There’s yet another big title unification boxing match this weekend, and it’s in the light heavyweight division.
At Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater, WBC and IBF champion Artur Beterbiev (17-0, 17 KOs) takes on WBO champion and New York native Joe Smith Jr (28-3, 22 KOs) in a battle of two knockout artists. The winner would be one belt shy of undisputed status, with Dmitry Bivol still in possession of the WBA title after his impressive win over Canelo Alvarez.
There’s not much more to say when you have two aggressive power-punchers pitted against each other. This will be fun, but will it be competitive? Let’s do a deep dive into how we got here.
Tale of the Tape
Beterbiev: 37 years old | 6’0” | 73” reach
Smith Jr: 32 years old | 6’0” | 76” reach
Beterbiev fought at both light heavyweight and heavyweight as an amateur star. To give you an idea of how legit he was, he beat Sergey Kovalev in the 2007 European Championships semifinals. In both the World Championships and the 2012 Olympics he had close fights but ultimately losses to current unified heavyweight champ Oleksandr Usyk. He won a world gold medal in 2009 and two at a European level in 2006 and 2010. The Russian eventually moved to Montreal — he’s since become good friends with Georges St-Pierre — and embarked on his professional career. Unlike many other pros, Beterbiev didn’t waste a lot of time with build-up fights. By his sixth pro bout he’d demolished former champion Tavoris Cloud, and he captured the vacant IBF title in just his 12th fight against Enrico Koelling.
Beterbiev did have a scare when he hit the canvas against Callum Johnson, but he scored a knockout win in just four rounds for his first title defense. He outdueled and sent Oleksandr Gvozdyk into retirement with a 10th round stoppage in their WBC-IBF unification, and over the past two bouts Beterbiev has put away Adam Deines and Marcus Browne. Unfortunately, promotional issues and injuries have played a major role in his lack of a consistently active schedule.
Smith Jr was for the most part a club-level fighter whose only notable win was a faded Otis Griffin in 2014. Two years later he was called up for an NBC primetime main event spot against former title challenger Andrzej Fonfara, who was a huge favorite to win in what was a partisan crowd for the Polish fighter in Chicago. Instead of an easy win, Fonfara was blasted out in a round in a stunning upset. That monumental victory was soon followed by sending Bernard Hopkins into retirement by knocking the 51-year-old out of the ring. His momentum was halted after dropping a decision to Sullivan Barrera, but two fights later he challenged Dmitry Bivol and while he lost a wide decision to the Russian, he did shake him up with a big right hand.
Since the Bivol loss, Smith was won four in a row, including a massive KO of former champ Eleider Alvarez, a somewhat controversial but grueling decision over Maxim Vlasov to win the vacant WBO belt, and then a TKO over short notice replacement Steve Geffrard after Callum Johnson was yanked with a positive COVID-19 test.
Odds and Prediction
This is an easy one to pick and at the same time is not. Beterbiev is the better boxer with a much wider variety of offensive tools than Smith, whose money punch is that right hand. Smith has a reach advantage and does a lot of his best work at distance, but in close quarters Beterbiev is an absolute mauler with punishing body shots and a consistent ability to leverage hard shots on the inside. I’m not sure Smith will be able to cope with Beterbiev’s pressure and if he loads up for the knockout shot he could find himself eating counters and looking silly. It’s hard to ignore how rough that Vlasov fight looked for Smith and how Beterbiev is so much better at drawing his opponents into his sort of fight.
DraftKings Sportsbook has Beterbiev as a hefty -750 favorite to Smith’s +500 underdog tag. No doubt Beterbiev should be a considerable favorite... but with Smith’s power and Beterbiev not exactly being a tremendous defensive boxer you might be intrigued by that Smith line. Currently it’s -400 to end inside the distance, which is not surprising. Beterbiev is gonna showcase his power and overall boxing skill yet again.
Pick: Artur Beterbiev by TKO, Round 10.
What’s on the undercard?
There’s only one undercard fight on the main card but it’s a really good one. Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez (9-1, 5 KOs) takes on Puerto Rican-born Abraham Nova (21-0, 15 KOs) in an intriguing featherweight matchup. Ramirez is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and (obviously) had a phenomenal amateur record, but he had a disastrous pro debut and lost by split decision to Adan Gonzales in 2019. He’s won nine straight since then including avenging the Gonzales defeat, as well as a decision over the previously unbeaten Orlando Gonzalez and a TKO of Eric Donovan in Glasgow this past February.
Nova is another one with a good amateur background (albeit without the accolades of Ramirez) who’s worked his way up the ranks. Nova has notably beaten Avery Sparrow and William Encarnación in recent years. Ramirez is the rightful favorite given his terrific overall boxing skill, but Nova might be a live dog here. Winner isn’t really poised for a title shot next but they’d be in with a shout over the next year.
The live streamed prelims will feature a lot of prospects, including Bruce Carrington, Troy Isley, Jahi Tucker, and Floyd Diaz. There’s usually a lot of fun action there and it helps separate A-grade prospects from everyone else.
Beterbiev vs. Smith Jr airs live on ESPN and ESPN+ at 10 PM ET/7 PM PT, with prelims on ESPN+ at 6:30 PM ET/3:30 PM PT. We will have play by play coverage of the main event.