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Jesse Hart went out of his way to ask Top Rank to face Joe Smith to avenge the loss to his mentor, Bernard Hopkins.
Hart even made sure he wore a black mask with an ‘X’ through the middle, in devotion to the Hall of Famer, for the light heavyweight bout.
Smith, the guy standing in the other corner had vanquished Hopkins, stopping “The Executioner” for the first time in the last fight of a distinguished career on Dec. 17, 2017, at the Forum in Inglewood, California.
It was over two years ago and the Hopkins loss still stung Hart, who’s known “B-Hop” since he was a seven-year-old kid taking advice over the phone.
On Saturday night, before 3,415 at the Mark G. Etess Arena in Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on ESPN, Hart had a chance to do something about it.
Smith won a 10-round split-decision taking the fight in dominating fashion on the scorecards of Eugene Grant (97-92) and Joseph Pasquale (98-91), while somehow judge James Kinney saw it 95-94 for Hart.
“I was very confident I was going to get the decision, but the one judge made me a little nervous in there,” said Smith, who admitted the victory was a career-saver after losing two of his last three coming in. “I feel just with the knockdown and the hard shots I landed, I deserved it.
“I thought I had him a few times, but he’s a little slippery. I feel great and I took the summer off, and I worked on moving a little bit.”
Hart did some running in the first round, when Smith (25-3, 20 knockouts) landed a left hook. “The Beast” hurt Hart in the second with a right uppercut, and a straight right wobbled Hart against the ropes.
The opening two rounds seemed to stir some confidence in Smith. But it also led to some carelessness, when Hart (26-3, 21 KOs) popped Smith with a few shots and had Smith flailing at air in the third.
In the fourth, Smith went back to stalking, and Hart went back to slipping and sliding by Smith’s advances. Pressing Hart against the ropes, Smith clocked Hart with a right uppercut. “Hollywood” absorbed it well, but Smith’s confidence again resurfaced.
He landed a right on Hart’s chin, and in his zeal to get at Hart, Smith took a right uppercut in the last 30 seconds of the round.
After four, it was easy to see Smith ahead, 3-1.
A swelling welt began forming under Smith’s right eye in the fifth. Smith already had a welt under his left eye from a punch in the second. When Hart was able to keep Smith away, he was effective, as he was in the fifth. As Smith was charging him, Hart hit him with a left on the side of smith’s head.
Hart began connecting on the 30-year-old Smith from different angles in the sixth. And after six, it was easy to see the fight as a 3-3 fight.
Whatever reserves Smith had left after six, he summoned them for the seventh. Once again, Smith rattled Hart, and a straight right put Hart down in the last 30 seconds of the seventh. Referee Harvey Dock stepped in as the bell ended the seventh.
But Hart was in trouble entering the eighth.
Hart’s legs were unsteady, but Hart survived.
In the ninth, Smith suffered a cut over his left eye after absorbing another fusillade of punches. Dock had the ringside physician take a look, and Smith continued to punish the 30-year-old Philly fighter.
By the 10th, with Smith seemingly ahead, he still went after Hart, pressing the action.
It just made the whole arena wonder when Jimmy Lennon announced, after some time due to a ringside fight, that it was a split-decision.
“(Hart) has a lot of heart and he’s very tough,” Smith said. “I wanted to keep up the pressure. It would have been nice to get him out the same way (as Hopkins).”
Afterward, Hart claimed he was hurt.
“I hurt my right hand a week ago,” Hart said. “You can see it’s messed up. I don’t want to make no excuses because Joe fought a great fight. I hurt the hand in my last sparring session and thought I could overcome that. Credit to Joe for doing for what he had to do.”
In the co-feature, Cem Kilic and Steven Nelson, a pair of undefeated super middleweights who previously never have gone 10 rounds, put in a mundane display the first half of their scheduled 10-rounder.
But through five, Nelson (16-0, 13 KOs) held a lead with his aggressiveness and body attack. In the sixth, Kilic began dropping some body shots of his own. Still, Nelson kept on coming, nailing Kilic (14-1, 9 KOs) in the last minute of the sixth with a left uppercut.
Kilic went back to the body again in the seventh. It didn’t seem to slow Nelson. Hie herky-jerky motion made it difficult for Kilic to pinpoint where he was. That wasted energy forced Kilic to miss a lot of punches, and, consequently, tire.
By the eighth, Buddy McGirt, Kilic’s trainer, saw enough, climbed the ring steps and notified referee David Fields that it was over at 1:44 of the round.
“I’m just happy that was no harm done to me and no major harm done to (Kilic),” Nelson said. “He’s a great opponent. Buddy knows his fighter. He knows when enough is enough. By this time next year, I want to fight for a world title. I leave that in the hands of my management and Top Rank.”
Heavyweight Sonny Conto (6-0, 5 KOs) made easy work of Curtis Head (5-5, 3 KOs), ending a really bad exhibition at 2:08 of the first round. Head struggled walking up the steps to the ring, and he struggled staying on his feet. He took a knee twice and then it was mercifully over.
Local super middleweight Chris Thomas (14-1-1, 9 KOs) stopped Samir Barbosa (37-17-3, 26 KOs) at :47 of the first round of a scheduled six-rounder. Referee Sparkle Lee may have pulled the trigger early.
Undefeated lightweight Joseph Adorno (14-0-1, 12 KOs) remained undefeated—ever so slightly. Hector Garcia (14-7-4, 8 KOs) gave Adorno the toughest fight of his young career during the eight-rounder, resulting in a split-decision draw.
Super bantamweight Jeremy Adorno (4-0, 1 KOs) certainly fared better than his brother, dominating Fernando Ibarra (2-3, 0 KOs) in a four-round victory.
Welterweight Shinard Bunch (6-1, 5 KOs) won a strange outcome, stopping Dennis Okoth (4-3-1, 2 KOs) at 2:40 of the sixth in a scheduled sixth-rounder. Okoth quit with 20 seconds left in the fight and needed an oxygen bask immediately after the fight. Okoth complaining about dizziness and was taken by stretcher to a local hospital for precautionary measures.
In the first fight of the night, promising welterweight Xander Zayas (3-0, 2 KOs) remained undefeated with a four-round victory over tough Corey Champion (1-2, 1 KOs). “It was a good experience for me to get those four rounds in,” Zayas said afterward. “I wasn’t disappointed, but I was trying to get the KO. It didn’t come. I wasn’t worried. We did our job and we move forward.”