Joe Smith Jr. defended his title with a hard hitting performance against late replacement opponent Steve Geffrard. Floridian Geffrard stepped in on eight days’ notice for his first career world title shot following the withdrawal of originally scheduled opponent Callum Johnson due to a positive COVID test.
IN THE BLUE CORNER – JOE SMITH JR.
Having previously rose to fame with an upset win over aging legend Bernard Hopkins, world champion Smith won the vacant WBO title courtesy of a close majority decision victory over Russian veteran Maxim Vlasov in Tulsa. It was a case of second time lucky for Smith who had previously failed in a world title bid, losing a unanimous decision to currently reigning WBA champion Dmitry Bivol.
Smith had been made to wait for this fight, with a scheduled October defense against Umar Salamov fell through when Smith himself contracted COVID, before this late substitution of Geffrard for Johnson.
IN THE RED CORNER – STEVE GEFFRARD
An amateur sensation, Geffrard won the ‘triple crown’ in 2010 as he captured the Police Athletic League, the US national amateur heavyweight and the US Golden Gloves heavyweight titles.
Despite his decorated amateur pedigree, the professional career of Geffrard got off to a disappointing start with back to back defeats against Kentrell Claiborne (2-6) and Travis Reeves (0-1-1) in his first two fights.
Geffrard recovered to reel off 18 straight victories including a unanimous decision over Denis Grachev (20-11-1) last time out. Now, on just over one week’s notice, Geffrard stood on the brink of a life changing opportunity against world champion Smith.
Defending champion Smith started aggressively, backing Geffrard onto the ropes with a jab before unloading with heavy hooks as the challenger went into a defensive shell. Smith continued to attack and fired out jabs before landing a right hand to the body and backing Geffrard into the corner to continue the early assault.
Geffrard finally returned fire over a minute into the fight, popping out jabs to keep Smith honest and moving around the ring cautiously with his guard high. Undeterred, Smith continued to press forward and swing hooks in an impressive opening round for the champion.
Round two opened with Geffrard firing out the jab before Smith backed the challenger onto the ropes and released an offensive flurry. Geffrard fought his way off the ropes and the pair traded blows in the middle of the ring with Smith throwing the heavier shots.
Smith found himself on the ropes in the second half of the round but good head movement prevented the challenger from pinning him down. Geffrard continued to connect with the jab but was unable to prevent Smith from closing the distance and swinging hooks with intent.
Despite two difficult rounds to open the fight, trainer Kevin Cunningham advised Geffrard that Smith was leaving himself open to the counter as he threw “looping right hands and a wide hook,” encouraging his man to fight behind the jab in the center of the ring.
Champion Smith remained on the front foot in round three, firing out a piston like jab and walking Geffrard down before finding the target with four straight right hands. Geffrard showed good hand speed when he did open up offensively, but Smith showed little regard for the challenger’s power and continued to close the space while swinging heavy blows.
At the end of the round, a confident Smith smiled into the ESPN camera at ringside before sitting to receive instructions from trainer Jerry Capobianco.
Geffrard threw out a flurry of punches to open round four and maintained a high work rate throughout the period, while Smith continued to look for heavy shots to the body.
In the final minute of the round, Smith rocked the skull of Geffrard with a barrage of left and right hooks. Geffrard spread his arms and postured to show Smith he was not hurt, but the flurry saw the champion bank yet another 10-9 round and grow what was likely becoming a significant lead on the scorecards.
Statistics displayed by ESPN after round four told the story of Smith having the upper hand, with the defending champion having landed 102 of 332 total punches so far in the fight, while Geffrard had connected with 49 of 243.
The high guard of Geffrard absorbed most of Smith’s blows in the opening minute of round five, with the champion dangling an arm out wide as a distraction before firing a right hand that was blocked yet again by the challenger.
A left hook by Smith was blocked before the champion connected with two hooks to the body and then landed more counters to the body when Geffrard opened up offensively. As he continued to target the ribs of Geffrard, Smith received a verbal warning from referee Mark Nelson for a low blow.
Smith fired out a double jab before reaching a hook around the guard of Geffrard and rocking the challenger with a straight right hand. The round ended with Geffrard on the ropes taking punishment as Smith split the Floridian’s guard with an uppercut and threw hooks in abundance.
The champion walked down Geffrard to open round six, firing out stiff jabs and throwing left hooks before the fighters ended up in a rare clinch and were separated by referee Nelson for the first time in the contest so far.
Geffrard continued to throw punches but was unable to generate enough power to back off Smith, with the champion consistently stalking forward to throw heavy blows. In the final stages of the round, the fight was paused by referee Nelson and Smith received a second warning for a low blow.
The pace of the fight slowed in round seven, with Geffrard backing up and firing out jabs as Smith adopted the familiar pattern of walking down his opponent. In the final minute of the round, Smith landed a flush right hand to the jaw.
Geffrard was backed against the ropes receiving hooks and uppercuts as Smith banked another round on the scorecards, leaving the challenger in need of an unlikely knockout to take the belt.
Smith remained the aggressor in round eight though the high defensive shell of Geffrard absorbed most punches, in return the challenger let his hands go with a couple of offensive flurries during the period.
Late in the round with Geffrard backed up against the ropes once more, Smith received another warning from referee Martin, this time for use of the elbow. When the fight resumed, Smith landed a vicious uppercut and ended the round in the ascendance in what was becoming a dominant performance.
Smith walked out with purpose for round nine, throwing a heavy hook and immediately backing Geffrard onto the ropes and swinging away with malice. The champion backed Geffrard into a corner and threw shots through the guard of the tiring challenger before Geffrard sank to a knee, prompting trainer Cunningham to wave off the fight and bring down the curtain on an impressive title defense from Smith.
WHAT THEY SAID
Smith praised the durability of his opponent after the fight, telling ESPN that “he’s a great boxer, a good survivor. I was trying to get him out of there early, but I realized he was very tough and I wasn’t going to be able to do that. I tried to wait until the later rounds and started throwing more combinations to pick him apart.”
WHAT NEXT FOR THE WINNER
Smith is the number three ranked light heavyweight by Ring Magazine, with a pair of undefeated Russian world title holders ranked above him. A rematch with undefeated WBA titlist Bivol is one possibility, but Smith expressed interest in facing the man widely regarded as the divisional kingpin as he directly called out WBC and IBF world champion Artur Beterbiev.
Like many other fighters, Smith also threw his hat into the ring for the biggest money fight in world boxing. “If Canelo wants to come to 175 and fight me, I’m ready for him. That’s the fight I want, everybody would love to see that fight. It would be a big deal.”
WHAT NEXT FOR THE LOSER
It appeared Geffrard had bitten off a little more he could chew with this level of opponent at short notice but at the age of 31, the Florida based fighter must move quickly if he has aspirations of establishing himself at the top end of the division.
A tough match against Marcus Browne (Ring number 7), who is coming off a defeat to Beterbiev may be a potential next step if Geffrard has aspirations of rising into the top 10 of the light heavyweight division.
Author’s Scorecard (round by round)