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The 13th Round: Joe Smith Jr – the modern day Cinderella Man

In 1934 an Irish-American labourer from New York called James J Braddock shocked the boxing World with a knockout of Corn Griffin, one of the leading contenders in the heavyweight division.

In 2016, almost 82 years on to the day, an Irish-American labourer from New York called Joe Smith Jr shocked the boxing World with a knockout of Andrzej Fonfara, one of the leading contenders in the light heavyweight division.

Easily the biggest upset of the year, ‘The Irish Bomber’ flipped the script on Saturday night with a first round stoppage of Fonfara on hostile away turf.

I’m not afraid to admit that I stayed up for the bout at the UIC Pavilion with a sense of trepidation. Everything pointed to an easy win for Fonfara, maybe even through an early stoppage, and I hoped for little more than to Smith to just do himself justice, perhaps last the distance. How wrong I was.

The win was not part of the narrative. ‘The Polish Prince’ Fonfara was meant to handily dispose of the Long Island slugger in front of his adoring crowd in Chicago on the Premier Boxing Champions headliner to set up a rematch with WBC king Adonis Stevenson.

Instead, Smith quickly floored the 1/33 favourite heavily with a huge right before finishing the bout moments later, leaving the shell-shocked Fonfara crumpled meekly under the turnbuckle.

Over the past weeks and months a fairy-tale had been written. Fonfara, the fan-friendly former underdog, had overwhelmed Mexican star Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, outgunned former champ Nathan Cleverly, and was going to score a highlight-reel knock-out over Smith to force a return innings with Stevenson (whom he had down, hurt, and finished strong against in their first bout in 2014).

Instead an altogether more interesting and genuine fairy-tale has emerged. 26 year old Joe Smith Jr, a full-time construction worker and dismissed as little more than a club fighter, now stands on the cusp of huge, money-spinning fights in one of boxing’s premier divisions.

And Saturday’s knockout shows that the ‘Beast from the East’ is a threat to anyone. Fonfara had somewhat dismissed Smith’s KO ratio, citing his previous opposition and how he had gone the distance in his only real bout of note (UD10 v Will Rosinsky). Just two minutes into the fight, the Pole was stumbling across the full length of the ring, viscerally proving that Smith’s power is real.

It was no lucky punch either. Smith and his team entered the match-up with supreme confidence and went for the win from the opening bell. It would have been understandable if the Brookhaven brawler had boxed conservatively against his elite level foe, looked to survive, last the distance, set up future fights against decent operators. Instead he came out swinging, ready for war, taking Fonfara’s shots and landing back with an Irish bomb of his own.

The crowd-silencing haymaker from Smith is a split-second that could change the young man’s life forever. A contract with PBC-backer Al Haymon is likely, a homecoming in Madison Square Garden is a possibility, and further money-spinning fights are a certainty.

Within a year of his win over Corn Griffin, James J Braddock upset the odds again with victory over the monstrous champion Max Baer. His punching power alone gives Joe Smith Jr a chance against any light heavyweight in the World. In terms of titles, should they come through their bouts in July, Adonis Stevenson and Eleider Alvarez are expected to contest the WBC belt at the end of the year. Smith could be next up for the winner, although there will be undoubted calls for Stevenson/Alvarez to face the winner of Andre Ward v Sergey Kovalev. One possible bout for Smith that makes perfect sense is an Irish-America St Patrick’s Day clash with fellow New Yorker Seanie Monaghan.

All of this is purely hypothetical and some time in the distance, but these are the sort of possibilities that Saturday’s win enable. He was given an opportunity no-one expected him to take at the weekend, and this should open many more doors. Smith is raw, but there is undeniable talent and devastating power. Saturday’s win now gives him the opportunity to down his tools on the building site and sharpen his pugilistic tools further.

There could be a new force in the 175lbs division, a new Cinderella Man.

Joe O'Neill

Reporting on Irish boxing the past five years. Work has appeared on irish-boxing.com, Boxing News, the42.ie, and local and national media. Provide live ringside updates, occasional interviews, and special features on the future of Irish boxing. email: joneill6@tcd.ie