Timothy Bradley Jr.’s breakdown: Artur Beterbiev’s power will be key; can Joe Smith Jr. avoid it?

Sports

Artur Beterbiev and Joe Smith Jr. meet on Saturday to unify three of the four major light heavyweight titles in the main event of a Top Rank card at the Hulu Theater inside Madison Square Garden in New York (ESPN/ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET, with prelims on ESPN+ at 6:30 p.m. ET).

Beterbiev (17-0, 17 KOs) has finished all his opponents inside the distance, but in his last three fights he started slow, going nine rounds once and 10 rounds twice. He won the IBF title by defeating Enrico Koelling in 2017. He added the WBC belt with a 10th-round TKO victory over Oleksandr Gvozdyk in 2019.

Smith (28-3, 22 KOs) won the WBO title with a majority decision victory over Maxim Vlasov in April 2021 and defended it successfully with a ninth-round KO victory over Steve Geffrard in January.

Can Smith keep Beterbiev at a distance and use his jab to upset Beterbiev’s aggression? Or will Beterbiev’s power and relentless attack be too much for Smith?

Former two-division champion and current ESPN boxing analyst Timothy Bradley Jr. breaks down the light heavyweight fight and picks the winner. ESPN betting analyst Ian Parker also provides his take.

Beterbiev’s strengths

Beterbiev should be on the pound-for-pound list. He’s misunderstood. He is not just a brute slugger like a Rocky Marciano who just charged his way inside until his right hand found a home. Beterbiev is an adaptive pressure fighter who has mastered the skill of provocative attacks.

Provocative attackers only operate on their terms, making their opposition react to their every move, forcing errors offensively while exploiting the uncovered openings. Beterbiev moves at a frightening pace altering his cadence while cutting off the ring. He will use indirect attacks like foot feints, probes and shoulder feints to set up his direct attacks. The disposition of Beterbiev is to attack, but he’s innovatively and tactically sound. When you attack him, he will find his spot, stop at a safe distance and see your reaction — then attack again once he feels he is in control.

Mid-range to inside is where Beterbiev is most ruthless — where he throws short, accurate, compact punches that penetrate deeply into his opponents. His punching power physically breaks down his foes while mentally killing their desire to continue to fight. None of his opponents have gone the distance against Beterbiev, yet the question is what happens when he faces a guy bigger, longer and hard-punching just like himself.


Smith’s strengths

The toughness and the grit he possesses is a quality that you can’t teach, but one that you can apply principles to for how to control it. Smith chooses to do all the talking with his fists instead of his mouth, and we often hear that the quiet ones should always be the most feared.

We also hear a specific fighting style throughout boxing: Their offense is their defense. Combination punchers throw a series of blows in sequences. They come from various positions, angles, depths and ranges. Now imagine trying to steal a flawless diamond inside the middle of a room with lasers coming from every direction to protect the diamond. If you touch a laser, the alarm will sound. The diamond is the fighter, and the lasers are the combinations that protect the diamond. So when Smith throws combinations, it occupies his opponent and floods various lanes for return fire while keeping him somewhat safe.

Smith is a high-volume hard-hitting pressure fighter whose preference is solely to outwork and break down his opponents physically first, followed by mentally. He is a combination puncher. Even his jab is launched in twos and threes. Great combination punches, especially with punching power, can maximize punch leverage with every blow. It is all about adjusting their feet to maintain proper balance and regulate punching leverage. The master combination punchers can hit a moving target while maintaining adequate distance and balance while anticipating and exposing openings from the defending fighter. Smith is not a master, but anyone who stands in front of him for too long will pay for it.


The matchup

I can see this fight happening in a couple of different ways, and it all depends on how Smith comes out. I would think he would like to maintain distance and take advantage of that slim height and reach advantage. The strength of Beterbiev is fighting at mid-range and inside, once he gets to those positions is where he is most dangerous. He has various ways to get into those positions. Beterbiev uses a high, tight guard. I see a lot of fighters use it, but not in the right way. The way Beterbiev uses it — and occasionally he will get caught with some shots — is very successful.

But there are certain weaknesses to using the high guard. You can come around the guard, underneath it — around the elbow. And because Beterbiev raises his hands very high, his body gets exposed. Smith has to find a way to box a little more than just get involved in a fight, and we saw a little bit of that when he fought Steven Geffrard in January. Geffrard is also a boxer, uses a high guard, is quick with his hands and has some power. Smith would box him sometimes, and use his jab — three or four jabs — and also use his combinations. He beat that high guard by coming around it, so he has the tools. He’s been in a fight recently where he dealt with that high guard, and I’m pretty sure he learned a lot during that fight — things that he can take into this match against Beterbiev.

