JOE SMITH JNR had a feeling that Dmitry Bivol was going to beat Saul “Canelo” Alvarez on May 7. He had better insight than most, having gone 12 rounds with Bivol in 2019, and he was willing to put his money where his mouth was. Smith’s wife, Kelly, wasn’t so sure.

“I would have made some more [betting on Bivol], but my wife was yelling at me,” laughed Smith. “She’s like, ‘They’re not gonna give Bivol the decision, even if he wins.’ I said, ‘If he beats him bad enough he will.’ She allowed me to put some money down so I made a couple hundred bucks, but nothing crazy.”

Sounds like Mrs Smith knows how the fight game works, even though Bivol did get the nod over Alvarez in this instance.

“She’s been around for a while now, watching my fights, and we watch all the big fights together,” said Smith, and they don’t get bigger at 175 pounds than his June 18 showdown with world light-heavyweight champion, Artur Beterbiev. Smith is ranked number two with Bivol in between. Between them, they hold all the sanctioning body straps.

Bivol has already stated that he would like to see the winner with all the belts on the line, and for Smith, a rematch with the man who beat him by decision a little more than two years ago is more than appealing. He insists he’s not the fighter he was that night in Verona, New York.

“Each and every fight that I had, I learned a little something, whether it’s a boxing skill, something that I needed to change or adjust, or just in general with my training. I’m learning different things in training, like what works for me and what doesn’t. My eating habits have gotten better over the years, my cutting weight has gotten better. All these little experiences lead up to world championship-level fighting. So with each new experience I have, I learn something new and I improve.”

It’s one thing to say it, because everybody says it, but the evolution of Joe Smith is evident on fight night. Since the loss to Bivol, he’s gone 4-0, steadily adding to his game as he’s beaten Jesse Hart, Eleider Alvarez, Maxim Vlasov and Steve Geffrard. His toughest fight may have been with COVID-19, but he won that one, too, and in his first bout back in January, he put together a complete performance before halting Geffrard in the ninth round.

“By the time fight night came, I was feeling great and I was confident,” Smith said. “During training camp we got right back to work as soon as it [COVID-19] was over. There were some little side effects for a little bit, but we got back to it, and I’m good.”

So good that after successfully defending his belt for the first time, he didn’t dodge questions about his future or call out a name no one has ever heard of. He set his sights on Beterbiev and let the world know.

“That’s it, man,” he said. “I want to unify and be undisputed as soon as I can.”

If Smith wasn’t respected by the hardcore fanbase, they hopped on the bandwagon after he made his desire to fight Beterbiev known, because over the last several years, the Montreal-based Russian has been the one fighter most have steered clear of, a relentless force who steadily beats opponents down until they can’t take anymore. But just like Bivol-Alvarez, Smith sees something others don’t.

“He’s just a tough, strong guy,” Smith says matter of factly. “He comes forward, he does have some boxing skill, but there’s just something about him that I feel I can capitalize on. I feel he’s just a little robotic, I guess you could say. But he comes forward, I come forward, and it’s just gonna make for a great fight that the fans are gonna enjoy. I love putting on a great show for everyone to watch and I just want to fight the best.”

Smith-Beterbiev is a must see for all fight fans, but especially for ones in the New York area who will make the trip to the Theater at Madison Square Garden to watch Long Island’s Smith fight in his backyard for the first time since he stopped Fabiano Pena in 2016.

“It’s gonna be great,” he said. “I haven’t had a professional fight there yet, and it’s close to home, so a lot of my hometown fans are gonna get to come out and watch me fight. I’m looking forward to it.”

The only thing that could top it at this point is a complete unification fight with Bivol in the newly-opened UBS Arena in Long Island. But home game or not, Smith’s focus on June 18 and beyond is crystal clear.

“I’m giving it 110 percent or more,” he said. “Everything I got, I’m gonna give in this fight and hopefully I come out on top and then me and Bivol can have that rematch and I can redeem myself.”

It used to be that Smith just wanted to make a living solely out of boxing, garnering tons of press for the juggling act that saw him work as a union laborer during the week and a prizefighter on weekends. But once he beat Maxim Vlasov for the vacant WBO title, public perception changed, and so did Smith’s own ambitions.

“For me in the beginning, yeah, I wanted to make a living, but I always thought I could be a world champion,” he said. “But I knew the road to get there, and to get the opportunity to even have a chance for a world title is hard to come by. But I had good people behind me and in my corner – my trainer Jerry (Capobianco) and Phil (Capobianco) my manager – they always believed in me that I could do it. And they got me with the right promoter (Joe DeGuardia) and the promoter got the right fights for me and it’s all coming together. And I feel I didn’t come this far not to go further.”

How much further? As far as the 32-year-old can take it.

“The first thing I said after I won my [WBO] championship was now I gotta get on that pound for pound list,” Smith said. “And by beating someone like Beterbiev, I gotta be in the top ten pound-for-pound because I beat some great fighters already.

“A lot of people work and fight, but I want to be recognised as a true world champion and get the respect I deserve for all the hard work that I put in,” he continues. “I feel a win against Beterbiev leaves no question, and there’s nothing anyone can say. I want to shock everybody.”