WITH the striking lethargy of Alexander Povetkin still fresh in the memory one wonders if Maxim Vlasov, who like his Russian countryman recently contracted Covid-19, will be hangover-free when he takes on Joe Smith Jnr for the vacant WBO light-heavyweight strap this weekend. The woefully out-of-sorts Povetkin was ruthlessly taken apart by Dillian Whyte and Smith Jnr – robust, heavy-handed and in-form – will fancy his chances of orchestrating a similar demolition inside Tulsa’s Osage Casino on Saturday night (April 10).

This intriguing bout was postponed in February after news broke that Vlasov, 34 years old, had tested positive for the virus days before the opening bell was due to be heard inside Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Bubble. Now claiming to be back to full fitness, Vlasov will end a 15-month layoff by taking on Long Island’s Smith. Though such lengthy stretches out of the ring are something of a new-norm in this pandemic-ravaged landscape, the ring rust they cause is just as problematic as it’s always been. For that reason alone, the New Yorker – who has beaten both Eugene Hart and Eleider Alvarez during his opponent’s spell on the sidelines – starts as favourite.

“You have to take risks to win big fights,” Vlasov told Boxing Scene. “This is my big chance to become a world champion, to bring the title back home to Russia. I am excited and I am ready for this.

“I’ve waited a long time to [return to the ring] but even longer to become world champion. This is why I fight.”

For both fighters, this contest represents their second chance at a major belt. In March 2019, Smith Jnr was widely outscored by WBA light-heavyweight boss Dmitry Bivol. However, there was drama at the close of the 10th round when Smith bowled over his honey punch, the overarm right hand, that made Bivol’s journey back to his corner an unsteady one.

“To be fair to him, he got up [from his stool for the 11th round] and was ready to fight,” Smith reflected. “But it is a little reminder that I can become world champion with just a little improvement.

“After that loss I went back to the gym and started on things that I could improve on. But I hurt him really bad in that 10th round. Just a couple more seconds and I would have been world champion. I watch the replay of that moment all the time.”

He’ll likely have been watching footage of Vlasov, too. Now in his 16th year as a professional after making his debut as a middleweight in 2005 and later finding his form at 168lbs, the veteran moved all the way up to cruiserweight in 2015 after being tightly outpointed over 10 rounds by Gilberto Ramirez. A series of solid stoppage victories over Ismael Sillah, Rakhim Chakhkiev and Denton Daley resulted in a 2018 shot at then-WBO boss, Krzystof Glowacki.

That bout, which doubled up as a quarter-final in the World Boxing Super Series, remains Glowacki’s most recent success. The Pole won a deserved 12-round decision before losing a contentious three-round stoppage to Mairis Briedis the following year. Glowacki was then sidelined himself before looking old and tired while being bombed in six by Lawrence Okolie last month. It’s worth pointing out that before that fight in London, Glowacki, in a scenario that mirrors Vlasov’s current predicament, had been out of the ring for well over a year and contracted Covid-19 in the meantime.

The clues thus far point to Smith Jnr improving his 26-3 (21) record. The American, who seems to be getting better at the age of 31, has gained significant education since his breakout win in 2016, a one-round thrashing of Andrzej Fonfara. He followed that by ending the career of Bernard Hopkins and the recent victories over Hart and Alvarez exhibited no ill-effects from points losses to Sullivan Barrera and Bivol that he suffered in the interim.

However, Smith Jnr does struggle with straight-up boxers. Vlasov will claim to be cuter than Hart and sharper than the war-torn Alvarez. At his best, the 45-3 (26) Vlasov deploys short, sharp hooks and uppercuts on the inside and, when in control, can drift into position on clever feet. He also carries a solid dig and takes a decent shot when caught. But he can be drawn into making mistakes, marks up badly and is susceptible to the kind of looping blows that Smith hurls up-close for fun.

It would be remiss not to highlight the possibility of Vlasov simply being too clever for Smith but the thought here is that the younger (and surely fitter and fresher) fighter will triumph. The pick is for Smith to become the first to stop Vlasov, perhaps on facial injuries, somewhere between the sixth and 10th round.

On the undercard, Top Rank’s six-foot-six Nigerian heavyweight prospect Efe Ajagba can cruise to 15-0 against the limited Brian Howard and, in the same division, there’s a run out for Tommy Morrison’s son, Trey Lippe.

The Verdict Smith Jnr not the ideal comeback bout for a fighter in his mid-thirties returning after a long layoff.