When Joe Smith Jr. defeated Eleider Alvarez last year, the quality of his performance demonstrated a metamorphosis in his career. No longer just a crude banger, Smith outboxed an excellent boxer. He worked off the jab and used angles and purposeful footwork to set up shots. Initially offering little more than heavy hands and desire early in his career, now he had finally become a well-schooled fighter.
On Saturday, Smith had the opportunity to win a vacant light heavyweight belt against Maxim Vlasov, and none of his recent refinements made the trip to Tulsa. From the first moment of the fight, he was winging wild power shots and often missing badly, looking like a guy having a bar fight at two in the morning. His jab was non-existent. He recklessly squared up to throw punches, which created easy target practice for Vlasov. In addition, Smith's feet didn't seem under him. He was having balance issues during large portions of the fight.
|Smith (left) tries to defend a Vlasov right hand
Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams
Ultimately, Smith's poor form can be attributed to two factors: He thought he would knock out Vlasov with ease, or he didn't train properly (of course these two things could be related). Vlasov recently had COVID and perhaps there was a belief that he would be less than 100% for the fight. In addition, Smith just got married and naturally that change can lead to a break from tried-and-true habits. But perhaps Smith was believing his headlines a little too much after knocking out Alvarez.
Vlasov started the fight completely prepared for his opponent. He was in-and-out, side-to-side, never in one place for too long. But he wasn't running; he was always near Smith, so he could land from unpredictable angles and counter when Smith missed. Vlasov didn't try to load up with shots. He mostly featured "touch" right hands, but he did mix in some more punishing uppercuts and venomous crosses as the fight continued. And he was having so much success early in the fight that he was even backing up Smith, a successful example of bullying the bully.
Until the final third of the fight, Smith often looked befuddled in the ring. But it must be said that there were a number of rounds where Smith was getting comprehensively outboxed and then he would land a straight right to the head or a body shot that would hurt Vlasov so significantly that Maxim would stop throwing punches. Vlasov had a poor poker face during those moments; everyone watching knew how badly affected he was. These rounds made for some interesting scoring decisions in that Vlasov was very much fighting his fight, but Smith would land big punches – a case of ring generalship vs. clean, effective punching.
Smith closed the fight well. Whereas his big shots connected sporadically throughout the first half of the fight, by the end the heavy artillery was landing far more frequently. Vlasov was significantly hurt in the 11th round, but a rabbit punch allowed him to take a lengthy breather. Smith also turned on the jets in the 12th and he demonstrated that his determination, heart and right hand were still present, even if his considerable boxing skills were not.
Ultimately Smith won by a majority decision: 115-112, 115-113 and 114-114. I scored it 115-113 for Vlasov, but I understood that Smith had a case for winning a close decision. It certainly wasn't Smith's cleanest performance. He won't want to watch the replay often. Still, it's always a nice story when a club fighter makes it to the world level and wins a title.
Vlasov probably deserved better than what he received on the judges’ scorecards. He showed what upper body movement, feints, good feet and angles can do to a knockout artist that loads up on big shots. Vlasov was clever, tricky and determined. Ultimately the judges liked Smith's power a little bit better, but Vlasov performed ably.
Smith could next face Artur Beterbiev in a unification fight. Although Beterbiev is among the hardest hitters in boxing, he presents none of the stylistic dilemmas that Vlasov did. Beterbiev-Smith would be a battle of whose chin holds up better. There's a risk that Smith could get knocked out there, but he won't have to deal with clever and cagey. Maybe he'll prefer that.
Jaron "Boots" Ennis has not been a secret. He hails from Philadelphia, a city that has a seen a few things over the decades when it comes to its beloved boxing, and which features a fanbase that is not overly impressed with what's hot and new. Yet despite the cynicism of Philly fans, Ennis has been able to shatter that hard-heartedness. During his development fights, he created what seemed like universal support and affection among Philly's boxing enthusiasts. One can often hear Philly boxing fans (or even those in the city who ply their trade in the sport) rip this young fighter or that prospect, but when I've seen Ennis fight in Philly, I've never heard a negative word about him from anyone, which I'm sure qualifies as some sort of record.
And despite not facing tough competition throughout his development fights, Ennis at 23 was already headlining a Showtime championship boxing card on Saturday. It didn't matter that there wasn't a championship on the line for his fight against welterweight contender Sergey Lipinets. It wasn't a case of Showtime boxing head Stephen Espinoza being too hasty. Similar to those Philly fight fans, the boxing execs trusted their eyes and had become believers.
|Jaron "Boots" Ennis (left) shoots a left hand
Photo courtesy of Amanda Westcott
The attributes that have made many boxing fans fall in love with Ennis were all in fine form on Saturday: the massive punch variety, the pinpoint accuracy, the freak athleticism, the seamless switching from southpaw to orthodox. But what really surprised me was Ennis' punching power. Yes, his final right hook/left uppercut combo in the sixth round will be replayed endlessly, but Ennis pasted Lipinets throughout the fight with hard stuff from all angles and multiple stances. It wasn't just that he landed with thudding blows, but that they had a real effect on a tough, durable fighter who had taken his fair share of heavy punches throughout his career.
While all of Ennis' fancy stuff is important and vital in his overall package as a fighter, let's not forget that he has 25 knockouts in 27 fights. He's not one of these cuties with great skills who needs to fight in that style because of a lack of power. He can box brilliantly AND hurt an opponent, stop him, and end it quickly.
