NEW YORK -- Artur Beterbiev vs. Joe Smith Jr. was billed as a can't-miss action fight, and the ESPN main event delivered for as long as it lasted -- even if it was never competitive.
Beterbiev scored three knockdowns of Smith en route to a second-round TKO to capture a third light heavyweight title on Saturday before 4,537 at Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden.
Boxing's only champion with a 100% knockout record, Beterbiev floored Smith in the closing seconds of the opening round with a counter right hand.
The 175-pounders continued to slug it out in Round 2, and Beterbiev's power and shot placement proved to be too much. The 37-year-old dropped Smith with a left hook and, moments later, the Long Island, New York, native was on the canvas again after a flurry of punches.
Smith, 32, never attempted to regain his senses. Instead, he tried to punch his way out of trouble. Beterbiev (18-0, 18 KOs) made him pay one final time with a left uppercut followed by a right uppercut as the referee jumped in before Smith could fall a fourth time. The time of the stoppage was 2:19. Smith (28-4, 22 KOs) was transported to a local hospital for observation.
"I want to be [a] good boxer one day maybe, that's why today was a little bit better than the past, I hope," said Beterbiev, ESPN's No. 1 light heavyweight. "Joe's a little bit open and more easy for me to get him. Two fighters both have good punch and both tried to get [there] first. This time I'm lucky; I get there first."
Beterbiev beat Smith to the punch from the opening bell. There was no feeling-out period between the two dangerous punchers, and for a little more than five minutes, the fight lived up to the hype.
Smith was the aggressor and tried to pin Beterbiev in the corner, but the Russian, who fights out of Montreal, was able to use Smith's pressure against him. He often took one step backward and fired a counter shot that met its mark, but Smith wasn't dissuaded.
After all, Smith has beat the odds time and time again. There was his first-round KO of Andrzej Fonfara in 2016 that announced his arrival and his KO of Bernard Hopkins later that year that sent the legend through the ropes and into retirement.
The longtime construction worker kept on improving. He fought through a broken jaw in a loss against Sullivan Barrera and was able to wobble Dmitry Bivol in a title-fight loss. Afterward he defeated Jesse Hart and scored a career-best victory with a stoppage of former champion Eleider Alvarez in 2020.
And when he got his second crack at a title, Smith came through with a majority-decision victory over Maxim Vlasov last April to pick up a light heavyweight title.
But against Beterbiev, Smith was no match. Through 18 fights, no one has been able to hang with Beterbiev. Not Marcus Browne, the Olympian Beterbiev hammered into submission in December, nor Oleksandr Gvozdyk, who Beterbiev stopped in his only other unification fight.
Now, Beterbiev is primed for a fight with Anthony Yarde, the 30-year-old Englishman who came oh-so-close to stopping Sergey Kovalev in a 2019 title fight. There's no deal in place, but the plan is for Beterbiev to defend his three titles vs. Yarde in London, sources tell ESPN, with Oct. 29 the target date.
"He's a beast," Yarde (22-2, 21 KOs) told ESPN. "He hits very hard. I'm a beast, too. That's why I think it's such an exciting matchup."
An undisputed light heavyweight title fight with Bivol, who upset Canelo Alvarez in May, will likely have to wait.