It was enough to win the fight, but Callum Smith most certainly didn’t deliver the type of performance to justify a place in the front of the line in the Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez sweepstakes.
Smith managed the second defense of his super middleweight title, barely preserving his reign and unbeaten record after outpointing stubborn countryman John Ryder over 12 rounds Saturday evening at Echo Arena in Liverpool, England.
Scores were a far too wide 117-111 and 116-112 twice in favor of Smith, who fought in his hometown for the first time in more than two years.
Ryder faced every conceivable disadvantage going in—shorter fighter, shorter reach and fighting in Smith’s hometown—but showed no fear in his first career title fight. The squat southpaw was able to keep early round action at close quarters, perhaps too close at time in accidentally scoring on his own grill while attempting to catch Smith on the inside.
Smith was able to impose his will in round three, using his jab to set up long right hands but falling short in efforts to launch his uppercut from long range. Ryder managed to bully his way back inside in the middle rounds, forcing an aggressive pace. Smith obliged, coming on strong after suffering a cut outside his right eye from a clash of heads in round four. A fever-pitched round five saw Smith take over during the back half, repeatedly splitting the guard of Ryder to land right hands down the middle.
The momentum spilled over in round six, with Smith continuing to score with power shots and also able to dictate the pace as the shorter Ryder was forced to adjust while fighting on the outside. The 31-year old Londoner managed to close the gap in the second half of round seven, having been outboxed in the first minute before bullying his way inside and landing right hooks while Smith’s back was pinned to the ropes.
Smith was able to adjust and catch Ryder with right hands, but unable to create desired distance. The forced tactic switch was in large part due to do Ryder’s ability to keep the action in center ring, though his mauling tactics led to frequent clinching in slowing down the pace.
Action picked up in the championship rounds, Smith continuing to struggle with Ryder’s swarming style and leaving his chin exposed to power shots along the ropes. The crowd did its part to rally behind the hometown hero, but no amount of cheers were going to drown out Ryder’s will.
Fatigue clearly set in for Smith in the final round, laying on the ropes in efforts to catch a breather and playing matador defense as Ryder winged overhand lefts. Smith managed to turn the tide midway through the round, landing the type of right hands that abandoned him rounds earlier. Ryder rode out the rally and charged forward until the final bell.
It wasn’t enough for Ryder to score the upset, though many observers certainly felt he was robbed of the title as his stock soared in defeat. The loss bumps down his record to 28-5 (16KOs), snapping a four-fight win streak which includes back-to-back stoppage wins over previously unbeaten foes Andrey Sirotkin and Bilal Akkway to position himself as the mandatory challenger.
"I proved myself and look forward to doing it again,” Ryder said after the defeat. “I feel the (scorecards) were harsh, I feel like I pushed the action. “
Smith advances to 27-0 (19KOs) with the win, though by no means in a time capsule performance.
“If I’m to be honest, it wasn’t my best performance,” Smith admitted afterward. “I should’ve used my jab more. I’m a perfectionist, I always want to do better.”
A better performance would have went a long way towards creating demand for a lucrative showdown with Alvarez in 2020. A big event at Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium remains a goal for next summer, whether versus Alvarez, fellow unbeaten super middleweight titlist Billy Joe Saunders or even in a light heavyweight adventure.
“I want the big names. Any of them that will generate big news. I need that (level of opposition).”
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox