Joe Smith Jr interview: No ordinary Joe

Mark Butcher
15/05/2017 7:32am

With impressive victories against Andrzej Fonfara and Bernard Hopkins, Joe Smith jr was one of the fighters of the year for 2016. Mark Butcher interviewed him earlier this year for Boxing Monthly...

The story of Joe Smith Jr reads like a script from an uplifting Hollywood movie. A humble kid from a blue-collar background, blessed with concussive knockout power, works construction by day and recovers from a potentially career-ending injury and significant debt to gatecrash the big time with a brace of spectacular, upset victories.

A year ago, the Long Island light-heavyweight was a virtual unknown outside of the New York fight scene, but Smith’s startling knockouts of Polish dangerman Andrzej Fonfara and departing legend Bernard Hopkins (both noted for their toughness) sent shockwaves rippling through the sport.

For many labourers turned fight fans, the New Yorker has come to represent the hard-working everyman and the heartbeat of blue-collar America. Through Smith, his fellow construction workers and members of the Local 66 Laborers Union in Long Island live vicariously and see something of themselves.

“They all love it. I get questions from them, all day, every day,” Smith told Boxing Monthly over the phone from New York. “When’s my next fight, when am I going to quit working, all kinds of stuff. They don’t expect to see me [on-site] all the time, but it’s cool.”

Balancing a physically taxing day job in construction with life as a top level, professional boxer is no easy task, but Smith, the eldest of eight siblings from an Irish American family, will continue to pour concrete and smash walls with sledgehammers until money is no longer a concern.

“It’s tough. It’s harder working a full day and going to the gym right afterwards, but that’s what I’m doing. In a couple of weeks, I’m probably going to take off work and just focus on training,” Smith, of Mastic Beach, Long Island, told BM.

“[Life] has changed a lot. People are recognizing me everywhere. Everyone is really happy for me. They are watching the [Hopkins] fight over and over. I’m motivated to keep moving forward and, hopefully this year, I will become champion of the world. It feels nice to represent my town, but the main thing is to represent the working guy. It feels good. Each fight I have, I get closer and closer to bettering my life and my family’s life.”

Smith’s trainer Jerry Capobianco is also a union member, with the Local 138 International Union of Operating Engineers, and boxing runs in his DNA. Capobianco’s father John trained a young Gerry Cooney, among others, at the Huntington Athletic Club while his brother John Jr was a hardened 175-pounder who fought two-time world title challenger Richie Kates and headlined at the Nassau Coliseum in the 1970s. Phil Capobianco, also a former pro and union member, acts as Smith’s co-manager alongside brother Jerry.

“[Construction] is a hard way of life and Joe gives these guys a little bit of hope. Somebody to root for,” Jerry Capobianco told BM on the same call. “They are a bunch of hardworking guys and they are all excited for him because Joe represents them. I go to work every day and see these guys and all they do is talk about Joe.”

Capobianco and Smith (23-1, 19 KOs) have formed a closely-knit bond, more akin to family than coach and protégé. “I am with Joe more than my own family, my own kids,” confessed the straight-talking trainer. “Whenever you have that closeness it gets hard, at times, but he knows I truly care about him and his career. I know he respects me. Whenever you are close, there are always a few arguments and friction.

“Early on, it was very hard to have hope, making $6,000 a fight. It’s a tough sport, getting hit in the head and hardly making any money. That’s why Joe got the labourer’s job so he had something to fall back on. He broke his jaw bad. The odds of making it to this point right here were not good.”

A route to the top seemed ever more unlikely when a 20-year-old Smith sustained a fractured jaw in an early injury loss to a roughhousing Eddie Caminero in August 2010. The seven-hour reconstructive surgery cost $75,000 and Smith fell into heavy debt during his enforced 11-month break from the ring.

“I learned I always need a good mouthpiece and to bite down on it!” recalled Smith, a former New York Golden Gloves champion who as a teenager beat fellow Long Islander and Irish American Seanie Monaghan in the final. “I got hit with a punch that didn’t effect me [concussively], but I felt the shock in my face and knew something was wrong. Something I’d never felt before. I got back to the corner and said, ‘I think my jaw is broken’.

“I hurt him a bunch of times, but he was a tough kid. He saw I was hurt when the doctor looked at [my injury] and took advantage. He hit me in the jaw and rubbed his [head] on my chin, did whatever he could to get that win. I tried to stay in there as long as I could, but knew if I continued I could possibly end my career.”

Despite that painful, early set-back, Smith never contemplated retirement or life as a journeyman joking that Capobianco “didn’t give me the choice” but for the trainer the loss only underlined his fighter’s inherent resilience.

