By John DiSanto – PhillyBoxingHistory.com
North Philly’s Jesse Hart, 26-2, 21 KOs, takes the next step in his quest for a world championship Saturday night when he faces Joe Smith Jr. of Long Island, NY, 24-3, 20 KOs, at Atlantic City’s Mark G. Etess Arena in the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. The five-bout card is promoted by Top Rank and will be televised live on ESPN (and ESPN+).
Hart’s quest for a belt began at the super middleweight limit, where he campaigned for seven years. However, after two title bout decision losses to WBO champ Gilberto Ramirez, and despite never having the slightest issue making 168 pounds, the charismatic contender decided that the best path for him was to pursue his dream one weight class up, at light heavyweight.
Hart made the move last June and in his first assignment easily handled Sullivan Barrera, a solid and tested light heavy, who had defeated all of his prior opponents except Andre Ward and Dmitry Bivol. Not too shabby, to say the least. Barrera was a true test for Hart. The Cuban native was naturally heavier and a proven contender with wins over Vyacheslav Shabranskyy, Sean Monahan, Karo Murat, Jeff Lacy, and one Joe Smith Jr.
Jesse cruised to victory over the ten round limit against Barrera, winning by unanimous decision and clearly showing that he could handle the added weight – both on Barrera’s frame as well as his own. With this initial experiment out of the way, Hart looked for his next light heavyweight step. Enter Joe Smith Jr.
At face value, Smith is a reasonable next move. Like Barrera, he is proven, having shocked heavily favored Andrzej Fonfara in 2016, and earning a WBA title shot last year against Bivol (which he lost by decision). However, the true drama of the Hart-Smith fight lies with Smith’s biggest victory to date, a 2016 KO of legend Bernard Hopkins.
Smith’s punches sent Hopkins careening out of the ring in round eight and produced the only knockout loss of the Hall of Famer’s storied career. The unlikely win by Smith made him the man who managed to do what no one else could – convince Bernard, one month shy of his 52nd birthday, that it was time to retire.
The win made Smith’s reputation, ended Hopkins’ boxing run, but it also had an effect on Jesse Hart.
Every Philly fighter of this generation looks at Bernard Hopkins as THE blueprint for a successful boxing career. Who could blame them? Hopkins famously began from humble beginnings and went on to build his résumé, his legend, and his bank account with a mix of undeniable skills, unparalleled mental toughness, and a willingness to face everyone placed before him. Despite long odds, Hopkins accomplished one amazing feat after another, broke into the big time by destroying Felix Trinidad, and refused to stop achieving until he was literally knocked out of the ring. It is a success story that doesn’t come along very often.
Growing up, Hart had immense admiration for Hopkins. Besides being a great fighter, Bernard, like Hart, was also a proud North Philadelphian, and the symbol of what a motivated guy from their tough neighborhood could achieve. So when Joe Smith closed the book on Hopkins’ career, Jesse Hart felt the impact.
Now, with his own date with Smith rapidly approaching, Hart advances to the fight with revenge on his mind. Jesse is consumed with administering some payback for the ignominious end Smith dished his idol.
“This is personal,” Hart said when the fight was announced. “Bernard inspired me to be what I became. It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t avenge that defeat. I can’t move forward unless I beat him (Smith). This is a Philly thing. It’s more personal than business for me. I want a world title shot at light heavyweight, but I have to get through this guy first.”
Joe Smith doesn’t seem worried about Hart’s festering motivation.
“I am focused and ready to bring everything I have,” Smith said. “Jesse Hart might want to make this personal, but I didn’t even know who he was before this fight was brought up. I am ready for this. It is going to be a great night.”
For Hart, Saturday’s showdown firmly fits into the grudge-fight category, and that is good news for boxing fans. The match has major entertainment potential. Both boxers can punch. Hart probably hits harder, but Smith is naturally heavier – although Hart happens to be taller. Both fighters are 30 years old, and also have similar records – 28 bouts for Hart, 27 for Smith. And they both have come close to winning it all. Perhaps most importantly, each man needs a win to keep their career moving forward.
All of this sounds like a recipe for a good fight. Saturday’s confrontation between Hart and Smith is a great way to start the New Year, and for one of these fighters, it could be the perfect launching pad to their ultimate goal.
The preliminary bouts will be live-streamed on ESPN+ (6:30 PM) with the main portion of the card televised live on ESPN, beginning at 10:00 PM.
To read more about the Philly fight scene – past and present – visit www.PhillyBoxingHistory.com.