By Chris McKenna in Dallas, courtesy of The Daily Star
LIAM SMITH was hurting too much to admit it, but this could be the night he really arrived on the global stage despite losing his world title.
Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez was too skillful, powerful and accurate for the Liverpool fighter as he wrenched the WBO light-middleweight title from his grasp with a ninth-round knockout in front of 51,000 Mexican fans.
But where Smith did not fall short was in the heart, determination and bravery stakes as he also proved he had the ability to mix it with one of the best in the sport.
The Scouse scrapper went into this as an unknown in America, but they know who he is today after he played his part in an exciting fight that needed one of the knockouts of the year to halt it.
Alvarez’s left hook to the body that put the defending champion down for the third and final time was world class.
But Smith showed he belonged on the big stage here in Dallas at the AT&T Stadium.
“He has cemented himself at this level and will be back for a world title,” said Smith’s manager Matthew Macklin.
Would it have been closer if Smith, 28, had of had the perfect preparation?
He would offer no excuses after his first loss in his 25th professional bout, but missing out on sparring, after he was cut by compatriot Kell Brook, did not help.
“He hadn’t sparred for five weeks,” said trainer Joe Gallagher. “You can go into the Champions League final having only done keepie-uppies in training. But he covered himself in glory and belongs at world level.”
Smith was never going to pull out of what turned out to be one huge party for Mexican Alvarez on his country’s Independence Day weekend.
Alvarez was allowed to walk out second, breaking the tradition of the champion coming out last.
And his entrance included fireworks and flames to tip the already manic crowd over the edge.
Smith looked unfazed as he paced around, smiling with Liverpool icon Steven Gerrard and his three brothers, Paul, Stephen and Callum, who were watching ringside.
They got a glimpse of Alvarez’s power as he pushed Smith back and took the early rounds, a cut over the challenger’s left eye not bothering him.
There was success for Smith in the fourth and the fifth when he pinned Alvarez to the ropes and clipped him with two big right hands.
But just as it looked like Smith might sneak into the fight, two cuts opened up over his right eye and he was then floored in the seventh after a combination of a left hook and two rights.
Smith was on the canvas again in the eighth after a left hook to the body. And an even more powerful and accurate shot from the same angle ended it in the ninth.
The impressive Alvarez celebrated his 48th win in his 50th bout even before referee Luis Pabon finished counting and Smith’s dream was over.
But this performance should earn him more big nights.
He will probably never have to face a fighter as good as Alvarez again though, who showed why the world is desperate to see him move to middleweight to face Gennady Golovkin.