The last time we saw him, he was looking down at former middleweight and light heavyweight champ Bernard Hopkins, who he knocked out of the ring with an offensive assault. And with that, Hopkins, who was a dominant fighter between 160 and 175 pounds from 1995-2014, was finished. Yes, we knew the day was out there….the day when Hopkins would hang on for one fight too many and get beaten up. The day was December 17th 2016 when Long Island’s Joe Smith Jr. 23-1 (19) TKO’d the 51-year-old Hopkins in the 8th round of a scheduled 12-round bout for the WBO International light heavyweight title.
Think about it, Smith did to Hopkins what some thought others would do to him but couldn’t….namely Joe Calzaghe, Kelly Pavlik, Chad Dawson and, yes, even Sergey Kovalev. Because of Smith’s big power and assertiveness, Hopkins is now an insightful boxing commentator for HBO. As for Smith, this Saturday night on HBO’s Boxing After Dark Triple Header, he will meet the biggest challenge of his career in Cuban defector Sullivan Barrera 19-1 (14).
Barrera, a solid pro who does nothing great but everything well, hasn’t received much fanfare compared to some of the other elite Cuban fighters on the scene. His lone setback was at the hands of Andre Ward, back in March of 2016, who is considered the best fighter in the division. But Barrera, considered a quasi-threat to the upper-tier fighters in the division, is more of a known entity than Smith whose place among those on the fast track is up in the air.
Sometimes a fighter emerges who has done a few impressive things, but due to the fighters he’s been fighting, it’s impossible to know how much of his success was due to him and how much was due to the other guy. Smith is riding a nice two-bout winning streak, having stopped Andrzej Fonfara before stopping Hopkins. Fonfara entered their bout 28-3 and had been stopped only once previously, that coming as a middleweight. Three fights prior meeting Smith, Andrzej went the distance with WBC light heavyweight title holder Adonis Stevenson who is one of the bigger punchers in the division. Then, after dropping the decision to Stevenson, Fonfara stopped Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and won a hard fought decision over Nathan Cleverly.
Joe Smith stopped Fonfara at 2:32 of the first round in what was voted the upset of the year. That impressive showing earned Smith the notoriety to become Hopkins’ farewell opponent.
Smith gained a lot of credibility icing a guy like Fonfara who gave Adonis Stevenson a competitive fight. Joe’s power was a given but could he cope with Hopkins’ experience, guile and toughness? That was the question. That, and the fact Hopkins hadn’t fought in two years and in his last outing against Sergey Kovalev was completely outclassed and physically dominated. As it turned out, Smith’s crude style and brute power in his right hand were a little too much for the 51-year old Hopkins. At the time of the stoppage when Hopkins was punched out of the ring, Smith was leading on two of the three scorecards and looked to be coming on. The ending was conclusive and enough to let Hopkins grasp that his career as an elite fighter was over and he announced his retirement.
Looking back as a cynic, if you choose to, you can now pour cold water on Smith’s two signature wins. The version of Hopkins that Smith fought really was an empty package and brought nothing to the ring that night other than his great name. Two fights before facing Smith, Hopkins was taken the distance by 14-1 Beibut Shumenov, a fighter with only 15 pro bouts under his belt. After that, Hopkins faced Kovalev and was never in the fight. So beating Hopkins when Smith did, as great as it looks on his record, wasn’t all that monumental.
During the interim since Smith beat Hopkins, Fonfara fought a rematch with Stevenson and was stopped 28 seconds into the second round — which takes a little of the glow off of Smith beating him the way he did. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, did Smith knock out a fighter in Fonfara that was maybe a little overrated and chinny – or is Joe’s right hand the real deal?
Heading into the Barrera fight the only thing we can say for sure about Joe Smith Jr., 27, is that he comes to fight and he can punch. But it takes more than willingness and a punch to excel at the level that Smith is trying to reach. Sullivan Barrera, 35, is convinced Smith’s chin is a vulnerability and believes he was hurt by Fonfara before he turned the fight with a single right hand. He also believes Smith will bring the fight directly to him, and because of that he can exploit his willingness to take a punch in order to land one. Barrera believes in his own power but gives the impression that in this fight, it will be his superiority as a technician that will ultimately be the difference.
Barrera’s only been bested in the ring by Andre Ward, who had him down in the third round and controlled the action most of the way. However, Smith fights nothing like Ward and instead of trying to hit and hurt a bed sheet hanging on a clothes line, Smith will be right there for Sullivan to find. This should translate into a fan friendly, action packed fight. Barrera is perceived as the better fighter and is expected to win, just as Fonfara and Hopkins were when they fought Smith.
In Sullivan Barrera, Joe Smith Jr. is going to fight an opponent that will 100 percent answer the question of whether he was just in the right place at the right time or whether he really is at least somewhat dangerous, since he won’t get past Barrera on sheer luck. If Smith can ice Sullivan Barrera inside the distance, I think it’s safe to say you can add his name to the list of the other light heavyweights, namely Eleider Alvarez, Oleksandr Gvozdyk, Artur Beterbiev and Dimtry Bivol, who are looking to chase Andre Ward up to cruiserweight and Adonis Stevenson into retirement.
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Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com