The pecking order between the two best light heavyweights in the world isn’t clear. 

The next man in line right now is.

32-year old WBO light heavyweight titlist Joe Smith Jr. (27-3, 21 KO) has been a hell of a story over the last two years, and a roller coaster over the last five. Smith retired one of the great fighters of the last thirty years in Bernard Hopkins. Smith proceeded to lose his next fight and two of his next three overall.

On Saturday, Smith will attempt to defend his belt for the first time and extend his current win streak to four. It won’t be as initially planned. Smith was slated to face Callum Johnson before a COVID test forced Johnson to the bench.

In steps unheralded 31-year old Steve Geffrard (18-2, 12 KO). Geffrard is unbeaten since dropping his first two pro starts and is playing with house money. He can emerge in a big way or go the route of instantly forgotten late replacement. We won’t know what we have until the bell rings.    

In many ways, Smith is playing with house money too. Smith has a belt, a style that keeps him television friendly win or lose, and isn’t burdened by anyone thinking he’s the best light heavyweight in the world. 

That assumption lies somewhere between two poles. On one side, there is WBC/IBF unified titlist and lineal champion Artur Beterbiev (17-0, 17 KO). On the other is WBA titlist Dmitry Bivol (19-0, 11 KO). Bivol is the last man to defeat Smith, defending his belt in a near shutout in 2019. The best fight, on paper, that could be made at light heavyweight is Beterbiev-Bivol. They have the two strongest resumes and the two best cases right now for best in the world, despite too much inactivity for both.

It would be a case where the winner would be undisputed king of the class without a fourth belt because Smith has already figured into the rotation.

It doesn’t mean Smith wouldn’t be a fun factor. There was talk, after Smith narrowly defeated Maxim Vlasov last year for the vacant WBO belt, of a unification clash with Beterbiev. If it gets revisited in 2022, it will be violent. Smith would be the underdog but have the chance to make his case in the ring.

If it doesn’t, Smith can keep doing what he’s doing. His rebound from the Bivol loss also included an entertaining decision over Jesse Hart and a knockout of former unified titlist Eleider Alvarez. Add in the Vlasov win and Smith can always say there was more to his career than being the end of Hopkins. 

This run has cemented Smith’s ability to stick around among the best light heavyweight of his era for an extended period of time. It’s commendable on its own. Not everyone can do that and it’s almost as hard as being the pinnacle of a weight class. It also lends value to the men who have beaten Smith because he’s shown that isn’t easy.  

Maybe it will be rewarded with a big money fight down the road (and anyone within a weight class of Saul Alvarez is going to keep at least toes crossed in hopes they could get a look when Alvarez goes looking for another belt at light heavyweight). Maybe it will just be rewarded with title fight pay for as long as Smith can keep his strap.

It’s a case where being the perceived third best comes out as a win. 

Cliff’s Notes…

Tyson Fury commenting on PED use in another fighter is a special kind of audacity…The Terence Crawford-Top Rank feud is headed to court, barring a settlement along the way. Crawford will have his day in court and it will be interesting to see if or how this affects his career in the ring this year…George Kambosos seems determined to defend in his home country and good for him. Does that make the race clearly between Devin Haney and Vasyl Lomachenko or does he look for a lesser name for a homecoming?...Will Omicron shut the sport down again in most of the world well into the spring? It feels like where a fight is signed right now is more important than when…Juan Francisco Estrada-Roman Gonzalez III is eight weeks away…RomanTony Yoka-Filip Hrgovic, if that’s where things end up, is a wonderful clash of prospects. Heavyweight can never go wrong with those.

Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.