But mainly for Smith he’s going to have to mix it up. He’s going to have to fight a little bit, and he’s going to box a little bit more. Use his height and his reach and keep Beterbiev outside his kitchen, because once he gets inside, Beterbiev is going to be a nightmare for Smith. If he allows Beterbiev to get inside, he won’t have any other options that defend because when Beterbiev is inside, his punches are short, accurate and powerful. They move you. And if you use a high guard against Beterbiev, you become a punching bag.

If Smith wants to win this fight, he has to go to the body and also come round that high guard with uppercuts, left hooks up and down as often as he possibly can and use his length on the outside to try to catch Beterbiev as he tries to close that gap.

Like I said before, Beterbiev puts his hands too high and his body gets exposed — a lot. When you get down to the body, you know you can do some damage. As hard as Smith hits, and he being a tree cutter in his other profession, he should know that to take down the tree, you have to go to the body.

And not only with the hook, it could also be straight shots to the body as well. He has to give him something up top, with the jab so he can bring those hands up and dig down to the body. Beterbiev is not young, he’s 37 years old. And he has a lot of miles on him as far as his amateur career. And he hasn’t been that active as a pro. In nine years he has only 17 fights. But on the other hand, even with that inactivity, he has the experience of more than 100 amateur fights and that very powerful right hand.

When Beterbiev carries his hands high, the technique he uses — he leans forward and when he attacks — he does that abruptly. Instantly. He has quicker feet than Smith, and when he attacks he will come behind the jab and sometimes he will leap and jump and throw the jab at the same time. But it’s all meant to make his opponent come short on his shots. If Smith can’t fully extend with the right hands, he won’t have the power. If you smother his punches, you shorten his punches.

Beterbiev does that to a lot of fighters. When he closes in fast his opponents at times land something, but it’s not that effective because he shortens their punches and takes the steam off those punches. Smith does have the better resume as far as names go. He has also been busier than Beterbiev, so he does have that in his favor going into this fight. He’s been more active, has built more confidence, and has more momentum as well. And he’s younger, he’s 32 years old.


How does Beterbiev win?

Close the gap and put Smith on his heels. I also see weaknesses with Smith after he punches. As soon as Smith punches, he is there to hit back. His base is so wide that it’s extremely hard for him to move laterally. He will kick and get back, but going back in a straight line against Beterbiev is dangerous. Beterbiev can block shots, come back and his offense will work for him. If he puts Smith on his heels he’s going to take his power away. We’ve seen that when Smith fought Sullivan Barrera (a decision loss in July 2017) and when he fought Maxim Vlasov (a majority decision win in April 2021). Vlasov was pushing him back on his heels and basically outworked him bully to bully. He bullied the bully.

The right hand is going to be key for Beterbiev, and don’t be surprised if that right hand goes down to the body first. He’s known for changing levels and going down to the body, bringing his opponent’s hands down and then going upstairs. Also short, crisp combinations on the inside, but mainly the right hand — that’s the shot Beterbiev is going to be looking for to end the night — right hand, right uppercut.


How does Smith win?

It’s going to be all about his lead hand. If I was working his corner or coaching him, I would tell him, ‘everything has to be off your lead hand.’ One jab, two jabs, three, keep Beterbiev off of you. Work on his footwork, his movement, because little subtle movements left or right throws Beterbiev off. And we saw that in the Marcus Browne fight (a KO9 victory in December). Browne is a very good mover and threw Beterbiev off, and that’s why it took so long for Betervbiev to get rid of him, even when dominating the majority of the fight. Smith can use the jab as a stick, keep Beterbiev off him. Work that left hand up, down around the guard, the left hook, because Beterbiev will be ready for Smith’s right hand.

When you are watching film and breaking down your opponent, you have to think, ‘if I was fighting me, what would I do? I know that my right hand is dangerous, so I will train to have something else ready because I know he’s going to avoid my right hand.’ I’m not saying he shouldn’t throw it, but I know Beterbiev is going to be looking for it. But is he going to be prepared for an uppercut, for a left hook, that’s something completely different? I know Smith possesses a good left hook, so he should use that. Throw that jab and the left hook and keep this guy fighting at a distance.

But going back to the beginning, the key is the jab. He has to keep throwing it. Like I said he can not let Beterbiev get on the inside. There are going to be times when he’s going to have to bite down and fight back at close quarters. But for the most part, when he backs Beterbiev off him, Smith has to get back to throw that stick jab, moving, feinting, using subtle movements, nothing crazy but enough to get set and be ready to punch. He’s just looking for Beterbiev to leave his feet or to rush in and time him on the way in with a big shot around that high guard.

