JOE SMITH JR dropped and outpointed Jesse Hart, who had been advised by Bernard Hopkins, a little over three years after ending Hopkins’ own career. Despite Smith’s obvious superiority there was room for some controversy – isn’t there always? – when one judge scored Hart a 95-94 winner at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. Thankfully, the other two scores (98-91 and 97-92) were for Smith.

Hart, who entered the ring wearing an executioner’s mask, wanted revenge for Smith stopping his hero in eight rounds in December 2016. But, in the end, after being dropped in the seventh and bullied through most of the second half of the bout, Hart did well just to hear the final bell.

“I was a little worried there,” Long Island’s Smith said about the moment announcer Jimmy Lennon Jnr revealed the decision was split. “I was very confident I was gonna get the decision but the one judge made me a little nervous in there. But with the knockdown and the hard shots I landed, I deserved it.”

Philadelphia’s Hart, 30, was the favourite heading into this light-heavyweight crossroads bout. He grew up idolising Hopkins, who visited Hart in camp but wasn’t ringside. Fresh off a win over Sullivan Barrera – and with only two losses on his record, both points defeats to Gilberto Ramirez – Hart intended to make his case for a world title shot at 175lbs but it is Joe Smith Jr who moves forward. Hart blamed a hand injury for the defeat.

“I hurt my hand a week ago,” he said. “You can see it’s messed up. I don’t want to make excuses because Joe fought a great fight. I hurt the hand in my last sparring session and I thought I could overcome that. Credit to Joe for doing what he had to do.”

Smith, also 30, controlled the opening two rounds before Hart sprang to life in the third. A straight right hand scored before an uppercut at the end of the session ensured Hart won the round. The action intensified in the fourth as the pair exchanged power shots yet it seemed that Smith’s punches carried the greater weight. However, by the start of the fifth, a knot could be seen forming under Smith’s eye.

Yet Smith, as much as a 4/1 underdog going in, poured forward and on several occasions seemed to hurt his opponent. The uppercut in particular was scoring frequently before Hart was dropped by a was a sharp right hand in the seventh. The blow crashed into the side of Hart’s head and he went down to one knee.

It was largely a case of survival for the rest of the bout for Hart after a left hook stunned him again.

“I thought I had him a few times but he was slippery and he kept tying me up,” said Smith. “I was looking to land the hook, the big hook on the inside after I hurt him. But he kept grabbing my arms and he survived.”

It’s another big win for Smith that reinvigorates his status among the best light-heavyweights after a disappointing 12-round points loss to WBO champion, Dmitry Bivol, last March.