Stuck in the Middle With You: Joe Smith Jr. Wins Inexplicable SD over Jesse Hart

In boxing, we’re so concerned with who’s moving up and who’s falling down that we forget most fights, and fighters, exist in the laterally flowing currents of the soft, mushy middle. Try as they might, the powers that be can’t make every fight a pay per view. Outliers can’t exist without a median. 

So much of boxing is simply place-setting for the future. The butterfly effect of fewer marquee events can be felt at the highest levels of the sport, whether the ruling class chooses to acknowledge it or not. That is to say, Joe Smith Jr. isn’t a Jesse Hart victory away from stardom, but his split(!) decision win over the Philadelphia native moves the pieces of the light heavyweight chessboard into a slightly more advantageous configuration for him.

Smith (25-3, 20 KO) entered the ring a 4-to-1 underdog against Hart, as the narrative surrounding the fight centered on Hart’s quest to avenge Smith’s knockout of his mentor, Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins. It was that defeat of Hopkins that put Smith’s name on the map, but also what earned him his reputation as a one-hit-wonder. When you read Smith’s name, the words “limited” or “rugged” usually aren’t too far behind. And yeah, Smith might not exactly be Roy fucking Jones, but he can punch, and as I understand it, that’s kinda the point of this here sport.

So as Hart (26-3, 21 KO) walked to the ring on Saturday night at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey on ESPN, his plan was to take the fight directly to Smith and neuter his offense. 

Plans, though, are kinda sorta useless if you don’t stick to them.

From the opening moments of the fight, Hart was on his back foot and simply reacting to whatever Smith threw. Attempts to land short uppercuts on the inside while moving in reverse went about as well as it sounds like that would. 

Smith, on the other hand, was finding a nice, cozy home for his long, straight, right hands. As Hart seemed to have trouble figuring out which foot goes where, Smith took advantage of his opponent’s indecision by firing away from all angles. This wasn’t the revenge fantasy Hart and his mentor had cooked up. 

By the midpoint of the fight, Hart seemed to still be stuck in first gear as Smith was shifting into overdrive. This wasn’t pretty. No one would mistake either guy for a tactician but the exchanges were spirited, and, from Hart’s perspective at least, there was a bit of urgency as the scores widened with each passing round.

In the dwindling seconds of round 7, Smith caught Hart with heavy right hand that sent him momentarily to the canvas. Hart managed to beat the count, but was met with even more punishment as he rose to his feet. Hart would survive, but with the point lost on the scorecards from the knockdown, a decision victory was now firmly out of reach.

Hart would now need a knockout to win, but it was Smith who actually went all out for the stoppage. Scary moments in rounds 9 and 10 were met with clinches from Hart, who would somehow make it to the final bell. A moral victory I suppose, but his underwhelming performance would now be appraised by the ringside judges. There’s no way they could fuck this up, right?

Before you answer, remember that this boxing we’re talking about.

Two judges had Smith winning handily by scores of 98-91 and 97-92, respectively. However, in what has to be an aborted sketch from the new “Punk’d” reboot, judge James Kinney turned in the frontrunner for the worst card of the year with a 95-94 tally in Hart’s favor.

Look, we’ve come to expect this shit from this sport, and luckily the right guy ultimately won, but god damn. It’s a fast sport with obscured angles, and the margins for error are razor-thin. We all get that, and we’re comfortable with mild variance in how rounds are scored. We don’t expect perfection. But without an actual corrupting influence, there is simply no way to score this fight in Hart’s favor.

Even Bob Arum, Hart’s promoter, was livid with Kinney’s card saying “That judge should be banned from scoring a fight.”

And look, there’s no need for a dogpile or for the cancel culture mentality to kick in here, but incompetence this egregious cannot go unchecked. There simply has to be accountability when there’s this much at risk for the fighter’s involved. Again, no one expects everything to exactly right all the time, but when it’s this obvious, someone has to intercede.

Alas, Smith takes home the official win and stays relevant in the upper tier of the 175 lb. ranks. He’s shown his ceiling with losses to Dmitry Bivol and Sullivan Barrera but you know they say about punchers and their chances. 

Hart will stay down here in the vast, gooey middle, tightening screws on his skills until the upper crust comes calling again. Boxing’s working class is a respectable place to be and his career will be just fine. 

We can’t all be rich but we don’t have to be poor either. If we can ply our trade and make an honest living then we’re ahead of the game. Both Philadelphia and Long Island are blue-collar towns, and Hart and Smith exemplify that to a T.

Vacations are nice, and temporary forays into unfamiliar tax brackets are even better, but when you work with your hands, the middle is where you’ll always be.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all.


(Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank)