VERONA, N.Y. — After light heavyweight contender Joe Smith Jr. — a former construction worker — had a breakout year in 2016, he appeared headed to a world title fight.
After all, he had scored a major upset with a stunning first-round knockout of contender Andrzej Fonfara and followed it with an even bigger win in the encore when he sent legend Bernard Hopkins into retirement by knocking him clear out of the ring in an eighth-round knockout victory.
And then he appeared on his way to defeating contender Sullivan Barrera in his next fight when he dropped him in the first round. But Barrera got off the deck, broke Smith’s jaw and went on to win a unanimous decision in a fight Smith somehow managed to go the distance in despite a brutal injury that sidelined him for 11 months.
But after returning for a quick first-round knockout win against journeyman Melvin Russell in June, Smith is finally getting the opportunity to fight for a world title that he has dreamed about. He will challenge Dmitry Bivol for his 175-pound belt in what many predict will be a fan-friendly fight Saturday (DAZN, 7 p.m. ET) at the Turning Stone Resort Casino.
“This fight means everything to me. This is everything I’ve worked for my entire career, and I’m just really looking forward to it,” Smith told ESPN. “I want to show everybody that I’m going to be the new champion. If I didn’t have a chance to fight for a world title or a chance to win one, I wouldn’t even be here today still fighting. But I know that I have a chance to win this fight and I feel I am going to win this fight and that’s why I am here. It just means everything to me.”
Star Boxing’s Joe DeGuardia, Smith’s co-promoter with Matchroom Boxing’s Eddie Hearn, has been with Smith for years and knows how difficult it has been for Smith to land the title shot.
“The ride with Joe has had some really big highs and a disappointing low when he broke his jaw against Barrera because he had unbelievable momentum before that fight,” DeGuardia said. “It’s been an emotional trek to get here. You work so hard on my end and he works so hard on his end, and you get the two unbelievable wins over Fonfara and Hopkins and then the setback with Barrera. So it’s rewarding to be back in action and get the opportunity for him to fight for a world title.”
But it shapes up as a difficult fight. Bivol, 28, of Russia, who will be making his fifth title defense, is one of boxing’s rising stars. He has fast hands, good power and a deep amateur background. Last March, he retained his title by stopping Barrera in the 12th round of a one-sided fight.
“I harbor no illusions. I know he’s in a very difficult fight with Bivol but a winnable fight,” DeGuardia said. “I have grown to know that Joe is a man of surprises. He’s given me some real happy moments in the sport. I’ve had good nights in boxing, and I’m not that emotional. The night he knocked out Fonfara, I jumped up in the air. It was amazing, so exciting and unexpected. I didn’t expect it that quick and explosive, even knowing what a good puncher Joe is. And then he ruined the farewell party for Bernard. Who would have expected he send Bernard flying out of the ring?
“We’re back in action now fighting for a world championship, something he has dreamed about his whole life. It’s great to have him in this position. Now it’s his part. I’m hoping he can do what he has been doing. I know Joe is very confident and very thrilled about this fight.”