MAKE a Google search on the Team Smith Tree Service, and pretty much across the board you will see five-star ratings and rave reviews on the landscaping company owned by light-heavyweight, Joe Smith Jnr.

“It’s not all me,” said Smith, the No.2 light-heavy and WBO belt-holder. “During training, I’m just focused on my fight a hundred per cent. I call in to check up on things and make sure everything’s good and I do a few little things here and there, but mostly I’m just focused on my fight. My father shows up to all the job sites and he makes sure the customer is happy. We don’t leave until they’re happy.”

So the positive feedback isn’t because dad lets customers know that his son is one of the toughest men on the planet?

“He may throw that out there here and there,” laughs Smith, who is in a good place mentally and physically heading into his January 15 title defence against late, late substitute Steve Geffrard. Fighting Geffrard wasn’t the original plan for the bout at Turning Stone Resort & Casino in Verona, New York, but when Callum Johnson was forced out of the matchup after testing positive for COVID-19, the 31-year-old Geffrard stepped up to the plate.

And just like that, Smith finally has his first chance to return to the ring since April of last year, when he won the vacant WBO strap with a hard-fought come-from-behind win over Maxim Vlasov. It was a big night for the Long Island native, who epitomised the struggle of the blue-collar worker who came up the hard way, navigated the rough waters of the boxing business and finally hit paydirt.

“The road that it took me to get there was not the easiest,” Smith said. “I suffered two big injuries during my career, I overcame them, I came back, and I kept pushing. I got big fights I wasn’t supposed to win, I made it through those fights and came out on top and got that belt. So it was a great feeling for me and I can’t wait to see what’s to come of it.”

A day labourer for Local 66, Smith juggled a promising boxing career with backbreaking construction work for years, never knowing if he was going to reach the championship level in the ring but making sure that he had a back-up plan if those dreams never came true.

“That was the main goal, to not have to get up and go to work every day,” he said. “I wanted to just set myself up where my future was good and I didn’t have to worry.”

After going 21-1 on the local circuit in New York, a 2016 fight with Andrzej Fonfara was his breakout performance, as he halted the Polish contender in less than a round. Seven months later, he cemented his place in the record books as the man who ended the career of hall of famer Bernard Hopkins via eighth-round knockout.

That victory was the realisation that maybe boxing would be his ticket to a different life for him, and in 2017, he started Team Smith Tree Service with his father and had the luxury to devote most (but not all) of his time to chasing down a major belt.

“Since the Hopkins fight, because I knew I was fighting the best in the world now, I had to be totally dedicated to boxing,” Smith said. “Luckily enough, I was able to put away some money that I needed and get my own business going to have something coming in where I can train full-time.”

Unfortunately, there would be roadblocks. In his first fight post-Hopkins in July 2017, Smith broke his jaw in a decision loss to Sullivan Barrera and underwent surgery. He took a tune-up fight for his 2018 return against Melvin Russell, and that one minute and 45 seconds of work wasn’t enough to prepare him for a 2019 challenge for Dmitry Bivol’s WBA title, as he lost a lopsided decision.

But since then, Smith rebounded in style, defeating Jesse Hart and Eleider Alvarez before his title-winning effort against Vlasov. It would be all celebration from there if not for a battle with COVID-19 that hit him pretty hard in September of last year and forced the cancelation of a bout against Umar Salamov.

“I had it for about three or four weeks straight,” said Smith. “It was pretty bad. When it was going on, I was surprised how bad I actually got it, considering I was in great shape. It was horrible. It was one of the worst things I’ve experienced. I was hospitalised for two nights, and they actually told me for some reason that athletes and people that are very healthy had been getting it worse.”

It was a scary time for the 32-year-old, who has since recovered and is back to normal in the lead-up to his first title defence. And while he’s taking Richards seriously, his plans are a lot bigger than this weekend’s fight. Namely, he wants some more belts for his collection.

“To just become a world champion, not many people get to say it and hold that belt,” Smith said. “But I’m not satisfied yet. I want to get the big fights, I want to get the other champions and unify. Then it will be something real special.”

Standing alongside Smith in the leaders’ circle at 175 pounds are Artur Beterbiev and his old rival Bivol, and though the man is willing to get in the ring with both, wanting the big fights and getting them are often two different things in this day and age. Does Smith believe he will get his shot at world champion Beterbiev, or a rematch with Bivol, should he win on Saturday?

“I don’t think it’s an easy route to make the fights or to get them, but I’m hoping for the best,” he said. “I know that as much as they say it, these champions don’t want to fight me. I signed two contracts to fight Beterbiev and neither fight happened. Bivol, he’s a great champion, but I believe he caught me at the right time. I had a big layoff, I only came back and fought a mediocre guy [Russell] before that, and I feel like I’ve improved a lot since that fight. That fight helped me a lot and it opened up my eyes to other things that I needed to work on. So I’m really looking forward to making those fights happen.”

And if they don’t happen, you can guess how Joe Smith operates. He’ll just keep knocking down trees until the job is done.

“I’m fighting to continue my career,” he said. I don’t need a loss at this point. I want to make my goal come true.”