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LI's Joe Smith Jr.'s WBO light heavyweight title postponed as Maxim Vlasov tests positive for COVID-19

Joe Smith Jr. after punching Bernard Hopkins out

Joe Smith Jr. after punching Bernard Hopkins out of the ring for a ninth-round TKO to win the WBC International Light Heavyweight title on Dec. 17, 2016. Credit: Getty Images/Harry How

Preparing to fight for a world title is a stressful endeavor under any circumstance. Doing it in a global pandemic provides a new set of challenges. A simple sparring session, vital to a boxer's preparation, suddenly can become a vehicle to transmit COVID-19.

For the last month, Joe Smith Jr. navigated a handful of Long Island boxing gyms and worked with only a few sparring partners he felt he could trust. He was hoping all the hard work -- and precautions -- would pay off on Saturday when he was scheduled to fight Maxim Vlasov for the vacant WBO light heavyweight title in the Top Rank "Bubble" in Las Vegas on ESPN.

"The training part was a little scary because you don’t really want to be around a bunch of guys in a gym, you have to police it as best you can," Smith smith. "You really don’t know where they’ve been or who they've been around or if they are taking everything as seriously as you are."

But that fight was postponed late Thursday afternoon when Top Rank announced that Vlasov (45-3, 26 KOs) had tested positive for COVID-19.

"I am devastated with the postponement of my world title fight against Joe Smith Jr.," Vlasov said in a statement from Top Rank. "I have been following strict protocols, I have done regular testing with negative results, and I have no symptoms. I am well prepared and had an excellent training camp. I look forward to the rescheduling of the fight and the opportunity to display my world class skills."

No date for the rescheduled bout was announced.

A lightweight bout between Richard Commey and Jackson Marinez was elevated to the main event on ESPN.

Once Smith, from Mastic, and his teamed checked in at the MGM Grand Hotel, they were tested and then isolated. The fight was supposed to take place Saturday inside the MGM Conference Center, which is void of fans. That would have been another adjustment for Smith since he usually has a contingent of loud and loyal fans in tow no matter where he fights.

"As far as not having the fans there, it does take away from the atmosphere, not having your friends and family there cheering," he said. "I still know in the back of my head that they are all watching me."

In March 2019, Smith challenged Dmitry Bivol for the WBA title and lost a unanimous decision. But his promoter, Joe DeGuardia, feels he’s a completely different fighter now.

"Joe has really developed as a fighter, mentally and physically, he’s at the peak of his game," said DeGuardia. "You look at what he did in 2020, he’s looking like a superstar. He’s a complete fighter right now."

Smith, 31, spent 2020 securing wins over perennial contender Jesse Hart and former world champion Eleider Alvarez. His win over Alvarez -- a ninth-round TKO -- was so thorough, it immediately moved him into the title fight against Vlasov.

"I definitely feel I made a statement, everything I’ve been doing is working," said Smith (26-3, 21KOs). "I am going to continue to do what I am doing and I just want to try to get better."

New York Sports