AFTER three consecutive fights outside of the UK, Liverpool’s Callum Smith returns home this Saturday (November 23) to defend his WBA super-middleweight crown for the second time. Performing at the M&S Bank Arena on Merseyside, the unbeaten 29-year-old takes on his mandatory challenger, countryman and Matchroom Boxing teammate, John Ryder.
“It’s good to be back in Liverpool,” stated Smith. “I said when I turned professional that I was good enough to win a world title and bring it home to the city. Now this is my chance to perform in front of my own fans.
“I thought that winning a world title was the top of the mountain but when I won it I realised it wasn’t. There’s a lot more boxes I want to tick and there’s talk of a massive 2020 for me. All of that disappears if I slip up on November 23, so I’m fully motivated. I worked hard to become a world champion and I’m going to work even harder to keep it. I’m number one in the world for a reason and the best version of me beats every super-middleweight on the planet – including John Ryder.”
The “massive 2020” in store for Smith if he retains against Ryder could well include a unification clash with another fellow Brit and promotional stablemate in Billy Joe Saunders – holder of the WBO strap. Anfield football stadium – the ground of Smith’s beloved Liverpool FC – has been touted as a potential venue for this contest if it does come off. Another rumoured opponent for Smith next year is none other than the sport’s biggest star, Canelo Alvarez. There has also been talk of the 6ft 3in Liverpudlian possibly moving up in weight in an attempt to conquer the light-heavyweight division.
“People always say about 175[lbs] and it’s an option – I’d love to be a two-weight world champion,” Smith commented. “But first I want to clear up at super-middle, unify the division and become undisputed. I’m massive for the weight but I’ve got a great team and a great nutritionist and I’m very dedicated. I do the weight well and as long as that’s the case I’ll keep winning and clean out the division. If you’ve got a belt at my weight then you’re part of my plans – they’re the fights that I want. But like I said before, I’m fully focused on John Ryder and I don’t just want to win, I want to win well and put on a big performance.”
Smith, 26-0 (19), made his name on the global stage by triumphing in the World Boxing Super Series 168lb tournament, which ran for 12 months from September 2017. After unanimously outpointing two previously undefeated rivals in Erik Skoglund and Nieky Holzken in the quarter-finals and semis respectively, “Mundo” was confronted with the toughest assignment of his career in the final. Up against George Groves in the unusual setting of Saudi Arabia, Smith ripped the WBA title from his compatriot’s grasp with a seventh-session knockout. Groves subsequently retired following the loss.
Smith’s first defence took place in June at the Mecca of Boxing, New York’s Madison Square Garden, as chief support to the Anthony Joshua-Andy Ruiz Jnr bout. The relaxed Scouser shone brightly on an illustrious platform by completely dominating former WBO middleweight boss Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam. A third-frame stoppage capped off a fine showing from the ex-British and European titlist.
Another notable scalp on Smith’s CV is that of Rocky Fielding, who has gone on to play his part at world level. In their much-anticipated local derby back in November 2015, Smith sensationally halted Fielding in less than three minutes. Just under a year-and-a-half later, Fielding faced off against Ryder for vacant British honours, with the pair combining to produce a close-fought encounter. In the end, it was Fielding who received the split decision, consigning Ryder to his one and only defeat at super-middleweight.
Aside from the Fielding setback, Ryder’s results at super-middle have been flawless. His last four outings have all finished in early victories, most recently in May when he tore away Bilal Akkawy’s ‘0’ inside three rounds. With the contest being held on a Canelo undercard in Las Vegas, it was prime exposure for the unassuming Londoner. In his three appearances prior to this – from October 2017 to October 2018 – Ryder crushed some decent opposition in Patrick Nielsen (ko 5), Jamie Cox (ko 2) and Andrey Sirotkin (rsf 7).
“The Akkawy fight was a box ticked,” Ryder said. “It was a dream to fight in Vegas on such a prestigious card but this is the real dream now – a world title fight. I’ve got a great team around me and I just believe that I’m in the best place possible, both mentally and physically. I’ve worked hard. I’ve had four hard fights and beaten the WBA number one in Nielsen. It’s taken me longer than expected to get here but I’m here now and this is a fight that I believe I can win. Callum Smith is a great champion who beat a great champion to win the belt. He’s the world number one and I want to test myself against the best.”
Before climbing to 168lbs, Ryder, 31, was a solid domestic operator at middleweight, albeit one who lost three fights. Twice he was unsuccessful in British title tilts – versus the aforementioned Saunders (ud 12 – Sep 2013) and Nick Blackwell (rsf 7 – May 2015). When the awkward Jack Arnfield unanimously outscored him in September 2016, this was the cue for Ryder to move up in weight. The extra poundage has rejuvenated him and seemingly led to an increase in his punch power. The Islington southpaw – coached by Tony Sims – is undoubtedly in the finest form of his life.
