Joe Smith Jr is determined not to waste his shot at a world title when he takes on Maxim Vlasov for the vacant WBO World Light Heavyweight title and is confident he is has learned from previous fights.
The Irish-American will square up to his Russian opponent at the MGM Grand on Saturday night with the winner set to take the WBO World Light Heavyweight title, which was vacated by Canelo Alvarez.
Having defeated Eleider Alverez in his last fight in August, Smith will be confident when he steps into the ring in Las Vegas and he is no stranger to the limelight after a sensational win over Bernard Hopkins in 2016.
The 31-year-old punched Hopkins, the former middleweight and light heavyweight champion, with such force that he fell through the ropes and onto the floor before he was counted out for the first time in his 28-year career.
"It was amazing, I was hoping for that to happen. I didn't want to just win a decision over him, I wanted to do something special so I feel achieved that. It is something that is going to be remembered forever just because of who he was," Smith told eir sport in an exclusive interview ahead of Saturday's fight, which is live on the channel.
The fight was in danger of being declared a no-contest when Hopkins tried to claim injury, but Smith was eventually declared the winner, much to his relief.
"I began to get a little nervous after because it took quite a few minutes before they announced that I won due to TKO, or whatever they wanted to call it," Smith explained. "I was nervous that I was going to be disqualified or that it was going to be no contest but it worked out perfect.
"It definitely boosted my career. When I got home everyone had watched that fight, they were all shocked on how I ended the fight. Now everywhere I go people recognise me as the guy who knocked out Hopkins. It's pretty cool.
"I had a lot of people winning a lot of money on me too.
Prior to his win over Hopkins, Smith caused another shock when he stopped Andrezj Fonfara in his hometown of Chicago.
"That was an amazing crowd, that place was sold out. There were a lot of people there, a lot of polish fans and I was getting a lot of boos on the way in but on the way out they were all cheering. Despite the fact that I knocked out one of their guys they were respectful, they gave me the credit," he reflected.
His first shot at a world title ended in disappointed when he lost to Dmitry Bivol by a wide margin in March 2019 but he feels he has learned from that experience and is a better fighter going into Saturday's bout.
"After that experience, I learned that I needed to sharpen up on a few things, work on a little bit more movement, being a little more active and busy rather than looking for one big punch and I feel with my last two fights you can see that I improved on it a lot and I look forward to keep improving and get another shot at unifying belts after I win this one," he said.
The threat of COVID-19 means Smith has had to bubble with a select few training partners but he is pleased with how his preparations have gone.
"It's something that most fighters are used to, when we are training it is just you and your team sparring," he said.
"It's a little different not having your fans there, hearing them cheering for you, but in my head I just remember that they are at home watching and that gets me motivated. I want to put on a good show for them.
"This camp has been different because I've had to avoid people, it's been pretty much been me and my fiancée and my trainers and a very few sparring partners because I am just trying to stay safe to make sure I make it to the fight without being sick.
"Luckily I was able to get the right sparring that I needed, I would like to have had a few taller sparring partners but I had great sparring, I got in a lot of rounds, I actually got in ten rounds yesterday and I felt great. Now I am just working on a lot of cardio and just sharpen up my boxing and just relax and get mentally ready and prepared."
Vlasov, meanwhile, has won all three of his bouts since losing to Krzysztof Glowacki in November 2018 and Smith knows he will have to be at his best against the former cruiserweight.
"I know he is a very busy fighter, he throws a lot of punches and he is aggressive so he is always in your face. I am just prepared to go the distance at a very busy pace," he said of his opponent.
"It's possible (to go the distance) because he has never been stopped, he fought some big guys at cruiser weight as well. I think he has been hurt before but we just have to wait and see what happens.
"You never know, I got the power where I can hurt anybody with a single shot so hopefully that happens and I get him out of there early. But if not I am prepared to go the distance.
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