VERONA, N.Y. -- After light heavyweight contender Joe Smith Jr. -- a former construction worker -- had a breakout year in 2016, he appeared headed to a world title fight.
After all, he had scored a major upset with a stunning first-round knockout of contender Andrzej Fonfara and followed it with an even bigger win in the encore when he sent legend Bernard Hopkins into retirement by knocking him clear out of the ring in an eighth-round knockout victory.
And then he appeared on his way to defeating contender Sullivan Barrera in his next fight when he dropped him in the first round. But Barrera got off the deck, broke Smith's jaw and went on to win a unanimous decision in a fight Smith somehow managed to go the distance in despite a brutal injury that sidelined him for 11 months.
But after returning for a quick first-round knockout win against journeyman Melvin Russell in June, Smith is finally getting the opportunity to fight for a world title that he has dreamed about. He will challenge Dmitry Bivol for his 175-pound belt in what many predict will be a fan-friendly fight Saturday (DAZN, 7 p.m. ET) at the Turning Stone Resort Casino.
Light heavyweight world titleholder Dmitry Bivol defends his belt against Joe Smith Jr. on Saturday in a fight that might be his last in the weight class.
"This fight means everything to me. This is everything I've worked for my entire career, and I'm just really looking forward to it," Smith told ESPN. "I want to show everybody that I'm going to be the new champion. If I didn't have a chance to fight for a world title or a chance to win one, I wouldn't even be here today still fighting. But I know that I have a chance to win this fight and I feel I am going to win this fight and that's why I am here. It just means everything to me."
Star Boxing's Joe DeGuardia, Smith's co-promoter with Matchroom Boxing's Eddie Hearn, has been with Smith for years and knows how difficult it has been for Smith to land the title shot.
"The ride with Joe has had some really big highs and a disappointing low when he broke his jaw against Barrera because he had unbelievable momentum before that fight," DeGuardia said. "It's been an emotional trek to get here. You work so hard on my end and he works so hard on his end, and you get the two unbelievable wins over Fonfara and Hopkins and then the setback with Barrera. So it's rewarding to be back in action and get the opportunity for him to fight for a world title."
But it shapes up as a difficult fight. Bivol, 28, of Russia, who will be making his fifth title defense, is one of boxing's rising stars. He has fast hands, good power and a deep amateur background. Last March, he retained his title by stopping Barrera in the 12th round of a one-sided fight.
"I harbor no illusions. I know he's in a very difficult fight with Bivol but a winnable fight," DeGuardia said. "I have grown to know that Joe is a man of surprises. He's given me some real happy moments in the sport. I've had good nights in boxing, and I'm not that emotional. The night he knocked out Fonfara, I jumped up in the air. It was amazing, so exciting and unexpected. I didn't expect it that quick and explosive, even knowing what a good puncher Joe is. And then he ruined the farewell party for Bernard. Who would have expected he send Bernard flying out of the ring?
"We're back in action now fighting for a world championship, something he has dreamed about his whole life. It's great to have him in this position. Now it's his part. I'm hoping he can do what he has been doing. I know Joe is very confident and very thrilled about this fight."Joe Smith Jr., left, sent Bernard Hopkins out of the ring for a TKO victory in Round 7 in 2016. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports
Smith (24-2, 20 KOs), 29, a New Yorker from Long Island, said he respects Bivol (15-0, 11 KOs) but believes he can exploit Bivol's weaknesses.
"He's a great fighter and he's very busy [with his punches], but I believe there are a lot of things that are in my favor," said Smith, who visited the nearby International Boxing Hall of Fame with Bivol and posed for numerous photos with him Thursday. "I'm bigger than him. I believe I can be faster. And I'm gonna show that fight night. I definitely have a lot more power than him. I don't believe he has the power to hurt me with any punch.
"He is dangerous because he throws a lot of combinations, but sometimes he's really aggressive and throws wild shots, and I believe if I punch with him, I will land something of mine and I can hurt him."
The respect is mutual.
"Joe Smith is a good boxer, he is young and he throws a lot of punches -- it is a good match for both of us," Bivol said. "I gain experience in every fight I have had, and I will gain experience because of his style in this fight also. He has good power, but it is not his best quality. He has good speed and good combinations. I have watched many of Joe's fights, and he has good power. He tries to push his opponents to the ropes and beat them there."
The long layoff because of the jaw injury was frustrating for Smith, who had just started to earn six-figure purses.
"It sucked, and the injury was terrible," he said of recovering from the broken jaw. "It's a rough thing to go through, but I made it through it. When my jaw was healed up and the doctors gave me the OK to get back in the ring, I was already in the gym training. So once I had that OK, I wanted to fight right away to keep my rankings [with the sanctioning organizations]. I took a quick fight [with Russell], and I've been trying to fight since, but it kept getting postponed and fights just kept falling through. It seemed like a lot of guys just didn't want to fight me. And finally I got an opportunity, and it's a great one."
Besides Smith's boxing success, he endeared himself to many fans because of his blue-collar, everyman way -- common name, no-frills style, workmanlike attitude. DeGuardia even dubbed him "The Common Man," because he is also a labor union member who worked construction when not boxing.
Smith still keeps his union book up to date because he said it's always good to have something to fall on if he needs to. But he is not doing any construction these days because about a year ago he opened his own tree company.
"I have always done tree work growing up. My father was a tree worker and my grandfather, so I just got involved in it," he said. "We remove 'em , we trim 'em, we do storm work, all of it. I did it for a while, but once I heard I was definitely fighting, I put that aside to train. My father is running the business, and the brothers help out. It's a family business. But I'm still in the Local 66 labor union, and I'm always going to keep the business. It's always good to have something after boxing to keep your mind busy. I like the work. I like to do things."
DeGuardia said that he is happy to see Smith set himself up for life after boxing with his tree business but that there is also serious boxing business at hand.
"His tree business is a great metaphor because he's been chopping down trees in major fights," he said. "This will be the biggest tree. Joe has to take care of this oak tree. But the fact that he kept the union card, opened his own business, I like it that he is thinking about the future, and there's a life after boxing. But hopefully he wins this fight and makes a tremendous amount of money in boxing. He has a monumental tree to chop down Saturday, but if he does, I think there are a lot of possibilities."