Smith is much more effective when he’s dictating the pace and in rhythm. His offense is his defense, that’s what I see when he’s at his best. I saw that when he fought Eleider Alvarez (a TKO9 victory in August 2020), where he really dictated the pace. He used his jab very well, catching him with various shots and combinations. He really poured it on him and broke him down little by little. Smith fought when he needed to fight and boxed when he needed to box, keeping the distance, and that’s the type of fight he needs to have against Beterbiev. He has to be mentally tough, and both are, but Smith has to definitely endure some pain in order to get this victory.


X-factor: Pedigree

I think this fight is going to show how important it is to have amateur experience and being able to deal with different styles and fighting at the highest level, Olympic level, like Beterbiev did.

There are certain natural instincts that you develop as an amateur inside the ring, that awareness, how to move, how to position. A lot of those things you get when you fight in the amateurs for a very long time — you gain experience. Smith doesn’t have much experience in that sense, so there are things he’s still missing that he hasn’t developed yet, like understanding distance — he still gets lost out there in distance.

I think Smith is a lot better when he’s not thinking, he’s better when he’s out there just fighting versus thinking. Because sometimes he gets caught up in between both styles, thinking, ‘I want to box, I want to brawl, or I want to box and brawl’ and he doesn’t understand that when he throws his punches, something is coming back — he has to understand that. And if you just put your hands up, especially against a guy like Beterbiev, he’s going to take advantage of that. He’s going to follow you out. As soon as you get your punches out, there he comes, and you don’t have the defense or the movement to elude or evade what’s coming back at you. That’s going to be an issue for Smith.

With all that said, when you have two punchers in there, it could boil down to who catches who first. If Smith catches him first, he can win the fight. If Beterbiev wears him down and catches him first, then he wins the fight. It takes one punch, especially when you have two big punchers like we are gonna have on Saturday’s fight. Don’t blink or look down for a second; the fight could be over.

I would say Smith is still somewhat learning on the job because of that lack of amateur pedigree. I would also say he’s better than what he was before when he lost to Dmitry Bivol (a unanimous decision in March 2019). To give you an example of how he’s better, Smith uses a technique called “the peel.” Vasiliy Lomachenko is known for that, too, where you manipulate your opponent’s guard, knock it down and bring it out of position and then throw the left hook and/or the right hand. I saw Smith doing it, and he has it in his arsenal. That may seem like a small thing, but it is a crafty move, a veteran move of offense. It is quick, it is violent and gives your opponent something to think about. You dish something on your opponent and take away something from him.


Who wins?

I see this fight going some rounds. Smith is well-conditioned and he’s tough. Smith has a very good puncher’s chance to catch Beterbiev on the way in. Beterbiev does get hit, but when he gets hit, he comes back, and that’s the problem. If Smith can maintain distance and let his hands go at a distance and not allow Beterbiev to get close, he could go into the later rounds, and he can win the fight. But the minute he stands still and he gets trapped on those ropes, and the minute he stands at the wrong distance, he’s going to get chopped up, just like everybody else Beterbiev has faced.

I’m going to go with Beterbiev based on his pedigree. I think he has underrated smarts inside the ring. Yes, he’s older. Yes, he’s been inactive. But that punching power he has and how he goes about his business make him very dangerous. That’s the difference — how he goes about his business — unlike Smith, who still hasn’t figured out how to use certain things. He’s not there yet, and until he gets there, in a big fight like this, I don’t know if he’s ready.

Beterbiev knows how to break his opponents down, and I think he’s going to break Smith down and get him out of there early. This fight is not going past the sixth round.


The bet, by Ian Parker

Sitting at -1100 Beterbiev will be looking to maintain his perfect record with a potential KO victory of Smith. Granted, Smith has only been finished once in his career, back in 2010, and he also has finishing power. To me this is the only bet that makes sense for this fight.

Beterbiev has a 100% KO finish rate and has stopped opponents with similar fighting styles and records as Smith. I think in the first couple of rounds, Smith will be able to hang in there and avoid major damage. But as the fight goes on, look for Beterbiev’s power to be too much for Smith and eventually finish him between rounds 6-9. If Beterbiev can get the win in this important unification title match, it will give him the option to potentially fight Dmitry Bivol for the undisputed championship later in the year. Bet: Beterbiev by KO rounds 6-9.

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