A Laborer in and Out of the Ring, Joe Smith Jr.’s Boxing Future Remains Wide Open

Joe Smith Jr. defeats Jesse Hart on January 11, 2020.

UPDATE: After SI initially published this story, it was announced that Saturday's fight between Joe Smith Jr. and Maxim Vlasov will be postponed after Vlosov tested positive for COVID-19.

Inside the boxing ring, where he’s amassed a 26–3 record and KO’d 21 foes, Joe Smith Jr. is a laborer. He doesn’t dance, doesn’t dodge; his style is plow forward, welcome exchanges and deploy heavy hands to break down opponents. He will next fight on Saturday, against Maxim Vlasov for the WBO light heavyweight crown, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Outside the boxing ring, Joe Smith Jr. is also, well, a laborer. Like an actual laborer—a boxing throwback, a man with bricks in his hands who also holds actual bricks in his hand. Here’s the thing: The better he does, the more bouts he wins, the less he must labor—at least outside the ring. For years, though, he consistently did both.

The worst part wasn’t getting punched in the face by boxers like Bernard Hopkins and Dmitry Bivol. Not even close. The worst part wasn’t even knocking down walls, pouring concrete, sweeping floors or laying brick for 10 hours at a time. No, the worst part was the s--- plant. Yes, the s--- plant.

After joining a union on Long Island, N.Y., the Laborers Local 66, Smith was sometimes assigned this particularly foul-smelling duty. Once, when the plant planned to change out all of its equipment, bosses tasked Smith with power-washing excrement off the walls. Like many of his duties, this required a mask long before any global pandemic.

Not that Smith is complaining. He’s not unlike athletes from long-ago generations, the ones who played football or basketball or boxed and worked outside of training. As a union member, he made $38 an hour, plus benefits. More than enough to pay the bills and pursue the laborious job he really wanted.

At first, balancing work as a full-time laborer and a career as a more-or-less full-time boxer proved difficult. Smith would clock in, knock out his assignments and then drive straight to the gym for training. As the years blew by, the duality of his existence upped his motivation. He came to know: The better he boxed, the higher he climbed. And the higher he climbed, the more he could box, and the higher he could climb.

The labor gigs weren’t jaw-dropping. The boxing ones? Jaw-breaking, and twice. After six victories to start his career, Smith squared off against unknown Eddie Caminero back in August 2010. Caminero landed a right to Smith’s jaw in Round 2—and boxing’s laborer scratched through two more rounds, knowing it was broken. Caminero handed Smith his first-career defeat that night. The loser considered pivoting full time into construction work, maybe starting his own business. He lost 40 pounds after doctors wired his jaw shut. But then Smith watched union coworkers in their 60s still shoving dirt and breaking down walls with sledgehammers and realized that wasn’t the life he wanted. So he continued training and working, toiling for bigger paydays and a one-career existence.

Smith won 18 straight after that loss, capped by the victory over Hopkins, a Hall of Famer, albeit, by then, a 52-year-old one. Smith knocked the fighter once known as The Executioner through the ring ropes and near the front row.

After that seminal victory, Smith could fight more and labor less, as if training wasn’t labor in and of itself. That led to other, known opponents, like Sullivan Barrera, who delivered Smith a second broken jaw. Again, it happened early, Smith thinks in Round 1. Again, Smith stalked forward. He even finished the bout, losing by unanimous decision. “I thought my career was over,” Smith says. He promised himself he would step away. He started a business with his father, Team Smith Tree Service, and the work consisted largely of clearing brush. It made him miss not only boxing but boxing paydays.

Having already proven he belonged near the top of the light heavyweight division, Smith began to concentrate more exclusively on boxing. Yes, he lost to Dmitry Bivol, an undefeated prospect. But he also registered victories over Jesse Hart (split decision) and Eleider Álvarez (TKO, 9), as engineers, electricians and demolition teams started coming to his bouts to cheer on one of their own. Should Smith win another title fight, he believes the more life-changing, big money bouts will materialize on the horizon. Maybe he will expand the tree business. Maybe he’ll retire from boxing labor and the construction kind. An average Joe he is not.

Regardless, the laborer knows what he needs most and soon: a vacation.