Joe Smith Jr. expects to be much more impressive during his first title defense Saturday night than he was when he won the then-vacant WBO light heavyweight title nine months ago.

Smith overcame Maxim Vlasov by majority decision to become one of boxing’s 175-pound champions, yet Smith admits it was far from his best performance. The Mastic, New York, native was much sharper in his prior appearance, a ninth-round stoppage of former WBO champ Eleider Alvarez in August 2020.

“In that fight [against Vlasov], I feel I was hesitant a little too much to throw,” Smith told “There were certain little things that I wasn’t happy with. What I’m happy about what I did was when it came to rounds 10, 11, 12, I really picked it up and came out on top.”

Judges Gerald Ritter (115-112) and Pat Russell (115-113) scored Smith a winner over Vlasov (46-4, 26 KOs). Judge David Sutherland scored Smith-Vlasov a draw, 114-114, on April 10 at Osage Casino in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Smith (27-3, 21 KOs) can’t quite pinpoint why he underperformed versus Vlasov. He suspects knowing that he couldn’t afford to lose a second championship match in two years contributed to how he fought.

“I don’t know,” Smith said. “Maybe I felt I was under a lot of pressure because it was my second shot at a world title, and I knew I needed to win that fight. I don’t really know. I just know I got back in the gym and worked on being sharper and getting off and moving and doing everything I can do to make me a better fighter.”

The 32-year-old Smith was supposed to square off against England’s Callum Johnson on Saturday night. Steve Geffrard (18-2, 12 KOs), an unknown veteran from Boca Raton, Florida, replaced Johnson (20-1, 14 KOs) on eight days’ notice because Johnson tested positive for COVID-19 and pulled out of his fight with Smith last week.

“I’m looking to put on a great show,” Smith said, “and make the big fights happen after that.”

Johnson was a substitute for Russia’s Umar Salamov (26-2, 19 KOs), who was supposed to challenge Smith on October 30 at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater in New York. Smith contracted COVID-19 in mid-September, though, spent two nights in a hospital and battled the coronavirus for approximately three weeks altogether.

Smith couldn’t reschedule his fight with Salamov because Salamov couldn’t get a visa to travel to the United States.

“What bothered me the most was I was two or three weeks into training, and just started to feel great,” Smith said. “And then my fight got canceled because of getting [COVID-19]. It set me back. I could’ve been focusing on my next fight by now, figuring where I’m gonna go next. But I’m not doing that. I’m still in the same spot I was, but I’m actually fighting a different guy this time.”

Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.