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‘Common Man’ Joe Smith Jr. Aims for Another Uncommon Outcome vs. Dmitry Bivol

Bernard Fernandez

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Joe Smith

Joe Smith Jr. knows what much of the world thinks of him, in a boxing sense. He was dismissed as a “common” man by future Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins before they squared off on Dec. 17, 2016, which undoubtedly was as true then as it is now. Even Smith (a common name if ever there was one) acknowledged that, as a fighter, he was and is more blue-collar than blue-blood, a card-carrying union member of Local 66 on Long Island, N.Y., whose day job as a common laborer – which he still holds – involves such working man’s chores as pouring concrete, digging trenches, laying sheetrock, power-washing septic tanks and knocking down walls with a sledgehammer. He does that for eight to 10 hours a day before heading to the gym at 6 p.m. to train for an upcoming bout.

It’s an exhausting schedule, and one that Smith would just as soon whittle down when and if his personal circumstances allow. But supposedly common fighters, like all common men, must plan for the future while taking nothing for granted in the present.

“Hell, I’m human,” the 29-year-old Smith (24-2, 20 KOs), who will be in a familiar underdog role when he challenges WBA light heavyweight champion Dmitry Bivol (15-0, 11 KOs) in the DAZN-streamed main event Saturday night at the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, N.Y., said in a lengthy profile in The Ring a couple of years ago. “Every day I go to work I want to leave. I just push myself to stay as long as I can. I keep myself motivated to go past that pain. But no one can beat down a hard-hat guy who can take anything.

“There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not asking myself, `What the hell am I doing here?’ since I have boxing. But I do see how my day job (which pays $38 an hour, with benefits) works well with my night job as a fighter. I don’t really think I would be able to do one without the other.”

Maybe, just maybe, if Smith again confounds the odds-makers – Bivol is a -2500 wagering choice, meaning you’d have to put up $2,500 to win $100, while Smith is +1000, which would yield a $1,000 return on a $100 bet – he can finally afford to tell his Local 66 bosses that he is turning in his sledgehammer to concentrate on boxing full-time. He almost certainly will receive a payday far in excess of his previous high of $400,000 for the Hopkins fight, although the Oneida Nation Gaming Commission is notoriously hesitant to release such figures unless or until it is absolutely necessary. In any case, taxes and fees paid to his promoters, manager, trainer and other support-crew members will reduce his end by about half, or maybe even a little bit more.

“For a second, I thought about leaving construction, but that’s not me and who I am,” Smith said after his first six-figure payday ($150,000), and first signature victory, a first-round knockout of the heavily favored Andrzej Fonfara on June 18, 2016, in Fonfara’s hometown of Chicago, a bout that was nationally televised by NBC. “Boxing is such a crazy game that you could go months and months without a fight. How will I pay my bills? How will I get the things that I want and do things for my family? I wasn’t about to change everything, because working construction and doing all of the things I did got me here. Why change something that isn’t broken?”

Smith knows about things than can and do break, like jaws, which might explain his hesitancy to take a leap of faith and bet big on himself as a fighter who everyone agrees is pretty good, and maybe even a bit better than that, but not necessarily elite.

Riding high after his surprise knockout of Hopkins – which, in retrospect, might not have been quite the shocker it appeared to be at first glance – there was talk of Smith snagging a big-money title shot if he got past Sullivan Barrera, no easy task but certainly viewed as doable in light of the way he had pounded Hopkins out of the ring, where he was counted out in the eighth round by referee Jack Reiss. This was not the way Hopkins, who had vowed that the bout with Smith would be the finale of his 28-year pro career, win, lose or draw, had imagined his sendoff would end. He was, after all, a legendary fighter who knew what it was like to lose, but had never lost inside the distance.

Against Barrera, Smith started strongly, flooring the Cuban in the first round and nearly closing the deal with a follow-up barrage. But Barrera recovered quickly and went on to win a unanimous, 10-round decision whose immediate effect was to reduce Smith from flavor of the month to, again, another Average Joe. Shortly thereafter it was revealed that Smith suffered a broken jaw in the second round and would need to undergo surgery. It marked the second time Smith had had his jaw broken during a bout, the first a fourth-round KO loss to Eddie Caminero in 2010.

