JOE SMITH JNR won the WBO light-heavyweight title after a 12-round battle with Maxim Vlasov at the Osage Casino in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday (April 10).

Smith finished with a majority decision, winning 115-113 for Pat Russell and 115-112 for Gerald Ritter. Judge David Sutherland had them level at 114-114. But his Russian opponent was left aggrieved at the result.

“Against the aggressive style of Joe Smith, I came forward the entire fight,” Vlasov said in a statement. “I felt confident I was winning and was securing rounds in the bank with the judges. I never felt that I was behind at any stage of the fight.”

The bout was exciting, the scoring was controversial. Smith Jnr was level on two judges’ cards going into the 10th and two points behind on the third. The American, a narrow favourite going in, rallied in those championship rounds to win the title. All three judges agreed that he won the final two sessions. That all seems fair enough, right? Well, the contention can be traced directly to a moment in the 11th when Smith clumped Vlasov with a right hand that landed on the back of the head and dropped the Russian. Declared a foul blow, and the knockdown struck off by referee Gary Ritter, judge Gerald Ritter – Gary’s brother – still scored the session 10-8 for the New Yorker.

Smith insisted his hurtful shots tipped the fight his way. “It’s great, it’s a great feeling. It was definitely a close, tough fight. Great fighter, he really put on a great show tonight and toughed it out,” Smith said afterwards.

“I believe I got the victory tonight because I landed the bigger, harder shots but he landed a lot of punches. It was a great fight. I caught him in that last round, I thought I was going to get him out. [But] a victory’s a victory.”

Indeed it is. Even without the 10-8 round in the 11th, Smith Jnr would still have won the contest on Ritter’s card by two points. But for many observers, Vlasov deserved better. Out of the ring for 15 months and sidelined by Covid-19 in February, the Russian showcased his superior skillset in the opening round.

It was felt that Vlasov was in control through the first half, his cute style proving a real problem for the crude, often wayward, Smith Jnr. But Smith came on down the stretch, his right hand in particular scoring often. He may not be the slickest fighter, is undoubtedly beatable, but his desire and determination make him effective.

Joe Smith

Smith joins Dmitry Bivol and Artur Beterbiev as a light-heavyweight world champion and says he is willing to face his rival titlists. Beterbiev is the unified WBC and IBF boss and promoted by Top Rank like Smith. That fight might be a natural next step but he would be a formidable opponent for Smith.

“I want other belts. I want the big fights out there. I know I’ve got to get back in the gym and keep working on my technique,” Smith declared. “But I believe I’m going to start unifying belts.”

The highlight of the undercard was a looping right hand from Nigerian heavyweight Efa Ajagba. The six-foot-six banger operates from a towering upright stance but his punching power is gathering attention. He positioned Brian Howard, of Loganville, Georgia, in the third with a jab before putting out his lights with his right hand.

Howard collapsed like a fallen skyscraper. Referee Tony Crebs assessed the lifeless rubble and dispensed with the count at 1-29.

The Verdict Smith Jnr gets the narrowest of wins and will be a big underdog against any of the other light-heavyweight titlists.