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Fonfara not overlooking heavy underdog Smith

Andrzej Fonfara has earned several notable victories as an underdog, but will be the favorite against Joe Smith Jr. on Saturday. Harry How/Getty Images

Light heavyweight contender Andrzej Fonfara knows what it’s like to be the underdog.

That was certainly the case in May 2014 when he got an unexpected shot at world champion Adonis Stevenson and, although Fonfara got knocked down in the first and fifth rounds and ultimately lost a unanimous decision, it was by no means an easy night at the office for Stevenson.

Fonfara came roaring back in the second half of the fight, knocked Stevenson down in the eighth round and had him in huge trouble late in the fight. Stevenson should have been very thankful that world championship fights are scheduled for 12 rounds nowadays and not 15 as they once were.

Fonfara has yearned for a rematch with Stevenson since but has been denied, although he has won three fights in a row since, including a major upset victory.

Fonfara was given little chance to beat former middleweight titleholder Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. when they squared off 14 months ago. But Fonfara, a native of Poland fighting out of Chicago, did a number on Chavez. He knocked Chavez down in the ninth round -- for the first time in Chavez's career -- and made him quit on his stool after enduring nine rounds of punishment.

Now, for a change, Fonfara is the heavy favorite against 26-year-old Long Island, New York club fighter Joe Smith Jr., whom he will face in a scheduled 10-round fight on Saturday (NBC, 8:30 p.m. ET) in the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions tripleheader at UIC Pavilion in Chicago, where Fonfara is unbeaten in 15 fights (14-0, with a no contest) and will enjoy the hometown crowd support.

"Fighting in Chicago is a great motivation for me because I have such outstanding support here,” Fonfara said. “I always want to entertain my fans so they keep coming back to watch me perform.”

Often fighters will talk about how they enjoy being positioned as the underdog because it means there is very little pressure on them and gives them the opportunity to prove people wrong.

But Fonfara (28-3, 16 KOs) said he relishes being the favorite for a change.

"I was the underdog my whole career,” Fonfara said. “Now in this position, it's even better. I'm motivated by being in this position. I know my opponent feels overlooked and that will add to his motivation, but I'm ready.

"I expect this fight to be a real battle. I'm not going to stop throwing punches. I will control the ring and find my spots. I definitely want to give my fans the knockout.”

Smith, a construction worker by trade, is unknown to even the most ardent of boxing fans. He will be making his national television debut and has never faced a remotely top-level opponent. In his lone defeat, Smith was knocked out in the fourth round in 2010 by Eddie Caminero, whose record now stands at 7-9.

Smith (21-1, 17 KOs) is at least talking a good game about his chances to defeat Fonfara.

"I've been working very hard and for many years towards an opportunity like this," he said. “I am grateful to (promoter) Joe DeGuardia and Star Boxing for helping to get me here. This fight is going to change my life and no one is going to keep me from winning.

"We've done some traveling in camp to get excellent sparring and overall it's just been a great camp. I'm excited to be here and ready to get in the ring. I'm happy to have this opportunity because I worked so hard for it. I'm looking to put on a show. This is a big chance and if I win I can open up a lot of doors. I just need to do what I do best and, hopefully, I'll be in a world title fight next.”

Fonfara, 28, has way more experience. Besides having faced Stevenson and Chavez, Fonfara owns wins against former world titleholder Nathan Cleverly, whom he outpointed in his last fight in October, as well as former world titleholders Gabriel Campillo, Glen Johnson and Byron Mitchell.

Still, Fonfara knows what it’s like being the ‘dog, and said he is not taking Smith for granted.

"I think that Smith is a great challenge for me and I do not underestimate him," Fonfara said. "He is young and hungry and he wants to use this fight and my name to show the world his skills. He's coming to Chicago for victory and glory.

“I have to show him that I am stronger, more experienced and most importantly, a smarter fighter. I have to win this fight because it will open the door for me to rematch Adonis Stevenson."

In the co-feature, bantamweight world titleholder Juan Carlos Payano (17-0, 8 KOs), a 32-year-old two-time Olympian from the Dominican Republic, will meet three-time U.S. Olympian Rau'shee Warren (13-1, 4 KOs), of Cincinnati, in a rematch of their close fight last August. Payano, a southpaw, beat Warren, 29, by split decision in a fight in which Payano got knocked down and both fighters had points deducted for fouls.

In another televised bout, blue-chip junior middleweight prospect Erickson Lubin (14-0, 10 KOs), a 20-year-old southpaw from Orlando, Florida, will face Daniel Sandoval (37-3, 34 KOs), 25, of Mexico, in a 10-rounder.