Since his momentum-blunting setback to Barrera, Smith has fought just once, a first-round blowout of 39-year-old journeyman Melvin Russell on June 30 of last year. That gimme victory probably should not have been enough to boost him into a matchup with Bivol, who is arguably the best light heavyweight in the world at this juncture, but Smith does have those signature wins over Fonfara and Hopkins. It also didn’t hurt that the unification matchup of Bivol and IBF 175-pound champion Artur Beterbiev (13-0, 13 KOs), which seemed to be a done deal in January, fell apart when Bivol signed a co-promotional deal with Matchroom Boxing that puts his fights on DAZN while Beterbiev cast his lot with Top Rank and ESPN. Since Bivol needed to fight somebody on March 9, Smith, an available pinch-hitter, was offered his dream shot.

“Joe’s been waiting for a while for a world title fight,” said Smith’s longtime promoter, Joe DeGuardia of Star Boxing, who has entered into a co-promotional arrangement with Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn to advance the self-professed common man’s ring career. “Joe has made the most of his opportunities. He did it against Fonfara, he did it against Bernard Hopkins. I’m looking forward to him doing it against Dmitry Bivol.”

Some have compared Smith to other working-class heroes such as the “Cinderella Man,” James J. Braddock, who went from being a longshoreman during the Great Depression to scoring one of boxing’s most memorable upsets when he outpointed heavyweight champion Max Baer in 1935, and “Irish” Micky Ward, he of the three unforgettable encounters with Arturo Gatti. The stories of both Braddock and Ward were turned into well-received movies, in keeping with Hollywood’s fascination with supposed nobodies who rise up and, when it counts, become somebodies. Who knows, maybe Smith, should he take down Bivol, will get a similar big-screen treatment somewhere down the line.

Then again, maybe not. There are those who insist that Smith got Fonfara out of there with a lucky punch, and that he did to Hopkins what no one else had ever done mostly because Joe was 27, young and strong, while B-Hop was 29 days shy of his 52nd birthday, had not fought in 25 months and chose Smith as his goodbye present to himself as an active fighter only because he didn’t think he was all that good to begin with.

“He thought I was nobody dangerous,” Smith said of how he believes he was perceived by Hopkins. “But we watched videos of him and we just knew that he had nothing for me. We saw he didn’t have much power or anything; he was just slick. We knew we just had to keep the pressure on him and eventually he would fold.”

In retrospect, Hopkins sort of agrees. He acknowledged pushing the envelope a bit too far, the result of being overly confident that he was somehow exempt from the ravages of the aging process.

“All credit to Joe Smith, he did what he had to do, but it was also Father Time helping him,” Hopkins told me of a fight he now realizes he was perhaps unwise to have taken. “If you stay in this game, and it’s a hard game, time will defeat you every time. I have no regrets about how my career went, but I stayed in the game too long. I admit it.”

So, does Hopkins, now an executive with Golden Boy, believe Smith is capable of reaching down into his trick bag and pulling out another shocker?

“Joe Smith is fighting a really tough guy, a young guy (Bivol is 28) who has a lot of skills and can really fight,” Hopkins said. “Although Joe is not on his level, he does have a really good punch. If you have that, you always have a puncher’s chance. I do expect Joe Smith to be at his best that night, but I really don’t see him winning that fight unless it’s by a knockout.”

This is where Joe Smith Jr.’s day job and night job tend to coalesce. In daylight hours, he might be a lunch-pail-carrying, hard-hat-wearing Everyman, but there are occasions when he’s asked to whack away at walls or whatever with a destructive tool of his trade. This Saturday night, at the Turning Stone, he will carry a sledgehammer of sorts in each fist, with which he will do his best to tear down the Kyrgyzstan-born, Russia-based Bivol, against whom he really should have little chance of adding to his list of unlikely victims.

But power is the great equalizer in boxing, capable of turning certain defeat into late victory in a way that football and basketball teams, trailing by insurmountable margins with just minutes remaining, can’t. Joe Smith Jr. has been written off before. He doesn’t listen to the doubters and the naysayers because, well, why should he?

And if things don’t go as he hopes they will, there’s always Local 66 to provide a safety net of sorts to someone who never has been reluctant to put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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Chris Arreola is Back!

Ted Sares

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Chris Arreola

Chris “The Nightmare” Arreola is an emotional and very likable guy. Over the course of his career, there have been ups and downs providing the grist for a compelling story if one were inclined to write it. He’ll kiss a beaten opponent (Joey Abell) or cry if beaten (Vitali Klitschko) and his language during a post-fight interview is, well it’s special.

