Confident Smith Faces Big Step Up in Class Against Canelo

Photo: Tom Hogan/Golden Boy Promotions

By Nat Gottlieb

There’s a good reason that Britain’s Liam Smith will be a massive underdog when he faces Mexico’s Canelo Alvarez on Sept. 17 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The fight, which will be carried live on HBO Pay-Per-View beginning at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT, is a huge step up in competition and class for the unbeaten junior middleweight champion from Liverpool.

But here’s the thing: Smith doesn’t think he’s outclassed. In fact, he exhibits a tremendous amount of confidence that he will win. Is he delusional? Or does he know something we don’t?

“I’m not stupid,” Smith says. “I know on paper I’m the B-side of this fight. Canelo’s the big name. They say no one can fight at Canelo’s level because they don’t know I can perform at that level myself. But I’m coming to fight Canelo and you’re going to be in a massive shock.”

Smith’s confidence is admirable, but here’s the hard, cold reality: There’s nothing on his resume that would suggest he’s ready to beat the 26-year-old Canelo (47-1-1, 33 KOs). Smith (23-0-1, 13 KOs) has not faced a single junior middleweight of distinction. When you factor in that the 28-year-old will be fighting in the U.S. for the first time and doing so in front of a stadium likely jammed with tens of thousands of pro-Canelo fans during Mexican Independence Day weekend, well, it’s fair to wonder if the Brit may have bitten off more than he can chew.

Just don’t tell that to him.

“This is the biggest stage -- not the biggest stage in boxing by no means, but it’s the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium,” Smith says. “There will be thousands there to support Canelo, but I won’t shrink on the night. The outcome will have nothing to do with the size of the occasion. Nothing gets to me in life. I will thrive on it.”

There’s a long history of relatively unknown fighters pulling off unimaginable upsets. Can Smith add his name to that list? That depends on what the Brit brings to the table.

For one, he’s a fierce body puncher with power in both hands. In his last fight, a title defense against Predrag Radosevic of Montenegro, Smith threw 10 to 12 left hooks in the first round alone. Then he showed nice ring smarts in round two. Midway through that round, Smith landed a brutal right hook that almost staggered Radosevic. Seconds later, with his opponent wary of that right hand, Smith feinted throwing it and then blistered a left hook that caught Predrag flush on the liver. The fighter crumpled to the canvas, unable or unwilling to get up and take more abuse.

 Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

Smith has been likened to Mexican fighters in that he often digs to the body. But there’s a distinct difference in his style. Smith doesn’t have to fight inside to get off his body shots. In fact, he more often lands those punches from a distance, which enables him to fully extend his arms and get more power behind them.

His ability to do damage from the outside will come in handy against Canelo, who’s a devastating inside fighter. Another thing to note about Smith is that he’s not a reckless brawler. You won’t see him willingly eat a couple of shots to get off some of his own. Smith is a patient, compact boxer who throws precise, well-timed punches and doesn’t waste his shots. The Brit seems relaxed in the ring at all times, and after a round he’ll typically display a kind of swagger in the way he walks to his corner, as if nothing fazes him.

Although Smith is a skilled boxer, he’s not Miguel Cotto or Amir Khan, both of whom boxed quite well against Canelo but still went down to defeat. Smith’s more likely strategy will be to try and wear down the Mexican with a barrage of hooks. Could it work? No one knows, but one thing’s for sure: Hitting Canelo in his cast-iron head has proved to be a fruitless endeavor for his 47 victims.

Another problem the Brit is going to have to deal with is that Canelo, who can make the 154-pound limit at weigh-in, typically comes into the ring the next day weighing 175-plus pounds. After fighting the Mexican in May, Khan told British, “Canelo must have been around 180 pounds. He’s a big dude. Even when I was hitting him, I could see he wasn’t moving and wasn’t hurt or anything.”

Smith, however, says the Mexican’s weight is of no concern to him.

“People say Canelo gains 20 or 25 pounds, and I have no problem with going against that,” Smith says. “I can deal with that weight. I’m a natural super welterweight. The weight will not play against me like it did with Khan and others.”

Maybe the weight won’t bother him, but here’s something Smith may not be able to deal with: Canelo is tremendously strong and can take punches without flinching. Smith undoubtedly is used to seeing his power shots hurt opponents. So how will he react when those same punches have little to no effect on Canelo? What will that do to Smith psychologically? Will it demoralize him? Or at the very least, shake his profound confidence?

In searching for a comparison to this fight, Smith’s promoter, Frank Warren, reached for a golden oldie. “I think back with Joe Calzaghe,” Warrens says, “and how everybody was building up Jeff Lacy to be the next big thing, and he (Calzaghe) destroyed him.”

The difference here is that Canelo has already proven to be the next big thing, and so far Smith has not shown he’s a Calzaghe.