Joe Smith Jr. appeared to be fading down the stretch, the possibility of being a world champion seemingly slipping away Saturday night at the Osage Casino in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was getting all he could handle from Maxim Vlasov and was being pushed back with his left eye closing, a cut on the brow dripping blood.
But Vlasov couldn't keep Smith from staying on his feet.
Smith rallied in the championship rounds and won the vacant WBO light heavyweight championship with a majority decision over Vlasov, 115-112, 115-113, 114-114.
Two years after Smith lost a chance at a major championship, he won the belt in a fight that tested everything he had.
"It was definitely a close, tough, tough fight," Smith said in the post-fight interview on ESPN. "I gave it to Vlasov. He was a great fighter. He really put on a great show tonight and toughed it out."
With the victory, Smith (27-3, 21 KOs) earns one of the belt in the 175-pound division and sets up a potential unification title fight against the undefeated Artur Beterbiev, who has won all 16 of his pro fights via stoppage.
At one point, it appeared as if Smith wasn't going to have a chance to hold the title at the end of the night. In the 10th round, Vlasov pressed Smith backward, landing straight punches as Smith sought ways to affect the 34-year-old Russian, whose unorthodox style gave Smith trouble throughout.
When Smith came out in the 11th, the power that carried the Long Island, New York, native once again delivered when he needed it the most. According to CompuBox, Smith landed 48.9% of his power punches in the final two rounds and threw 113 punches in the final three minutes, 35 more than Vlasov.
Smith hurt Vlasov and had the veteran on the verge of hitting the canvas. However, just as Vlasov was about to go down, Smith hit Vlasov behind the head, which nullified the knockdown and gave the hurt fighter some time to recover with a little more than 10 seconds left in the round. Despite the referee's ruling, judge Gerald Ritter gave Smith a 10-8 round, indicating that he believed the knockdown was valid.
"I believe he had his head down, and I should've got the knockout," Smith said. "I think I would've got the stoppage that round, but he pulled it off and made it out on his feet."
Earlier, in the seventh round, Smith also had Vlasov (45-4, 26 KOs) hurt in the middle of the ring but was unable to find the right combination to score a knockdown. For most of the night, Vlasov's speed and activity befuddled Smith as he appeared to be ahead.
ESPN unofficially scored the fight 115-113 in Vlasov's favor.
"Against the aggressive style of Joe Smith, I came forward the entire fight," Vlasov said in a statement issued by Top Rank Promotions. "I felt confident I was winning and was securing rounds in the bank with the judges. I never felt that I was behind at any stage of the fight."
But the Russian didn't help his cause in the final two rounds. In fact, he was tied on two of the official scorecards and leading by a point on the other as he entered the pivotal 11th rounds.
Smith's resilience helped him win the fight, secure his first major championship and set up a potential unification bout.
"I want the other belts," Smith said. "I want the big fights out there."