Sports

Working-class Joe Smith Jr. lands historic opportunity with Bernard Hopkins’ final fight

Joe Smith Jr.
Joe Smith Jr. defeated Andrzej Fonfara by first-round technical knockout in June.
(NBC / Premier Boxing Champions / YouTube)

In the middle of his latest job for New York Union Local 66, Long Island’s Joe Smith Jr. received a phone call saying he’d been finalized to compete against Bernard Hopkins in the former middleweight champion’s farewell fight Dec. 17 at the Forum.

“I gotta go,” Smith told his co-workers at the job site, leaving for home to change clothes and run six miles to start the conditioning process and perhaps leave the backbreaking work behind for good.

“I think about that every time I get in the ring. If I lose this fight, I have to go back to shoveling dirt, or jackhammering, or the sledgehammer.”

Instead of that, the 27-year-old Smith (22-1, 18 knockouts) made his first trip to California on Monday, appearing at a news conference to formally announce the bout at the Forum.

As his 52nd birthday on Jan. 15 nears, Hopkins (55-7-2, 32 KOs) said he wanted to leave boxing with a challenging bout against someone like Smith, the No. 2 ranked World Boxing Council contender and a younger, self-made man near his prime who is coming off a stunning first-round technical knockout of Andrzej Fonfara, which was televised on NBC. Fonfara fought Smith after defeating Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Nathan Cleverly.

“[Fonfara] took me a little lightly, underestimated me,” Smith said. “I know [Hopkins is] expecting me to run straight in at him, but we’re working on moving, slipping. I’m going to fight my fight, not his.”

Smith is so young he doesn’t recall Hopkins’ epic victories over Felix Trinidad or Kelly Pavlik. He took comfort in how three-belt light-heavyweight power puncher Sergey Kovalev beat Hopkins in 2015 and predicted a similar type of strategy and outcome.

He called landing a shot at Hopkins “the best news I ever heard. He’s a legend, an old-time fighter who’s still around, and I’m happy he chose me to show him the way out.”

Victory would propel Smith closer to a title shot at WBC champion Adonis Stevenson and to better position to seek the Nov. 19 Kovalev-Andre Ward winner.

More importantly, he said, it improves his dream to move out of his girlfriend’s parents’ downstairs apartment and buy his own home.

“Whenever I get on a [demolition] job, I think, ‘What am I doing here?’ I’m a professional fighter now,” Smith said. “Hopefully after the next [fight], I won’t have to go back.”