Joe Smith Jr. edges Maxim Vlasov for vacant WBO light heavyweight title

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Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·3 min read
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TULSA, OKLAHOMA - APRIL 10: Joe Smith Jr stands inside the ring before his fight against Maxim Vlasov for the WBO light heavyweight title at the Osage Casino on April 10, 2021 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images)
TULSA, OKLAHOMA - APRIL 10: Joe Smith Jr stands inside the ring before his fight against Maxim Vlasov for the WBO light heavyweight title at the Osage Casino on April 10, 2021 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images)

When Joe Smith Jr. finally takes his honeymoon, about two months later than he originally planned, he’ll do it as the WBO light heavyweight champion.

Smith completed his rise from union laborer to world champion on Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he overcame a determined effort by Russian Maxim Vlasov to win a majority decision.

Scores were 115-113, 115-112 and 114-114 for Smith. Yahoo Sports had it 114-114.

“It’s a great feeling,” Smith said. “It was definitely a close, tough, tough fight. Vlasov is a great fighter and he really put on a great show tonight and toughed it out. In that [11th] round I hurt him, I believe he stuck his head down and I should have gotten the knockdown. I believe I would have gotten the stoppage. ... I landed the bigger, harder shots, but he landed a lot of punches, too. It was a great fight.”

Smith won the bout with an incredible rally in the last two rounds, landing 84 power shots over the final six minutes.

The men kept a frenetic pace from the beginning, with Vlasov frequently standing directly in front of the heavy-handed Smith. Vlasov often fought with his hands at his sides, but he had great head-and-shoulder movement and kept throwing punches which kept Smith temporarily at bay.

Smith also was cut around his left eye by a right hand in the first round that caused him problems throughout the fight.

But everything that Smith threw was hard, and the punches began to take their toll on Vlasov by the midpoint of the fight.

The men were originally supposed to fight in Las Vegas on Feb. 13, but Vlasov tested positive for COVID-19 and the fight was postponed. Smith got married on Valentine’s Day in Las Vegas, but instead of heading out onto his honeymoon, he opted to stay and train.

It was a fortuitous decision, because the unheralded Vlasov came to fight and forced Smith to respond in kind.

Smith, who ended the legendary Bernard Hopkins’ Hall of Fame career in 2016 by knocking him out of the ring, never slowed and kept catching Vlasov with big shots.

Smith hurt Vlasov for the first time with a big right cross in the third, but his first great opportunity to end it came in the seventh. He hurt Vlasov badly with a left, and followed up with a right. Smith poured it on, but Vlasov showed the benefit of his 49 bouts over 16 years as a pro by finding a way to survive.

Remarkably, Vlasov not only survived the seventh, he came back with huge rounds in the eighth and ninth and hurt Smith with a right to the head late in the ninth. Vlasov seemed to have the fight in hand after the 10th.

Smith hurt Vlasov badly in the 11th with a body shot and after a flurry of punches, dropped the Russian to one knee. But referee Gary Ritter ruled no knockdown because the punch was to the back of the head, which replays showed was the correct call.

But the delay to allow Vlasov to recover from the punch may have saved him, as he was in dire jeopardy.

Smith, though, went out like a champion in the 12th and because of that, he’ll go on his honeymoon, finally, as a champ.

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