“It just showed how tough he was,” added Capobianco. “First, it was a double fracture, it wasn’t just a crack. Both sides of his jaw were almost off, each side. They split.”

“It was just hanging on by skin!” interjected a laughing Smith. “To be honest, it never even crossed my mind to quit boxing. The thing we talked about in the months I was off training is that I’ve got to bite on my mouthpiece hard and keep my chin down.”

Capobianco continued: “It showed what kind of balls he had because he wouldn’t submit, take a knee or quit. And even more balls to step back in the same ring in the same arena on his first fight back. Sometimes, I didn’t give him a choice, I had to drag him, but now it’s different – he sees the light at the end of the tunnel.”

That deep faith in his fighter was justified when Smith upset the feisty Fonfara in the Pole’s adopted hometown of Chicago. Fonfara had bulldozed Nathan Cleverly and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr in his previous two and also floored and extended WBC champion Adonis Stevenson [L12] in May 2014. The unsung Smith was meant to be a mere stepping stone to another world title shot, but the New Yorker poleaxed Fonfara in just 2 minutes and 32 seconds.

That breakthrough, televised during prime time on NBC in America, paved the way for a clash with contemporary great and legendary curmudgeon Bernard Hopkins in his swansong on HBO. Once again, Smith didn’t read the script, knocking ‘The Executioner’ clean out of the ring in the eighth through a series of bludgeoning left hooks with an injured Hopkins unable to return during the extended 20 count.

Not known for his grace in defeat, Hopkins claimed he had been pushed out of the ring when real time and replays clearly showed the Philadelphian had been punched through the ropes. Smith, 27, looks back on Hopkins’ assertion with wry amusement.

“I didn’t really see Hopkins weakening during the fight,” remembered Smith. ”I felt he was ‘there’ the whole time. But I did what I needed to do and got him out of there [literally!]. His [comments] kind of bothered me a little bit. He could have admitted he was beat by a younger fighter and should have given me some credit, but everyone saw what happened.”

In quite dramatic fashion, Smith became the only man ever to stop Hopkins, something even renowned puncher Sergey Kovalev could not achieve in 2014 (though many felt referee David Fields could have intervened there in a brutally one-sided final round).

“Hopkins was the same guy who fought Kovalev,” insisted Capobianco. “He wasn’t that much different. Hopkins was never out of the gym. He [only missed] three days when his mother died the whole time he was off. It’s a dream for both of us and it’s becoming reality. From day one, I truly believed in Joe. I said as soon as Fonfara tries to slug it out with Joe he’s going to get knocked out. And, with Hopkins, I went out on a limb and said Joe is going to knock him out, too. Joe hits harder than Kovalev and Stevenson.”

After tearing up the formbook in 2016, the humble Smith is becoming a believer, too. “In the beginning, Jerry always told me he was going to make me world champion and I was like, ‘Get the hell out of here! It ain’t going to happen’, but with each fight I’ve believed him a little bit more. Now we are at a point where we could possibly be fighting for the championship of the world in the next fight. Jerry tells me every day I’m going to be champ and makes sure I’m working and training hard. I would not be here without him.”

The sudden rise of Joe Smith Jr marks another success story for New York promoter Joe DeGuardia. The CEO and President of Star Boxing has been down this path before, having guided Chris Algieri from small hall shows at the Paramount Theater in Huntington, New York, to the world stage. That blueprint has been repeated with Smith though, in this case, DeGuardia has a fighter with the power to match an intriguing backstory.

“It’s been something we’ve been doing for a while over here. We work hard to develop these guys,” DeGuardia told BM over the phone from his office in White Plains, New York. “With Chris, we had a fighter who was unique in that he had a Masters degree and a medicine background. With Joe, we’ve got an exciting, humble, blue-collar fighter who resonates with the common man.

“We built him up in the same way we built up Chris Algieri. We start a fighter in a local venue and build them in that venue to a regional level and, ultimately, a national level. This is like the old-fashioned way of promoting. If people want to see [a fighter] you can develop a following around them. But with the opportunities they have to perform. Joe is a hot commodity and he should be. Right now, I don’t see anyone who is a better storyline in the whole division.

“Joe is a humble construction worker, who is getting up early in the morning and plying the jackhammer every day and digging ditches,” continued DeGuardia, who was in negotiations for Smith to face WBC 175lbs champion Adonis Stevenson at the time of this interview. “He wants to keep grounded though, once we book the fights for him, he’s off the job and in training camp. This is a guy who came up the hard way, didn’t have backing by any networks or big money support. Joe did it with his own hands. He didn’t have to rely on judges. I think fans identify with that. You can’t chop up liver and tell them it’s a prime steak. When they look at Joe, they can tell this is someone who did not have things given to him. Someone who is real.”