Joe Smith Jr. has made a career off being an underdog.
The WBO light heavyweight champion squares off with IBF and WBC title holder Artur Beterbiev Saturday night at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden (10 p.m., ESPN). All three belts will be on the line in the title unification bout, leaving the winner in possession of three of the four recognized belts.
Once again, Smith Jr. (31-3) will be a heavy underdog at +500 odds against Beterbiev, who at 17-0 with 17 KO’s owns boxing’s only 100 percent knockout rate and is on the cusp of the sport’s pound-for-pound lists. Just like Smith Jr. was against Bernard Hopkins, when he made a name for himself by knocking the former champion and Hall of Famer out of the ring (the only time Hopkins was KO’d in his 67-fight career) to defend his WBC title. Just like he was against Andrzej Fonfara, when his shocking TKO victory earned him his first world title and was viewed by many as boxing’s upset of the year.
“In a sense, I’m kind of used to it now,” Smith Jr. told The Post. “In this fight, I am [the underdog]. I’m fighting one of the best fighters in the world, he has a huge amateur background, he’s undefeated with all knockouts, so I could see them putting me as the underdog. But, fight night I’m going to finish up on top, so I’ll be looking forward to it.”
Smith Jr. doesn’t care what the odds or predictions say. He’s been beating the odds his whole life.
Nicknamed the “Common Man,” Smith Jr. had to get here in an uncommon way.
A native of Long Island who still resides there, Smith Jr. is a member of Laborers Local 66, a general building union on the island. The 32-year-old has been laboring to make ends meet since he graduated from William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach, taking on the day job in between fights and training sessions.
He’s developed his heavy-handedness and devastating punching power through his physical construction work, which includes a little bit of everything – wielding sledgehammers and chainsaws, doing road work, building houses, etc. As a young worker, Smith Jr. helped build Hofstra University dorms as well as a railroad station in Long Island City.
In 2017, Smith Jr. and his father established Team Smith Tree Service, a responsibility he will return to after his bout with Beterbiev, regardless of the outcome. Just like he did after the Hopkins and Fonfara fights that brought him to this moment.
“I know what it’s like to work hard every day,” Smith Jr. said. “Whether it’s working on a job site or in the boxing gym, or any gym. I also know what it’s like to come up with not having much. I turned everything around for myself, and I’ve become something, and that’s it. I’m proud of everything I’ve done.
“I always think, each fight can be my last. I don’t want to ever go back to where I started, so I put that in my head, and I give it 110 percent when I’m in there. This way I know I’m moving forward, not backwards.”
Smith Jr.’s humble origins have made him a hero among blue-collar fans, fighting for a group of people he closely represents. His story has drawn comparisons to James Braddock’s, who inspired the hit-movie “Cinderella Man” with his journey from Great Depression laborer to heavyweight champion of the world.
As he takes on the biggest challenge of his career, Smith Jr. will have his hometown supporters right by his side.
“Fighting at The Garden, and unifying world championship belts, is going to be awesome. Couldn’t ask for a better place to do it,” Smith Jr. said. “It’s a historic place, it’s going to be amazing fighting there. I watch all different sports there all the time, I’m just looking forward to being one of those professional athletes that puts on a great show there.”
With a win, all roads would point to a rematch with Dmitry Bivol, who recently defeated Canelo Alvarez to retain his WBA light heavyweight belt, for the undisputed world title. Smith Jr. believes Beterbiev, and his electric knockout prowess, is the boogeyman to beat in the division first and is not looking past him, but relishes the opportunity he knows would be awaiting him if he pulls off the upset.
After losing via unanimous decision to Bivol in 2019, Smith Jr. promises he’s a whole new fighter these days and would better-handle the champion with the experience he has gained since then.
Smith Jr. has everything he always has wanted right in front of him. A career built off being an underdog, Smith Jr. is on the cusp of boxing superiority.
“I’m just here to show that I’m not afraid to fight anybody,” Smith Jr. said. “I want the fights that are going to bring the crowds, bring the people, entertain people. I want to put on a good show all the time.
“I’ve still got to prove it, I don’t know I’ve really proved everything that I feel I need to. I’m a world champion, I’ve beaten previous world champions. I’ve beaten the best guys in the division. And there’s only two guys left for me to face, really. But I feel like as far as competition wise, and everything, I’ve fought more competition than anyone in the division. I feel like I’ve proved everything that I need to. But I want to prove that now I feel that I am becoming the best fighter in the division, so I want to prove that.”