Lipinets turned out to be the perfect opponent for Ennis. He was physical, did some grappling on the inside, dug to the body when he could, had nasty intent on his shots and took some big punches. Ultimately, Lipinets was outgunned, but he represented Ennis' first real test as a pro, a test in which he passed with flying colors.
But if we're nitpicking, and let's nitpick for a second, Ennis does need to tighten up things defensively. Perhaps he has developed some bad habits against poor opposition. There were too many times where Lipinets was able to land a free shot on Ennis (usually a chopping right hand) to an area where there wasn't a glove anywhere nearby. Maybe Ennis thought that he was out of range, that his reflexes would allow him to avoid the shot, or that he had the chin to take it. Whatever the reason may be, it's not a good practice to give capable, hard-hitting welterweights free shots.
I'm sure Ennis knows that he kicked some serious butt on Saturday, but what will he do when he sees "95" on his exam paper instead of "100"? Will he be satisfied with the result, or will he do what it takes to ace the next one? That answer will help determine his ultimate ceiling in the sport.
Quietly, Lithuanian welterweight Eimantas Stanionis has plied his trade on smaller cards, beating solid pros such as Justin DeLoach and Levan Ghvamichava. In his 13th professional fight on Saturday he faced former junior welterweight title challenger Thomas Dulorme, a 30-bout veteran who had recently given strong work to Jamal James, Jessie Vargas and Yordenis Ugas in the welterweight division.
And this was not a faded version of Dulorme that appeared on Saturday. Working with noted trainer Ismael Salas, Dulorme was well prepared for what Stanionis had to offer. Noticing a high guard, Dulorme went to Stanionis' body with lead power shots. Salas realized that Stanionis almost always worked off the jab, so he had his fighter move toward Stanionis' power hand, often a no-no, but here it was excellent advice. In addition, Dulorme was instructed not to stand in front of Stanionis and limit prolonged exchanges. Ultimately, Dulorme and Salas had the right game plan; it just didn't matter.
Over the course of 12 grueling rounds, Stanionis was better able to assert himself in the ring. When Dulorme darted out of the pocket, Stanionis used excellent footwork to trap Dulorme and start another offensive attack. Although Dulorme constantly moved to Stanionis' right, it was Stanionis' jab that consistently landed throughout the fight. And even though Dulorme would have success with quick lead punches, Stanionis' counters were crisp, hard and effective.
Stanionis would win via unanimous decision and while Dulorme asked many questions, Stanionis had enough answers. Although there are more hyped young welterweights in the sport than Stanionis (Ennis and Vergil Ortiz, for example), his performance on Saturday demonstrated that he too has world-class skills.
Some of the issues that Dulorme and Salas exposed are areas that Stanionis must continue to improve upon. He can be predictable with his offensive approach and he will need to mix in more lead right hands and lead left hooks. And it's true that his defensive guard can be a little too high.
Stanionis landed many of his best shots throughout the fight, but he wasn't able to knock out or even seriously hurt Dulorme, who has been chinny throughout his career. Although Stanionis has an almost 70% knockout ratio, he doesn't seem to be a one-punch KO guy; he grinds down opponents over time with pressure and incisive punching.
A smart fighter with a number of solid tools, Stanionis is going to be a tough night at the office for any opponent. However, it's an open question as to whether he has anything that could be considered sublime. The welterweight division historically has featured many of the top fighters in the sport and the present with Crawford, Spence and Pacquiao is a further continuation of this trend. Being very good often isn't good enough, not at 147. We shall see.
Jerwin Ancajas is not a beloved fighter. After impressing in his early title defenses, he did two things that led to antipathy in many corners of the boxing world: he turned down big fights and his performance level started to drop. Unfortunately for Ancajas, he finds himself in the junior bantamweight division, where titleholders like Juan Estrada and Kazuto Ioka have recently faced much bigger challenges, and former champions Roman Gonzalez and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai are constantly hunting big game. They all want to prove themselves against the best, and I'm not sure that Ancajas has felt similarly.
Ancajas, from the Philippines, and a protege of Manny Pacquiao, recently aligned with the PBC and kicked off Saturday's Showtime broadcast against unheralded but capable Jonathan Rodriguez of Mexico. And they went to war.
|Ancajas (left) connecting with a straight left hand
Photo courtesy of Amanda Westcott
Ancajas won via a unanimous decision and the fight was a fantastic watch, with brutal back-and-forth action. Ancajas' offense was eye-catching. He dug to the body mercilessly with right hooks. He displayed a ferocious and varied offensive attack.
But his faults were still there to see. Noticing that Ancajas leaned over his front foot, Rodriguez pasted him with right uppercuts. Seeing that Ancajas' glove positioning was a mess, he landed consistently with straight and looping right hands.
Furthermore, after knocking down Rodriguez during an impressive eighth round assault, Ancajas was unable to get the stoppage despite Rodriguez looking like he was ready to go at multiple points. And despite being physically depleted, Rodriguez was actually the fighter who seemed to close better in the championship rounds.
Saturday's version of Ancajas was a lot of fun, and fun is always welcome in boxing. But this is not a division to fool around in. There are real threats at 115 lbs., Hall of Famers at or still close to their peak, and menacing contenders. If Ancajas can't perfect his defensive shortcomings, or figure out how to stop a wounded fighter, his title reign will wind up being remembered for much more quantity than quality. He's now at nine title defenses and counting, a formidable number for sure, but the names are nowhere near as impressive as that number. And we probably know why that has been the case.