Ryder, 28-4 (16), won national novice titles on two occasions as an amateur, yet Smith reached a higher standard in the unpaid ranks. The Merseysider secured a silver medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, as well as golds at the GB Championships in 2010 and 2011. He was also unfortunate to miss out on a spot at the 2012 Olympics.
Unsurprisingly considering his amateur achievements, the physically imposing Smith does the fundamentals extremely well. He thrusts out long, jolting jabs from behind a tight, high guard, followed up by thudding right crosses. The Joe Gallagher-trained fighter supplements his textbook basics with touches of real attacking quality, including powerful right uppercuts and lethal left hooks to head and body.
Standing at 5ft 9ins, with a reach of 72ins, Ryder is giving up six inches in both height and wingspan to Smith. Additionally, Smith is the heavier hitter, as his superior knockout ratio testifies (73 per cent compared to 50 per cent). However, Ryder certainly punches hard enough to get his adversary’s attention, especially when unloading solid hooks and uppercuts.
Covering up in a shell-like defence and bobbing and weaving as he shuffles into range, the tough and determined “Gorilla” exerts controlled and consistent pressure. Rugged but possessing tidy technical skills, he lets his hands go freely when in the pocket. Ultimately, though, Smith’s sheer size and world-class ability will prove insurmountable obstacles to overcome. The pick is for the champion to terminate Ryder’s brave challenge sometime around the ninth.
On the undercard, hometowner Craig Glover, 10-2 (8), and Bournemouth’s Chris Billam-Smith, 9-1 (8), contest the vacant Commonwealth cruiserweight belt.
In October last year, Glover notched a career-best victory (rsf 8) against Simon Vallily – a former foe of top cruiser Mairis Briedis. Just when it seemed like he would kick on, the 28-year-old was then upset by the unfancied Vaclav Pejsar, who stopped him in two rounds in March. A routine points success over journeyman Jiri Svacina got him back to winning ways in July.
Billam-Smith, 29, is coming off his maiden reverse four months ago. In a close and competitive tussle with the unbeaten Richard Riakporhe, a knockdown that Billam-Smith suffered in the seventh proved crucial to the outcome. One of the judges favoured the Shane McGuigan-trained boxer, but he was overruled by the two other officials, who scored for Riakporhe.
Both men can dig, though Billam-Smith’s impressive work rate and extra height give him the advantage. He can return to the win column with an inside-schedule triumph.
In an interesting 12-round eliminator for the British lightweight title – currently held by Joe Cordina – exciting Belfast banger James Tennyson, 25-3 (21), meets gritty Blackwood portsider Craig Evans, 20-2-2 (3).
A previous European and Commonwealth king at super-feather, Tennyson challenged for the IBF prize at that weight 13 months ago. His big opportunity did not go the way he had planned, however, as the sublimely skilled Tevin Farmer dispatched him in five frames in Boston. The 26-year-old Northern Irishman responded well to this disappointment by stepping up a division and registering a hat-trick of second-round wins so far this year. The most recent of these successes came in August against the Ingle-stabled Atif Shafiq.
Like Tennyson, Evans has also won his last three fights since falling to a stoppage loss. In February 2018, he travelled to Russia to oppose the undefeated Roman Andreev. The 30-year-old Welshman was forced out in the ninth, yet was ahead on all three of the official scorecards at that point. Last time out in June, Evans recorded a repeat unanimous points victory over the seasoned Stephen Ormond.
A quick and accurate volume puncher, Evans shoots out effective one-twos but lacks power – the last time he was victorious inside the distance was way back in May 2012. In contrast, Tennyson is an explosive finisher, though he is susceptible to shots himself – all three of his defeats have come early. While Tennyson has never gone beyond eight rounds before, Evans has done so on nine occasions. Despite this, Evans has been known to tire somewhat towards the end of bouts. Tennyson will have to navigate the full 12 sessions for the first time, but he can do enough to have his hand raised at the finish.
A super-welterweight 10-rounder sees Liverpool’s 2016 Olympian Anthony Fowler, 10-1 (8), face Derby’s reigning English titlist Harry Scarff, 8-0 (1). The switch-hitting Scarff could provide a tricky test for Fowler, but the heavy-handed local’s fitness and aggression can see him ruin his opponent’s unbeaten record on points.
Also on the bill, Liverpudlian Tom Farrell, 17-2 (5), and Birkenhead’s ex-Commonwealth lightweight ruler Sean “Masher” Dodd, 16-5-1 (3), collide in an all-Merseyside matchup at super-lightweight. This is a difficult one to call, but the comparatively fresher Farrell is favoured to edge it on the cards. Broadcast duties are shared by Sky Sports Action/Main Event (UK) and DAZN (US).
THE VERDICT: Back in his hometown, Smith will be aiming to make a statement to his prospective future foes.