By Daniel Gilfillan
The unified world Light Heavyweight world title is at stake this Saturday, as the undefeated holder of the WBC and IBF belts Artur Beterbiev (17-0, 17KOs) takes on WBO champion Joe Smith Jr (28-3, 22KOs) at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theatre in New York.
In spite of WBA world champion Dmitri Bivol’s odds defying win against pound-for-pound star Canelo Alvarez in May, whether or not the Russian is the best 175lber on the planet is still a topic of considerable debate. Bivol’s countryman, Artur Beterbiev, boasts a claim to the top spot in the division that is difficult to refute.
Beterbiev has looked a punishing and clinical fighter on his journey to two world title belts. Widely accepted has one of the hardest hitters in boxing, the combination of power and technical proficiency Beterbiev possesses has led to him looking, at times, unstoppable. No fighter Beterbiev has locked horns with has managed to hear the final bell, including top class Light Heavyweights Oleksandr Gvozdyk and, most recently, Marcus Browne.
Beterbiev’s remarkable amateur pedigree means he has thus far not been susceptible to some the pitfalls that have been the undoing of other knockout artists. With a record of 96-10 in the unpaid ranks, Beterbiev’s quick ascension to the peak of the professional was of no surprise. He was fast tracked to a world title shot in just his 12th fight, scoring a final round KO win over Enirco Koelling for the vacant IBF championship. After three defences, Beterbiev became a unified champion, adding Adam Deines’ WBC belt to his bow. What followed was the 37-year-old’s most recent outing, a 9th round stoppage win over Marcus Browne in which Beterbiev looked as strong and as brutal as ever.
His opponent Joe Smith Jr is undoubtedly facing a stiff task. After falling short against Dmitri Bivol in his first attempt at world honours, Smith picked up the vacant WBO world title, beating Maxim Vlasov on points. The New York native also boasts wins over former unified champion Eleider Alvarez and testing contender Jesse Hart.
Smith has three losses on his record. He lost to Sullivan Barerra two fights prior to the Bivol defeat, as well as tasting defeat in the early stages of his professional career. Despite this, he still has perhaps the strongest resume of any opponent Beterbiev has faced to date and is not without hope in the contest. Beterbiev has, on occasion, shown vulnerabilities – he was dropped by Britian’s Callum Johnson in the early stages of their fight in 2018. Smith will be more than confident his power matches up to that of Johnson, with many pundits holding the belief that he is bested in the division only by Beterbiev in this department. The Russian’s incessant front foot pressure will make him a much more hittable target than those who have defeated Smith prior, and should present opportunities for the New Yorker to land.
On recent form, however, one suspects Smith would be reliant on the former Olympian having lost a slight step. Although Beterbiev has touched the canvass and been tagged heavily in the past, ultimately no fighter has been able to survive his constant onslaught. A 1/12 favourite with bookmakers, it would be a considerable turnover if Beterbiev was not to emerge with the three belts this weekend. In the same breath, Joe Smith Jr has both the style and power to ask tough questions of King Artur and could flip the script if Beterbiev is in anyway on the decline
With the status of #1 in the division on the line, as well as a potential undisputed fight with Dmitri Bivol, Saturday night couldn’t be of greater importance to either man. Couple this with the front foot, knockout hunting approach adopted by both fighters – the fight seems a certainty to deliver.