SHEFFIELD plays host to Matchroom’s most significant show on British soil so far this year as Dalton Smith tops the bill in what could be the toughest test of his career. The 27-year-old is yet to put a foot wrong during his rise to his current status as one of the country’s most promising stars but as with any career, there always comes an acid test.

He has taken care of all comers domestically, winning the British super-lightweight title outright but he has always dreamed much bigger than that. However, his stepping stone to world level is a man who has been competing at the sharp end of the division for nearly a decade now.

Jose Zepeda is 37-4 (28) and 34 years old. He has emerged as the nearly man of the division with defeats in all three of his world title fights so far, dating all the way back to the summer of 2015.

That night, on his only other visit to England, he was 23-0 when he arrived at the Manchester Velodrome to face Terry Flanagan but the fight ended after just two rounds with Zepeda nursing a dislocated shoulder on his stool. He rebuilt from that point but would lose four years later to Jose Carlos Ramirez in Fresno, California and then to Regis Prograis in 2022 via 11th-round stoppage.

“He’s experienced and he’s been at the world level for a long time,” Smith said of Zepeda. “People are supporting me for a reason, because I want to challenge myself and put on a great fight for my supporters so hopefully Zepeda is the perfect fight for me.”

The Californian is no longer ranked in the top 10 at the weight and his last outing, against Richardson Hitchins in September, ended in a total shut-out defeat on two of the judges’ scorecards while the other gave him one round out of 12. Was that because Hitchins is an elite fighter or because Zepeda does not have much left to offer? Saturday night will provide further answers to that question.

Smith and his father-trainer Grant, who are both adamant that their journey will result in world titles, will have designs on doing a similar job on Zepeda to boost ‘Thunder’s’ standing in the division and make some more noise across the Atlantic.

“This is the perfect fight and the toughest test of my career,” Smith added. “2024 will be a breakout year for me, pushing onto the world scene, pushing my name beyond domestic level and letting the world know who Dalton Smith is. I want to progress and I feel like this year is the one to do that and beating Jose Zepeda will put me up on that next pedestal.”

Smith has 11 stoppages from 15 wins and produced a stunning knockout in his last outing, when Sam Maxwell was scythed down in the seventh. Another inside distance win here would be a big statement but Smith to win reasonably comfortably on the cards is the pick.

The only woman’s fight on the bill is an excellent all-British showdown as Sandy Ryan defends her WBO welterweight title against Terri Harper.

Ryan, 30, won the vacant belt by beating Marie Pier Houle in Cardiff a year ago and retained it via a split draw against Jessica McCaskill in September. Harper is the far more experienced professional but is three year’s Ryan’s junior and dropping back down to welterweight after a three-fight run at light-middle which gleaned the WBA strap.

And there is plenty of intrigue here as Ryan enters the fight having completely overhauled her team after her last fight, with a change of manager, trainer and a total relocation to America in the wake of that draw against McCaskill.

“Before my last fight I came out here for like four weeks to finish camp off and I loved it,” Ryan said. “The people in the gym, we got along really well. They were just welcoming me to come back and it was a great decision that I made.”

It makes this one a hard one to pick, especially over 10 frantic two-minute rounds. Both are coming into this fight off the back of draws and another one is very likely here.

It is also a big night in the career of Campbell Hatton, who boxes for his first professional title when he takes on the Central Area light-welterweight champion Jimmy Joe Flint in his first 10 rounder.

Hatton, 23, is 14-0 (5) with four of those stoppages coming in his last six outings as he has started to really find his feet as a pro. Flint, who won the title by beating the previously undefeated Joe Garside 12 months ago, represents another step up for Hatton, who has not boxed since his win over Jamie Sampson in October.

This could develop into the most entertaining fight on the card with both men stylistically similar, happy to walk forward and trade. And, although he is the defending champion, Flint knows he has everything to gain if he can become the first man to beat Hatton. Even so, the ever-improving ‘Hurricane’ can dig deep to win the belt on points.

There could also be fireworks at super-welterweight when the undefeated Leeds man Ishmael Davis faces the returning Troy Williamson over 12 threes.

Williamson has lost two of his last three, with a low-key six-round win over Ramiro Blanco sandwiched between defeats to Josh Kelly in December 2022 and Caoimhin Agyarko in his last outing. But the experienced Darlington man knows his career can receive the shot in the arm it needs if he can beat Davis here.

The Black Panther, who has six stoppages from his 12 wins, has faced mainly journeymen so far in his career but beat 8-0 Ewan Mackenzie in his last outing, the best win of his career by far, and also took his knockout streak to four. Williamson will be another step up again, but it might be a bridge too far for the 28-year-old from across Yorkshire.

Elsewhere, promising Mansfield super-bantamweight Nico Leivars steps up to the 10-round limit in his third straight Matchroom show in Sheffield. The 24-year-old is part of the Steel City Gym set-up under Grant Smith and has been a mainstay on Dalton’s undercards.

He boxed Alberto Motos over six in July, then Ryan Walker over eight three months later in a fight which he won handily but suffered cuts over both eyes and this time it is Southend’s former Southern Area champion Mirga in his way. It’s a step-up for Leivars but he should win on points.

There is also a trio of early six-rounders on the card with 7-0 Yorkshire middleweight Connan Murray in action while Emmanuel Buttigieg is hoping to go 3-0 in his light-middleweight encounter with Bartlomiej Stryczek.

At light heavyweight, Sheffield’s Liam Cameron continues his comeback. The 33-year-old spent five years out of the ring after being hit with an incredible four-year ban back in 2018 for testing positive for a minute amount of a cocaine metabolite. But this is his third fight back and his first on a stage like this.

THE VERDICT – A good test for Smith that, in reality, will surely prove to be shrewd matchmaking.