After his corner stopped the fight following the 10th round with Klitschko, and with tears streaming down his cheeks, he thanked the fans (as is his wont) and later, while being interviewed in the ring, said  “F–k that, I’m coming back.”

It was his first loss after 26 straight wins out of the professional gate. For that “terrible” indiscretion, he was punished by the selectively politically correct World Boxing Council. WBC president José Sulaimán proposed a six months ban for vulgar language and the ban was approved by the WBC Board of Governors.

Arreola, who rarely uses filters, was brutally candid again after his first round KO over Erik Molina in 2012. The Nightmare cut loose on Don King, Molina’s promoter, calling him a “f—ing a–hole and a racist,” causing Showtime’s Jim Gray to  terminate the post-fight interview forthwith. “Honestly Don King called me a wetback, and other Mexicans,” Arreola told Fightnews.com. “That’s a strong word. It’s like me dropping N bombs. You don’t say things like that.”

No ban this time.

Arreola’s weight varies but when he is fit and ready (and under 250), he is a very dangerous heavyweight, especially in the early rounds. Once he has his opponent hurt, there are few boxers who can close as well as this Southern California Mexican American tough guy who was an accomplished amateur fighter and knows his way around the ring.

His level of opposition has been stiff. In fact, his five losses have been to fighters who have held world titles at one time or another. Bermane Stiverne had Chris’s number and beat him twice—the second time by way of a nasty knockout. However, he has a number of solid wins over the likes of Malcom Tann, Chazz Witherspoon, Travis Walker, Jameel McCline, Brian Minto, Curtis Harper –yes, that Curtis Harper who gave Chris all he could handle — and many others who came in with fine records. His first round blowout of once promising Seth Mitchell was quintessential Arreola. Mitchell retired after the fight.

In July 2016, The Nightmare was stopped by Deontay Wilder in yet another title bid but he did not disgrace himself. He then took off for over two years to assess whether he wanted to continue. Boxing fans pretty much forgot about him. Few took notice when he came back to stop the very stoppable Maurenzo Smith on the Wilder-Fury undercard on Dec. 1 of last year.

Fast Forward

Last weekend, on the undercard of the huge Errol Spence Jr. vs. Mikey Garcia PPV fight in Dallas, “The Nightmare” was matched against unbeaten but unheralded Jean Pierre Augustin (17-0-1).

Chris, now 38, came in at a svelte 237 pounds and looked fit and ready to go. The weary look on Augustin’s face during the announcement said it all. True to form, Arreola was in blowout mode and stopped the Haitian who simply was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Arreola wobbled Augustin with a brutally hard jab that connected flush to his face in the third round. After more heavy shots, a bloodied Augustin went down and upon getting up, was battered until the referee halted matters. Chris closed things like he had done on so many other occasions and in front of millions of fans tuning in around the world.

With a female interviewer, the elated “Nightmare” was polite during the post-fight ceremonies and, holding his daughter, signaled that he is BACK! That’s good news for boxing fans because when Chris Arreola is fit and focused, he is entertaining and very competitive.

With a current record of 38-5-1 with 2 ND (the “no-contests” resulting from Chris‘s apparent affinity for non-medicinal marijuana), a fight with someone like Adam Kownacki would be a boxing fan’s dream.

Ted Sares is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and Strongman competitors and plans to compete in at least three events in 2019. He is a lifetime member of Ring 10, and a member of Ring 4 and its Boxing Hall of Fame. He also is an Auxiliary Member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA).

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Nobody Wants to Fight Dillian Whyte

Kelsey McCarson

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Dillian Whyte

Dillian Whyte is one of the most dangerous fighters in the world. The 30-year-old is a former British heavyweight titleholder, a former kickboxing prodigy and an undefeated mixed martial artist. Overall, Whyte’s professional fighting record is a sterling 46-2. He’s 25-1 as a boxer, 20-1 as a K1 kickboxer and 1-0 as an MMA fighter.

So while the battle rages on between various television networks and streaming platforms over securing the top talent in the heavyweight division, one that includes Tyson Fury signing a multi-fight deal with ESPN and Deontay Wilder reportedly mulling over his future with PBC, perhaps something just as important right now is that the single most dangerous and deserved heavyweight contender in the world remains without a dance partner for his next fight.

Never mind Whyte being the No. 1 ranked contender by the World Boxing Council. That sanctioning body instead deemed Dominic Breazeale the mandatory challenger to Wilder’s WBC title after the potential rematch between Wilder and Fury fell by the wayside.

