There are many obvious differences between Bernard Hopkins and Long Island’s Joe Smith Jr.
First, their age. When they meet in the ring Saturday night at the Forum in Inglewood, California, Hopkins will be a month shy of his 52nd birthday. Smith is all of 27.
Another difference is their approach to fighting. Hopkins is one of the game’s foremost strategists, a man who can tailor his style depending on his opponent. He can exploit a weakness whether fighting in the trenches or sticking and moving. Smith is not as nuanced. He is a seek-and-destroy puncher who comes in the ring with one clear goal in mind: hurt the other guy.
Yet another difference: Hopkins likes to talk. Smith tends to use words sparingly. Hopkins can dominate a press conference as easily as he dominates a fight. Smith prefers root canal over interviews, his trainer says. Why talk when you can make your point with a right cross?
“When we were at the press conference to announce the fight, I thought, man, Bernard can talk,” recalled Smith. “He spoke for so long that I almost fell asleep.”
Smith lets his actions speak for him, and he has made some pretty powerful statements since turning pro in 2009. He has a 22-1 record with 18 knockouts, with 16 of those coming inside of three rounds.
None was more spectacular than his first-round knockout of heavily favored Andrzej Fonfara on NBC in June. Smith traveled to Chicago to meet the world-rated Fonfara in his own backyard. Fonfara was pressing the action when Smith dropped him with an overhand right. Fonfara reached his feet but never recovered. Another knockdown followed and the fight was over.
“Each fight that I have is more important than the last one,” said Smith, who is from Shirley. “The Fonfara fight was huge. I won that and it put me into this fight with Hopkins. To take on a legend like Bernard is an opportunity I would have never expected. It’s an honor. I always pictured myself fighting him one day but I really never thought it would happen because of his age. But now it’s here.”
For his part, Hopkins has been far less respectful of Smith. Hopkins is considered a first-ballot Hall of Famer and used Wednesday’s final news conference in Los Angeles to drive home his view of Smith. He repeatedly pointed to Smith and called him a “common man,” while referring to himself as a “special man.”
“I’m going to spank him, teach him his ABCs and then send him back to Long Island, up the road from Philadelphia,” said Hopkins.
As expected, Smith said little in return, other than, “We’ll see.”
Smith’s “common man” approach has endeared him to Long Island fans. He is a laborer in Local 66 and has spent a lot of days digging ditches and wrestling with a jackhammer.
“I think Joe Smith is a great prospect,” said Harold Lederman, who is part of the HBO broadcast team that will call the fight. “I’ve seen him from the beginning. He draws big crowds out on Long Island. All those union workers come out to see him and support him. And the kid can punch like a mule. This isn’t an easy fight, because if Bernard is Bernard, he’ll make anybody look bad. But Joe Smith has that puncher’s chance.”
Team Smith likes those chances. In his corner are the Capobianco brothers. Phil is the manager and Gerry is the trainer. The Capobiancos have long been a staple on Long Island’s boxing scene. Their father, John, trained dozens of fighters at the Huntington Athletic Club, including a young Gerry Cooney. And their brother, John Jr., was a tough light heavyweight in the 1970s, headlining cards at the Commack Arena and Nassau Coliseum.
“It’s hard for any fighter to come back after taking a 25-month layoff,” said Gerry Capobianco, referring to Hopkins’ last fight, a decision loss to Sergey Kovalev. “It’s hard for a 30-year-old fighter to do that. Never mind a guy who is 51 and hasn’t fought in over two years. Maybe Hopkins can still beat a lot of guys in the top 10. But I don’t think he can beat Joe. Joe’s too strong. You are going to see Bernard Hopkins’ retirement party and Joe’s coming-out party.”
Hopkins already said this will be his last fight. But his vision resembles more of a victory lap than a retirement party. Smith sees it a little differently. For him, beating Hopkins gets him closer to a world title fight and a little farther from the jackhammer.
“Come fight night, it’ll just be me and him in the ring,” Smith said. “This is the biggest fight of my life. I’m ready for it. I am going to give everyone something to talk about.”