Joe Smith Jr. waited an additional eight weeks, putting his honeymoon on hold in order to realize his dream of winning a major title.
It finally happened for the bruising light heavyweight, who walked through hell to outlast Maxim Vlasov en route to a 12-round majority decision win. Judge David Sutherland scored the contest 114-114, overruled by judges Pat Russell (115-113) and Gerald Ritter (115-113) who each scored the contest for Smith, who claimed the vacant WBO light heavyweight title Saturday evening on ESPN in front of a sold-out crowd at Osage Casino in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“It’s a great feeling,” Smith told ESPN’s Bernardo Osuna of winning the fight and the belt. “It was definitely a close, tough fight.”
Smith entered a major fight in the rare role of betting favorite, having served as the underdog in the most significant wins throughout a career now in its 12th year. Vlasov vowed before the fight to upset the apple cart, putting his best foot forward in an active opening round. It was a strong early showing for Vlasov, who hadn’t fought since a Nov. 2019 shutout win over Emmanuel Martey in his native Russia.
Since then has come two bouts whose plans were ruined by COVID-19. Umar Salamov tested positive for the infectious disease which forced the cancellation of his WBO title eliminator with Vlasov, who advanced straight to the title stage by default. Vlasov wound up producing a positive COVID test two days prior to his previously scheduled Feb. 13th ESPN headliner versus Smith, who was forced to put his honeymoon on hold in order to return to training camp in pursuit of his first major title.
Things opened up for Smith in round two, connecting with a right hand to snap back the head of Vlasov. It wasn’t all glory for the New Yorker, who was forced to fight through a cut over the left eye while spending most of his night fending off a determined and naturally bigger foe in Vlasov.
Action continued to heat up in rounds three and four. Vlasov was active though with some of the steam beginning to come off of his punches. Smith walked through a flurry of shots to connect with a left hook, though with Vlasov—who was down four times prior to Saturday—showing a world class chin in his first major title fight.
Smith used the ring in rounds five and six, forcing Vlasov to walk forward in hopes of catching him with a sneak right hand. It worked on occasion, though with Vlasov adjusting to the tactic and using feints to get Smith to overcommit with his power shots. The strategy came at a price, as enough of Smith’s power punches upstairs bloodied the mouth of the Russian contender.
Vlasov entered the second half brimming with confidence, though perhaps to a fault. Smith found a way inside, rocking Vlasov with a left hook and continuing on the attack whenever he saw an opening. Smith targeted the body, landing two clean rights downstairs and another which strayed low, drawing a final warning from referee Gary Ritter. Vlasov was spitting out blood while fighting through a swollen right eye as Smith grew in confidence.
Momentum swung back in favor of Vlasov, who bounced back in a big way in round eight. Smith continued to press forward, though expending a lot of energy as Vlasov often slipped his power shots, while nearly doubling up Smith 19-10 in power connects.
A pep talk in between rounds rejuvenated Smith at the start of the ninth, landing jabs and right hands while successfully fighting off the ropes. Vlasov plowed forward, landing a series of right hands late in the round to cause further damage to Smith’s left eye.
Vlasov pumped his jab to start round ten, often following up with straight shots upstairs as Smith’s eye was rapidly swelling shut. Smith began to look wore for the wear, momentarily not throwing back. A right hand from Vlasov late in the round missed its mark, failing to defend against a counter right from Smith.
Smith came out with knockout intentions to begin the championship rounds. As he’d done the entire fight, Vlasov took the best of his opponent’s power while slipping the rest of the incoming shots as he forced Smith into the ropes midway through the round. Smith turned the tide late, raking the body and briefly hurting Vlasov.
The closest either boxer came to a knockdown occurred late in the round, nearly costing Smith a crucial point. A right hand by the New Yorker landed on the base of Vlasov’s skull prompting a mandated recovery period. Controversy ensued, as Vlasov was wrongly allowed to recover in his own corner rather than being instructed to go to a neutral corner. The sequence drew the ire of Smith’s career-long promoter Joe DeGuardia as well as that of Carl Moretti, vice president of operations for Top Rank who co-promotes Smith.
Smith was angered by the sequence as well, though for a different reason.
“I believe in that round where I hurt him, he stuck his head down and I should’ve got the knockdown,” insisted Smith. “I believe I would have got the knockout but he made it to his feet and toughed it out.”
Smith kept his foot on the gas in the 12th and final round. Vlasov continued to stand tall to Smith’s power shots, clinching when necessary and throwing right hands in returns when the opportunities allowed.
Smith improves to 27-3 (21KOs) in earning the WBO light heavyweight crown.
“I just told myself in the locker room and for the last month, I know I’m gonna get hit,” admitted Smith. “He throws a lot of punches. I caught him in the (11th round), I thought I had him out of there. It was a little too close for me. I would have liked to have won unanimously.”
His opponent would have preferred a different outcome altogether.
“This was my opportunity to show the world I was a world champion, and I did that,” Vlasov claimed after the fight, falling to 45-4 (26KOs) with the loss. “Joe Smith knows I did that.
Vlasov snaps a three-fight win streak with the heartbreaking defeat. The 34-year-old also came up short in a more convincing 12-round defeat to Krzysztof Glowack in their Nov. 2018 WBO interim cruiserweight title fight. He dropped down to light heavyweight after that, producing his first true title fight in a respectable 16-year career.
Meanwhile, Smith becomes just the fourth boxer from Long Island to win a major title, joining Hall of Fame former two-division champ James ‘Buddy’ McGirt, former 140-pound titlist Chris Algieri and reigning WBO junior lightweight titlist Jamel Herring. There is a chance for Smith to separate from the rest of the pack.
Expected to come next is a shot at lineal light heavyweight king and WBC/IBF titlist Artur Beterbiev (16-0, 16KOs), who made his first successful defense with a 10th round knockout of mandatory challenger Adam Deines in March.
The two are expected to collide later this year in a bout to unify three of the four divisional titles. Another win by Smith would pave the way for a well-earned rematch with unbeaten WBA title claimant Dmitry Bivol, against whom Smith dropped a lopsided decision in March 2019.
All of that remains in play for the newly crowned WBO titlist, though not before celebrating his postponed honeymoon. Once that is complete, it’s back to the lab in hopes of adding to the trophy case.
“I want other belts. I want the big fights out there,” vows Smith. “I have to get back in the gym, keep working on my technique. But I have to get out there, get those belts.”
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox