Joe Smith Jr. used to COVID setbacks but prepared for Artur Beterbiev

Joe Smith Jr. tested positive for COVID early into preparation for Artur Beterbiev, but he overcame the illness quickly and hopes to become a unified champion. 

Joe Smith Jr. is a resilient boxer and person. The working-class fighter from Long Island, NY, made his way to the WBO light heavyweight title through grueling efforts, injuries, and setbacks due to COVID.

Smith briefly worried that COVID could cost him the biggest fight of his career.

Smith (28-3, 22 KOs) is the type of fighter you think of when the phrase “school of hard knocks” gets thrown around. He wasn’t greeted with a multi-million dollar payday when he turned pro and had to work as a day laborer to keep his boxing dreams alive.

He detailed his history of injury setbacks to FanSided in January before his bout with Steve Geffrard. A broken jaw resulted in his first loss in 2010 and contributed to his second against Sullivan Barrera in 2017.

Astonishingly, Smith entered the fight with an injured jaw. The toll of both injuries had him thinking of retirement, but his determination didn’t allow him to quit the sport.

Four years later, he became a world champion for the first time, defeating Maxim Vlasov for the WBO title. It’s a wonderful story, but one that’s not finished being written.

Smith still has goals left to conquer, and things haven’t been all sunshine and rainbows since winning the title.

Smith was hospitalized in 2021 before his first scheduled title defense after contracting COVID. The illness heavily impacted Smith physically, and the bout was canceled.

Watch Artur Beterbiev vs. Joe Smith Jr. on ESPN on Saturday, June 18, at 10 p.m. ET in a light heavyweight unification bout

Then, he was supposed to defend his title against England’s Callum Johnson, but Johnson tested positive for COVID shortly before their contest.

Steve Geffrard entered as a late replacement. Although Geffrard lacked the name recognition and accolades of Johnson, adjusting to the new task wasn’t easy for Smith.

“No, it was tough,” Smith told FanSided. “You know, he was a last-minute replacement. And, you know, he was in shape. He was training for another fight. But you know, just their styles was completely different. And I didn’t know anything about Steve Geffrard until they mentioned his name to me and told me I was fighting him.”

With little time to adjust to his new opponent, Smith did what anybody in his position would do–hit up YouTube. Smith found what footage he could on Geffrard online and made a quick study.

Smith judged Geffrard as a good defensive boxer and told FanSided that he needed to be patient and process Geffrard’s abilities in the ring. It worked as Smith knocked Geffrard out in round 9.

With his first defense out of the way, it was announced in early May that Smith would meet IBF and WBC champion Artur Beterbiev at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on June 18.

It was welcome news to the boxing community, but no one knew that the fight was briefly in jeopardy of falling through before announced.

COVID entered Smith’s life for the third time near the fight’s announcement.

“I’ve had COVID, you know, not too long ago, a few weeks back, you know, but it wasn’t bad like the first time I had it,” Smith said. “Got over it quickly. Got right back to training and feel great.”

Smith got a head start on training and was fortunate to have recovered in time for the fight’s announcement so plans could proceed unharmed. But for a second there, Smith was worried that COVID would again disrupt his life.

“Yeah, when it first happened, you know, I was a little worried,” Smith said. “But, you know, as the days went by, I realized it wasn’t the same as the first time, and I got through it quick. And you know, got right back to it.”

Beterbiev vs. Smith has massive implications for the light heavyweight division. The other titleholder is WBA champion Dmitry Bivol, who recently defeated Canelo Alvarez via unanimous decision. Bivol and Smith have a history of their own.

Bivol defeated Smith in 2019 by unanimous decision. The winner of Beterbiev and Smith could meet Bivol next to determine an undisputed champion. Bivol revealed to the DAZN Boxing Show (h/t Boxingscene.com) that he feels Beterbiev “has more chance [to win].”

That might prove to be bulletin board material for Smith.

“Yeah, a little bit,” Smith said of Bivol’s remarks bothering him. “You know, everyone’s doubting me once again in this fight. But, you know, just I hope to prove everybody wrong, I’m gonna give it my best. We’re going to train hard. And I know when the fight comes, I’m going to be physically and mentally prepared for it.”

Smith and Beterbiev are two of the most monstrous punchers in the division. Smith has a 70 percent KO rating, and Beterbiev’s (17-0, 17 KOs) is 100 percent.

Smith goes into this contest once again as the underdog. Everybody loves an underdog, and New York is sure to rally around its hometown product, but it’s also a moniker that Smith is hoping to lose on June 18.

“But it’s getting old,” Smith said of being the underdog. “You know, I want to prove that I belong here at the top. And I’m hoping to, you know, take these guys all out. And you know, when Bivol said that too it hurt my feelings a little bit, so that’s even more of a reason why I want to get that rematch.”