didn’t agree to fight (Smith) to end up on the floor,” said Boston Herald scribe Ron Borges in his pre-fight story. But that’s exactly what happened.

In the eighth round, a series of punches knocked Hopkins off balance and he fell through the ropes, landing on the floor. It went into the books as a TKO for Smith when Hopkins, having twisted his ankle, was unable to return to the ring in the required 20 seconds.

Hopkins protested that he was shoved out of the ring and that the bout should have been ruled a no-contest, but he didn’t have a leg to stand on (no pun intended). Prior to the bizarre ending, Smith, the aggressor throughout, was winning the fight. CompuBox had him landing 32 more punches.

Although he was fighting a fighter who was far beyond his prime, Joe Smith Jr. accomplished what no other boxer before him had accomplished in the remarkable 28-year career of the remarkable Bernard Hopkins. The record book will show that Smith was the only man to defeat The Executioner inside the distance.

Smith answered the bell for only 11 rounds in 2016, nine in the two fights that stamped him as something more than a good club fighter. Joe Smith Jr., no ordinary Joe, is our 2016 Breakthrough Fighter of the Year.

Check out the video presentation for Joe Smith Jr’s 2016 performance at The Boxing Channel.