RECOGNITION: Joe Smith Jr. faces off against Sullivan Barrera

Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

 

In boxing, not unlike the mafia, nicknames are issued in a spirit of exaggeration. Fashioned from a fighter’s most noteworthy traits, they’re pithy, often humorous and endearing embellishments meant to elevate the single most essential element of a fighter’s stylistic makeup. Thus, Mike McCallum, recognized for his fondness for bruising up an opponent’s midsection, was christened the “Bodysnatcher” and boyish Ray Mancini, adored for his brisk and relentless pace inside the ropes, was appropriately dubbed “Boom Boom.” So it’s a curious thing to find that the boxing nomenclature could do no better than to offer Long Island’s Joe Smith Jr. the underwhelming sobriquet of “The Common Man.”

 

Smith, after all, is the author of two of the most stunning knockout victories in 2016. He stopped Andrzej Fonfara in the first round of their matchup and spoiled Hall-of-Famer Bernard Hopkins’ final bout by blasting the aged fighter, literally, out of the ring. In addition to his Irish roots and his day job in construction, Smith might have been better served with a designation that advertises his brute strength, the “Irish Sledgehammer,” say – something, anything, that isn’t a blatant embrace of mediocrity. The thing is, professional boxers, no matter their skill level – from journeymen to world-class contenders alike – pursue a means of living at odds with 99% of the population. They are special beings, by this measure.

 

On a Thursday afternoon in the basement of New York City’s Mendez Boxing Gym, Smith is seated on a bench, surrounded by a bulwark of cameras, microphones and a halo of harsh light. He is gearing up for tonight, when he faces the biggest test of his career against Sullivan Barrera, whose only loss has come against Andre Ward. The fight takes place miles away from Long Island at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Smith sports a fresh bronze tan and reminds everyone that he possesses a hulking torso and a pair of thickset, almost unwieldy-looking arms. Physically speaking, Smith is far from common and his imposing figure means you could easily spot him from afar. When he speaks, however, you find yourself sidling up to him, crouching low to the ground, laboring to parse his words from the din of the gym. Smith is soft-spoken, taciturn, perhaps a little shy, but not unfriendly. He explains that he doesn’t believe in publicizing false personas.

 

“I’m just me,” Smith tells UCNLive.com, sheepishly smiling, in response to questions about his low-key personality. “I’m just a quiet, mellow guy. I like to show all my opponents respect and all the people around me.

 

“I’m just a humble guy; I guess.”

 

While Smith’s moniker may lack pizzazz and chutzpah (in an industry that breeds choleric levels of narcissism), it reflects symmetry and honesty – a name that valorizes his Mastic Beach upbringing and shows solidarity with his fellow union workers at Laborers Local 66. As it stands, Smith is still a card-carrying union member, taking shifts in the lulls between his fights. It is clear that his breakout victories in 2016, and all the media attention, have not changed him.

 

However, Smith makes it clear that he enjoys the attention that comes with being an HBO fighter, a distinction that strips anonymity away. When told that he seemed to be more active on his Twitter account, Smith laughed. “Oh man, my Twitter.” It wasn’t clear if Smith was being facetious or if he was responding to the seedier aspects of social media but the point was clear enough: He now has viral presence where there used to be none. “Everywhere I go people are recognizing me.” Smith said. “Everything that I worked hard for is coming together. It’s been unreal.”

 

Life as a fighter with momentum means fighting in places not named the Paramount Theatre in Huntington, New York. Many fighters yearn to fight in their hometowns. For Smith, the travel is a welcome change.

 

“To be honest, I don’t mind traveling at all. I would enjoy the fight at home but I do like fighting in Los Angeles – It’s a lot of fun.”

 

Smith’s promoter, Joe DeGuardia of Star Boxing, isn’t worried about repeated suggestions that Smith needs to fight in New York, where there are constant requests for a showdown with, among others, fellow Long Islander Sean Monaghan. “I promote New York all the time,” DeGuardia told UCNLive.com. “If it doesn’t fit, you can’t make it fit. You have to go where the biggest fighters are and where the biggest networks are. Frankly, we’re going to be on HBO in front of a national audience, so I imagine all of Long Island will be at home watching the fight.

 

“Joe’s a nationwide fighter.”

 

In many ways, Smith’s natural reticence and embrace of his nickname bespeaks the proper attitude and approach for a fighter who has not yet reached the financial heights of the sport. On a Premier Boxing Champions card, Smith was supposed to get torn up by Fonfara in the latter’s hometown of Chicago. On HBO, he was supposed to get schooled by Hopkins to cap off a storied career. Smith makes his second appearance on HBO airwaves but if he is unable to overcome Barrera, Smith, long unheralded, may find himself back in boxing’s doldrums. Such is boxing.

 

“You gotta keep winning,” DeGuardia said. “That’s the name of this game.”

 

Indeed, to study Smith’s place in boxing is to understand that the sport is a tenuous affair for most of its participants, fighters and handlers alike. And while there is no set formula to succeed in a volatile industry, DeGuardia knows a thing or two about the long road toward the grand payoff. He did it once with Antonio Tarver, when Tarver shocked the world by knocking out Roy Jones Jr. And he did it more recently with Long Island native Chris Algieri, whose decision victory over Ruslan Provodnikov opened the doors for a showdown with Manny Pacquiao.

 

The fighter is different but the script remains the same: Should the Common Man get past Barrera, it will be the third time Smith will have upended the odds. A new nickname may be in order. Moreover, a win at this stage brings him that much closer to one of the sport’s few real paydays, perhaps against one of the division’s elites in unified light heavyweight champion Ward, Sergey Kovalev or WBC titlist Adonis Stevenson. Speaking of which, a showdown promoted as the “Common Man versus ‘Superman’”? On second thought, keep the nickname, Joe. It has a nice ring to it.

 

 

Sean Nam is a contributor to The Cruelest Sport and UCNLive. He also writes about film for Slant Magazine and Mubi Notebook.

 

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