Here’s all that needs to be said about that grift. Breazeale only had to defeat Eric Molina to get his mandatory title shot while the WBC wanted Whyte to face Cuban southpaw Luis Ortiz, one of the top heavyweights in the sport.

And nobody seems to care that Whyte gave unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua the toughest test of his career (this side of Wladimir Klitschko anyway), when the two squared off in 2015 for the British and Commonwealth titles. Despite the obvious talent gap between the two fighters, Whyte gave the young Joshua just about all the former Olympic champion could handle in a seven-round war.

To hear Whyte tell the story, promoter Eddie Hearn must have intentionally lowballed Whyte for the proposed 2019 rematch in order to ensure Joshua could invade America on June 1 against the likely less dangerous Jarrell Miller. That makes sense for Joshua from a monetary perspective, but it doesn’t do the same in terms of true competitiveness.

According to various reports, Whyte is currently considering a multi-fight deal to appear on ESPN, a move that would give the British battler a path to facing Fury who some consider the lineal heavyweight champion. Fury recently signed a multi-fight deal to be co-promoted by Bob Arum for appearances on the U.S.-based television network ESPN. It’s the move that shelved a potential Wilder rematch and also opened up a huge can of worms in regards to what kinds of fights Fury might actually be able to secure. Currently, the Top Rank-promoted stable of heavyweights is best characterized by fighters who don’t really move the needle in regards to title challenges, fighters like Oscar Rivas, Bryant Jennings and Kubrat Pulev.

Overall, though, the main problem about the heavyweight landscape is that there are three heavyweights who all have a claim to being heavyweight champion. IBF, WBA and WBO champion Joshua is promoted by Hearn and exclusive to DAZN. WBC champ Wilder is attached to the PBC whose television partnerships include Showtime and Fox. Fury is set to embark on his own ESPN crusade. Long story short, these guys probably aren’t fighting each other anytime soon.

Worse is that while all three men are in desperate need of viable opponents, none have seemed all that interested in tussling with Whyte.

It’s no wonder. As good as Whyte has been over the course of his 7-year professional boxing career, the scariest thing about the fighter is that he always seems to be getting better. In his last two fights, Whyte outfought talented former titleholder Joseph Parker and knocked out gritty UK heavyweight Dereck Chisora. In defeating Parker, Whyte was facing someone absolutely in need of a win to maintain his status among heavyweight contenders. In beating Chisora, Whyte was in tough against an opponent he had only defeated by split-decision two years prior. Both wins illustrate just how far Whyte has come as a professional prizefighter.

As it stands, Whyte is the clear top contender among all heavyweights, especially among those who have not yet been granted a shot at a world title. He’s ranked No. 4 behind Joshua, Fury and Wilder by The Ring magazine and the same by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.

The only question that remains is which title claimant will prove the toughest holdout. Whyte’s ultimate choice, in whether to stick with promoter Hearn on DAZN, link up with Arum and ESPN or continue playing the WBC shell game, will probably end up being tied to which path gets him the title shot that he so desperately craves first.

And it absolutely should happen. It’s one thing to crave title opportunities and another to have earned them. Whyte’s done both now, and it’s time for boxing fans and the media to take notice. Better yet, it’s time for Joshua, Fury and Wilder to pit themselves against their most dangerous competition. Since they’re not facing each other, Whyte become the next logical choice for any or all of them.

Because Dillian Whyte is one of the best heavyweight boxers in the world, and he’s done enough by now to warrant the chance to prove it.

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The Hauser Report: St. Patrick’s Day at Madison Square Garden

Thomas Hauser

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Conlan

Boxing’s three “major leagues” showed their respective wares this past weekend. On Friday night, DAZN presented a nine-bout card in conjunction with Matchroom USA. On Saturday, Fox and Premier Boxing champions teamed up for the Errol Spence vs. Mikey Garcia pay-per-view event. Then, on Sunday, ESPN and Top Rank had their turn in the form of a St. Patrick’s Day card at Madison Square Garden headed by Belfast native and former Olympian Michael Conlan.

The star of the show was St. Patrick, the fifth-century saint widely credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. In his honor, there were three Irishmen on the card: Conlan, flyweight Paddy Barnes, and welterweight Lee Reeves. That said; there was a Hispanic flavor to the proceedings. The sixteen combatants included Eduardo Torres, Victor Rosas, Juan Tapia, Ricardo Maldonado, Adriano Ramirez, Oscar Mojica, Joseph Adorno, John Bauza, Luis Collazo, Ruben Garcia Hernandez, and two Vargases (Josue and Samuel).

