When Joe Smith Jr. narrowly defeated Maxim Vlasov in April 2021 to win the WBO light heavyweight title, a unification bout with WBC and IBF titleholder Artur Beterbiev instantly became a can’t-miss matchup.
Two of the biggest punchers in boxing will meet on Saturday at New York’s Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden (10 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN+ with prelims on ESPN+ at 6:30 p.m. ET) in what shapes up as an explosive action fight for as long as it lasts. Beterbiev, boxing’s only champion with a 100% KO percentage, is an 8-1 favorite, according to Caesars Sportsbook, and with good reason.
Beterbiev (17-0, 17 KOs), of Russia, is consistently on the cusp of the pound-for-pound list — if not in the top 10. He is a precise puncher who knows just where and when to place his shots, and has the engine to carry that power into the later rounds.
Never was that more on display than against Oleksandr Gvozdyk in October 2019, a title unification Beterbiev won via 10th-round TKO after he floored his foe three times.
But Beterbiev is 37 and showed vulnerability when he was knocked down by Callum Johnson in a 2018 fight. And he’s been inactive, competing only twice since he defeated Gvozdyk. And during that time, Smith (28-3, 22 KOs) has shown vast improvement.
Here are three things to watch for in Saturday’s fight for three 175-pound titles:
Winner in prime position to face Dmitry Bivol or Canelo Alvarez
Whoever emerges with his hand raised Saturday will be just one title short of becoming the undisputed light heavyweight champion of the world. The other belt, of course, is owned by Bivol, who upset boxing’s top star, Alvarez, in May.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Alvarez pursued a second fight with Bivol next year. If he does, a bout matching the winner vs. Beterbiev (assuming he beats Smith) immediately becomes one of the biggest fights in boxing.
Even if Alvarez doesn’t return to 175 pounds, a fight between Bivol and Beterbiev is a mouth-watering matchup featuring two of the finest boxers in the world.
Bivol’s manager, Vadim Kornilov, said in May that a fight between Bivol and Beterbiev was being discussed before he landed the Alvarez matchup. There’s no reason it couldn’t be revisited.
Both Beterbiev and Bivol, of Kyrgyzstan, mesh well style-wise, too. Bivol likes to box from the outside and use his masterful jab, but he showed against Alvarez that he can string punches together, too. Beterbiev prefers to apply pressure in a seek-and-destroy style that is far more crowd-pleasing. And he, too, owns an excellent jab.
Bivol already defeated Smith in 2019, and the fight wasn’t all that competitive. Smith buckled Bivol at the end of Round 10 but was otherwise dominated over 12 rounds.
Smith’s improved jab and big right hand
If the 32-year-old from Long Island, New York, has any prayer against Beterbiev, his success will likely hinge on the one-two punch.
Smith is undoubtedly heavy-handed, and he’s been setting up that big right hand far better recently with a much-improved jab.
Smith’s most-notable victory remains his KO of Bernard Hopkins that sent the then-51-year-old through the ropes and into retirement. But since the loss to Bivol, Smith opened more eyes with perhaps his best win, a ninth-round TKO of former champion Eleider Alvarez.
And in that fight, Smith was far lighter on his feet, electing to box and use his jab rather than brawl as he had earlier in his career.
Smith was knocked out in a six-round fight in 2010, but has shown a steady chin against world-class opposition. He’ll need it against Beterbiev.
Beterbiev’s power and pressure
Beterbiev stands atop the light heavyweight division — and has for years — for many reasons. But none are greater than his combination of power and pressure-fighting all tied together with a precise jab and underrated ring smarts.
The Montreal-based boxer is incredibly strong in the clinch, and when he starts rolling downhill, he’s tough to fend off. Beterbiev bloodied and pounded Marcus Browne into submission in December.
Beterbiev is always able to find the mark and doesn’t waste energy in the ring. Once he finds the range with his precise jab and begins to cut off the ring, he seems nearly impossible to deal with.
The only real question mark is Beterbiev’s chin. Johnson, a hard-punching fringe contender, dropped him when they met, but Beterbiev rallied for the KO win. Smith is undoubtedly a harder puncher — and better boxer — than Johnson. And Smith also has the size and strength to deal with Beterbiev on the inside.
It’s doubtful Smith can outbox Beterbiev over 12 rounds, but he’ll have a chance to land his fight-altering right hand. Of course, he’ll have to get past Beterbiev’s jab, power and pressure first, a tricky puzzle no one has come close to solving.