By Keith Idec
The pain was excruciating.
That’s what Joe Smith Jr. remembers most from his fight against Sullivan Barrera. The light heavyweight contender knew right away that he had suffered a broken jaw when Barrera blasted him with a left hook late in the first round, just after Smith had floored Barrera.
Smith was well aware of the shock that runs through a boxer’s body when he suffers a broken jaw. It had happened to him during his sixth pro fight, in just about the same spot on the right side of his face.
“I wanted to quit every round,” Smith told BoxingScene.com. “I just kept telling myself I could make it one more round, that all I’ve gotta do is land one punch. But each round, as things got worse and worse, I started focusing on that too much and it took away my ability to box, I guess. All I wanted to do was make it through the fight and finish it. I said, ‘If this is gonna be my last fight, I wanna go out at least making it through the fight.’ ”
The onetime union laborer from Long Island had told himself long ago that he’d quit boxing if his jaw were broken a second time during a fight. Once he had surgery to remove an impacted wisdom tooth – the cause of the broken jaw he suffered against Barrera – Smith quickly changed his mind and returned to the gym.
“Now that area is filled in with bone,” Smith said. “It’s not a big, empty space there now.”
The hard-hitting, 29-year-old contender has fought just once since Barrera beat him by unanimous decision in a 10-rounder HBO broadcast in July 2017 from The Forum in Inglewood, California. That comeback bout resulted in a first-round knockout of Melvin Russell (11-5-2, 7 KOs) on June 30 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.
The one-sided nature of his loss to Barrera is what Smith thinks convinced Dmitriy Bivol to agree to their championship match Saturday night in Verona, New York. Their 12-round fight for Bivol’s WBA light heavyweight title will headline a card DAZN will stream from Turning Stone Resort & Casino.
“It definitely shows that he’s a great champion, who’s willing to fight the best fighters out there,” Smith said. “It just shows, too, that he thinks he sees something in me that he can take advantage of. And I believe he’s basing everything he knows about me from my performance against Barrera.”
Smith still gives Bivol plenty of credit for facing him, something Artur Beterbiev decided he didn’t want to do. The sturdy Smith, of Mastic, New York, was supposed to challenge Russia’s Beterbiev (13-0, 13 KOs) for his IBF 175-pound crown on the Canelo Alvarez-Rocky Fielding undercard December 15 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Beterbiev withdrew from those negotiations and eventually signed a co-promotional deal with Bob Arum’s Top Rank Inc. That agreement committed Beterbiev to fighting on ESPN, the network that’ll televise his next fight May 4.
In fairness, meeting Smith on the Alvarez-Fielding undercard would’ve required a quick turnaround for Beterbiev. He overcame a second-round knockdown against England’s Callum Johnson (17-1, 12 KOs), yet he came back to win their October 6 bout by fourth-round knockout in Chicago.
“I know, for sure, the first postponement, they said they needed more time,” Joe DeGuardia, Smith’s promoter, told BoxingScene.com. “We had agreed to a fight and then they said they needed more time, so they asked us to push it back six weeks because it was too soon [from] him getting dropped by Callum. That’s why they didn’t wanna do the fight against us [in November]. We were supposed to go in December again. They moved it back to December 15th.
“But ultimately, they ended up pulling out of the fight altogether because they just didn’t wanna fight a banger. I think his trainer [Marc Ramsey] pulled him out of it. The trainer pulled him out of the original fight because he wanted more time to recuperate, I guess. And then, ultimately, they decided they didn’t wanna fight a puncher like Joe.”
Russia’s Bivol (15-0, 11 KOs) had no such reservations about boxing Smith (24-2, 20 KOs).
“Bivol is a great fighter,” Smith said. “He’s an explosive fighter, throws a lot of punches. He’s very busy, has good footwork and I’m just looking forward to getting in there with a champion and coming home the champion.”
Bivol’s boxing skills are his biggest advantage over Smith. Numerous handicappers have so much faith in Bivol’s abilities, they’ve installed him as a 25-1 favorite against Smith.
Following his last fight – a relatively easy 12-round victory over former WBC champ Jean Pascal on November 24 in Atlantic City, New Jersey – Bivol acknowledged that he might be better suited for fighting at the super middleweight limit of 168 pounds.
“If he feels that way, he’s gonna really feel that way after he feels my punching power,” Smith said. “Because I probably hit harder than anyone he’s ever fought. In the later rounds, he just sits back a little bit, looking to just hit you with shots and just move around. But I’m gonna keep busy and make him work.”
Whatever happens when he battles Bivol, Smith takes confidence from knowing nothing can compare to what he endured throughout his loss to Cuba’s Barrera (22-2, 14 KOs).
“It was one of the toughest things I ever did in my life,” Smith said. “It’s gonna be the toughest fight I have in my life because it was just painful from the end of the first round, on. And, you know, I learned that fight to always be a hundred percent going into a fight. I believe I got hurt in sparring, with the jaw injury.
“I didn’t realize how bad it was because I went and got it looked at from the doctor and they didn’t see anything. They didn’t see a break. Apparently, it was broken, because as soon as I got hit with something, it was done. And they confirmed it was broken afterwards.”
That second broken jaw and second defeat of his seven-year pro career sidetracked Smith for more than a year-and-a-half. That’s what would make beating Bivol on Saturday night even more satisfying.
“It’s everything I’ve worked for, so it’s gonna be an amazing feeling when I bring home the belt,” Smith said. “And I’m looking forward to get right back in there and unify against another champion, because I believe champions should be fighting champions.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.