Irish-Americans have a record of supporting Irish fighters, particularly on St. Patrick’s Day. This was no exception. The announced crowd of 3,712 arrived early. During the final pre-fight press conference, Top Rank president Todd duBoef had paid homage to the fans, although he did voice the view that, on St. Patrick’s Day, “Their cognitive behavior is manipulated by the beer.”

On fight night, the in-arena music was chosen accordingly. What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor? was played twice over the Hulu Theater sound system.

There was also green lighting.

Lee Reeves (2-0, 2 KOs) of Limerick, Ireland, opened the show with a four-round decision over Edward Torres.

In the third bout of the evening, Vladimir Nikitin (2-0, 0 KOs) won a majority decision over Juan Tapia. Nikitin defeated Conlan in the quarter-finals at the 2016 Olympics. Presumably, they’ll fight again at a time of maximum opportunity for Conlan.

Flyweight Paddy Barnes (5-1, 1 KO) of Belfast was a teammate of Conlan’s at the 2016 Olympics but lost in the first round to Spain’s Samuel Carmona. On St. Patrick’s Day, Barnes was matched against Oscar Mojica (11-5-1), who had one career knockout and had gone 3-5-1 in his previous nine outings.

Mojica broke Barnes’s nose in round one and knocked him down with a body shot in the second stanza (although to the mystification of those in the press section, referee Danny Schiavone waved off the knockdown). It was a spirited outing in which both men were too easy to hit for their own good. Barnes rallied nicely in the second half of the bout and arguably did enough to win the decision. But two of the three judges thought otherwise, leading to a 58-56, 58-56, 56-58 verdict in Mojica’s favor.

In the next-to-last fight of the evening, Luis Collazo (38-7, 20 KOs) took on Samuel Vargas (30-4-2, 14 KOs).

Collazo now 37 years old, reigned briefly as WBA welterweight champion twelve years ago. Since then, he had cobbled together twelve victories (an average of one per year) against six losses in eighteen fights. Vargas had one win in his previous three outings and has never been able to get the “W” against a name opponent.

It was a phone booth fight, which worked to Collazo’s advantage because Luis’s legs aren’t what they once were. The decision could have gone either way. Two judges scored the bout 96-94; one for Collazo and the other for Vargas. Frank Lombardi turned in a wide-of-the-mark 98-92 scorecard in Collazo’s favor.

Then it was time for the main event.

Conlan (10-0, 6 KOs) is best known to boxing fans for having given the finger (two middle fingers, actually) to the judges after coming out on the short end of a decision in the second round of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. His skill set is better suited to the amateur than professional ranks. But his Irish heritage is a significant marketing plus. And Top Rank specializes in both savvy matchmaking and building narratives.

This was the third consecutive year that Conlan, now a featherweight, celebrated St. Patrick’s Day weekend by fighting at Madison Square Garden. His ringwalk was marked by Irish-themed pageantry. And Ruben Garcia Hernandez, his opponent, was tailor-made for him.

Conlon controlled the fight with his jab. Nothing much else happened. “Mick” emerged victorious 100-90 on all three judges’ scorecards. And the fans went home happy because their man won.

*     *     *

The sad news that New York Mets pitching great Tom Seaver is suffering from dementia and will retire from public life is a reminder that all people from all walks of life are susceptible to the condition, not just fighters.

Seaver was on the list of A+ athletes who rose to prominence in the 1960s when advances in television were redefining the sports experience. Muhammad Ali was at the top of that list. Years ago, sportswriter Dick Schaap told me about an evening he spent with Ali and Seaver.

“In 1969, the year the Mets won their first World Series,”Schaap reminisced, “I spent the last few days of the regular season with the team in Chicago. Ali was living there at the time. I was writing a book with Tom Seaver, and the three of us went out to dinner together. We met at a restaurant called The Red Carpet. I made the introductions. And of course, this was the year that Tom Seaver was Mr. Baseball, maybe even Mr. America. Ali and Tom got along fine. They really hit it off together. And after about half an hour, Ali in all seriousness turned to Seaver and said, ‘You know, you’re a nice fellow. Which paper do you write for?’”

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Protect Yourself at All Times – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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