Light heavyweight contenders Jesse Hart and Joe Smith Jr. will square off on Jan. 11 in the main event of the first Top Rank Boxing on ESPN card of 2020, Top Rank announced on Tuesday.
Hart and Smith will meet in a scheduled 10-round bout at Etess Arena at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey (ESPN and ESPN Deportes, 10 p.m. ET with preliminary bouts streaming on ESPN+ beginning at 7 p.m. ET).
“When you have two fighters who can punch like heck, anything can happen,” Top Rank chairman Bob Arum said. “We believe Jesse Hart has everything it takes to become a world champion, but Joe Smith Jr. can turn the lights out at any moment.”
Smith (24-3, 20 KOs), 30, a union construction worker from New York’s Long Island, made a name for himself with significant back-to-back knockout wins in 2016, a first-round stoppage of then-contender Andrzej Fonfara followed by an eighth-round knockout of the legendary Bernard Hopkins, whom Smith knocked out of the ring and sent into retirement.
But Smith is 1-2 since, scoring a first-round knockout of journeyman Melvin Russell between decision losses to former world title challenger Sullivan Barrera and world titleholder Dmitry Bivol in March. In the loss to Barrera, Smith suffered a badly broken jaw early in the bout and was sidelined by the injury for 11 months before returning against Russell.
“I am focused and ready to bring everything I have,” Smith said. “Jesse Hart might want to make this personal, but I didn’t even know who he was before this fight was brought up. I am ready for this. It is going to be a great night.”
Hart said he is taking the fight personally because fellow Philadelphia product Hopkins is a mentor of his and he would like to avenge the loss Hopkins suffered against Smith.
“This is personal. Bernard inspired me to be what I became,” said Hart, who is 7-0 fighting in Atlantic City. “I wouldn’t be right if didn’t avenge that defeat. I can’t move forward unless I beat him. This is a Philly thing. It’s more personal than business for me. I want a world title shot at light heavyweight, but I have to get through this guy first.”
Hart (26-2, 21 KOs), 30, of Philadelphia, the son of former 1970s middleweight contender Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, suffered both of his losses in competitive super middleweight world title bouts challenging Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez, the first in September 2017 and then in the December 2018 rematch.
After the second defeat, Hart moved up to light heavyweight and has won his only fight since, a 10-round unanimous decision against Barrera on June 15 on the Tyson Fury-Tom Schwarz undercard in Las Vegas.
The winner of the fight will position himself for a potential shot at an even bigger fight. Top Rank is deep in the light heavyweight division, in which it also promotes unified world titleholder Artur Beterbiev and former titleholder Oleksandr Gvozdyk and co-promotes former titlist Eleider “Storm” Alvarez.
One week after Hart-Smith, Top Rank also has another notable light heavyweight bout on tap as the headliner of an ESPN+ card on Jan. 18 at the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, New York, on Alvarez (24-1, 12 KOs) and big puncher Michael Seals (24-2, 18 KOs) will square off in the 10-round main event.