Liam Smith’s path to the intense attention and adulation he received at a packed Manchester Arena in his 37th fight felt uncertain and arduous. Twenty months earlier, with the pandemic preventing fans from filling venues as they did to watch him abruptly knock out Chris Eubank Jr with composed viciousness, Smith had travelled to Yekaterinburg and lost a fight for a minor vacant WBO light-middleweight title by questionable decision to the unbeaten Magomed Kurbanov.
“Let’s have it right: during Covid I was kind of on the backburner,” said Smith, speaking in quietly vindicated terms after emerging from his raucous post-midnight dressing room on Saturday night flanked by friends and family, his face unblemished by fewer than four full rounds of middleweight action against Eubank Jr.
“I had to take a fight in Russia to get my career back on track and then got whatever decision I got. There was only one media person throughout for me in Russia. I could have been down in the dumps. Don’t forget that I was 32, so I could have been done.”
— BOXXER (@boxxer) January 21, 2023
The former world champion persevered. He felt Anthony Fowler had jumped the queue of opponents who deserved to fight him before knocking out the ex-Commonwealth Games gold medallist in what he called a “Scouse derby” at Liverpool Arena in October 2021, then stopped Jessie Vargas – only previously beaten by Manny Pacquiao, Timothy Bradley and Mikey Garcia – on the undercard of Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano’s history-making epic at Madison Square Garden.
A move from Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom stable to Ben Shalom’s Boxxer followed last summer. “To be fair to Eddie, he gave me Jessie in New York,” said Smith. “I’ve turned it around and I’m on everyone’s lips now. It’s good to have that, but it’s also credit to me, my family and my team for doing that.”
Outside of the parallel dressing room to Smith’s, hall-of-famer Roy Jones Jr had been graciously reflecting moments earlier on a first stoppage defeat for Eubank Jr, the man he trained for the fight.
⚽ The morning after his brilliant KO of Chris Eubank Jr., Liam Smith played Sunday League football!
😬 It didn’t go as well as the boxing, though, as he missed a late penalty.
— Sporting News Boxing (@sn_fights) January 22, 2023
After a bitter build-up that had turned toxic during the final press conference, the dazed Eubank Jr had shared some much-needed respect with Smith in the ring.
Smith has since described his poorly-received remarks about his opponent’s sexuality as “so wrong”, while Eubank Jr reacted at the time by making an allegation about Smith’s wife. Now that a memorable, surprisingly short-lived scrap has superseded that shameful exchange, the next act will be to discover whether the conclusively beaten Brightonian will want the rematch he is contractually entitled to.
It was not entirely clear whether Smith was sincere when he said he could force Eubank Jr to move down to 157lb should they meet again, but the 34-year-old is serious about any rerun giving him a more favourable financial deal and taking place in Liverpool. “I told Ben that the next one was going to be a rematch because I’d win,” said Smith, who is also being linked with feared veteran Gennady Golovkin and another domestic bout against Kell Brook, a welterweight and supposed retiree since last May.
“If the fights aren’t there, I don’t know if I can speak to the bodies and keep me ranked at 154 or move me to 160. 154 might be a push. I’ve beaten Chris – that was right up there. Kell’s a great fighter. I’ll take a fight with anyone.”