Joe Smith Jr. looked to be on top of the world when he retired future Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins by knocking him out of the ring in 2016, but since then, his career has fallen off the rails a little bit.
Smith lost his next fight, a 10-round decision against hardened veteran Sullivan Barrera in 2017 and broke his jaw early in the fight. Even a knockout win over Melvin Russell in his next fight in 2018 could not translate to a world title win against WBA champion Dmitry Bivol this past March as Smith was thoroughly beaten on the scorecards.
At one point, the construction worker from Long Island, New York was set to take the light heavyweight division by storm but now he is perhaps perceived by many as an afterthought as he starts 2020 with a fight against Jesse Hart on January 11. Smith knows he's being overlooked, but has no doubt about his toughness going up against a former world title challenger on the cusp of fighting for another championship.
"Yeah, I definitely believe I’ve been overlooked. People always go back to the Barrera fight, but no one ever thinks about it 100 percent. I fought 10 rounds with a broken jaw in that fight and made it through the fight against a top contender with a broken jaw. Not many people do that. There’s been a lot of fighters, after they get a little hair fracture, they quit. My jaw was completely broken on both sides in half and just hanging and I made it through that fight. So for me to do that, I won that fight in my view," Smith told Fightful in a recent media call.
But that win over Hopkins from just over two years ago will come full circle as he faces Hart who, like Hopkins, hails from the fight city of Philadelphia. Hart has long considered Hopkins an inspiration ever since he was a kid watching him and his main motivation into this fight is avenging Hopkins' loss by beating the man who retired him.
For Smith, it's one more shot at proving to the world that he is not just a one-win wonder, but someone that can be considered among the best in a division that boasts the likes of Bivol, Artur Beterbiev, Oleksandr Gvozdyk, Jean Pascal, Badou Jack, Sergey Kovalev and more.
Smith knows that a win over Hart will put him right back into title contention and erase any doubts people have of him heading into this fight. This is why Smith has focused so much on being in the best shape of his career heading into this bout, knowing that he still has plenty to prove to those that doubt him.
"With this fight, hearing about how Jesse was inspired by Bernard Hopkins growing up, it gives me inspiration and it motivates me to put on a great show to inspire other people who are watching me. I want people to talk about me like Jesse’s talking about Hopkins. So that’s my goal when I come out January 11th," Smith said. "Training camp went well. It’s one of my best camps so far. Definitely in my best shape ever, and I know I have a lot to prove. I’m looking at this fight as a chance to get myself out there again, to show that I belong in title fights. I’m looking to prove that, so I want to put on a great show for the fans, and hopefully get a title shot or something else big after this."
While Smith isn't fighting Hart for reasons like avenging the loss of a legendary boxer from his hometown, Smith is treating this fight, just as any other, like it's more than just business. Like many other boxers before him and many more once his career's done, Smith is fighting to achieve a better life. Smith knows this is a must-win fight for him as securing a big fight next will become even more difficult if he loses three of his last four bouts.
"It's always personal with me as well. Personal for me, and I’m also fighting for my family and other things. I want to better my life, and the way to do it is by getting in there, putting on a great show and moving forward with my career," Smith said.
Hart vs. Smith will headline the January 11 Top Rank on ESPN card from Atlantic City, New Jersey.