Joe Smith Jr. figured he would eventually come to grips with the worst loss of his pro career.

Everything that happened in the aftermath made that far more difficult than he could ever imagine.

The former WBO light heavyweight titlist was left without direction for nearly a year after he his second-round knockout defeat to Artur Beterbiev. Their lineal, WBC, IBF and WBO unification bout last June 18 saw Smith dropped late in round one and stopped one round later in their ESPN-televised headliner from Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater in New York City.

It marked the first career appearance on MSG ground for Smith, a working-class hero from the Mastic hamlet of Eastern Long Island, New York. Another far more tragic incident would take pace eleven months later.

Alex Smith, Joe’s younger brother was shot and killed in the parking lot of a bar in his Mastic Beach hometown on May 20. The 32-year-old Smith was at a Mastic Beach bar with a female acquaintance when he was confronted by a jealous ex-boyfriend who fatally shot him multiple times in the parking lot where he was pronounced dead.

“I was already having a bit of a rough time,” Smith told of the downtime. “Everything changed after that loss to Beterbiev. I was sitting around and didn’t have something to focus on.

“Then this whole issue, this situation with my brother just made things even worse. It sucked.”  

The first sign of better things to come arrived on June 4 when Joseph Scalafani, Alex’s murderer, was arrested by authorities in Plnellas County, Florida, where he fled along with the aid of his brother Daniel and friend Jeffrey Mercury. Scalafani was extradited back to Suffolk County on July 6 and arraigned five days later for charges of Murder in the Second Degree along with four more felony counts. He is still remanded and due back in court on October 13, where he faces up to life in prison.

By then, the 34-year-old Smith (28-4, 22KOs) will have officially returned to the ring. A clash with fellow former titleholder Gilberto ‘Zurdo’ Ramirez (44-1, 30KOs) headlines a DAZN show this Saturday from Chelsea Ballroom at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

Mexico’s Ramirez also enters on the heels of a defeat, as he dropped a lopsided decision to WBA light heavyweight titlist Dmitry Bivol last November 5 in Abu Dhabi. It was his first loss, though he suffered far more shame when he blew weight ahead of a canceled March 19 clash with Gabriel Rosado and was forced to move up.

Smith agreed to meet Ramirez at a heavier weight just to push forward with the fight. The two will meet at 193 pounds, with severe repercussions in place if either side—particularly Ramirez—blows weight.  

The bout is the first  for Smith since last June. It’s the longest layoff of his career, though with a silver lining.

A win on Saturday will immediately place Smith in line for a shot at WBA cruiserweight titlist Arsen Goulamirian, as this weekend’s main event is a sanctioned title eliminator. Any return to the ring required that type of purpose for Smith, who was admittedly unsure of his next move until his team entered talks earlier this summer to face Ramirez.  

“I’m just keeping my head up and staying focused on this,” noted Smith, who has fought at light heavyweight throughout his pro career.

The fight will be the first without his younger brother either on site or figuratively in his corner.

That part remains the toughest to move past, though it also helped contextualize everything else that he was going through prior to that tragic moment. There is no shame in losing to Beterbiev, the long-reigning lineal and unified light heavyweight king who has yet to go the distance in 19 pro fights.

Whatever fight that Smith was going to land would be a must-win scenario, regardless. The ante was raised earlier this week when Golden Boy Promotions, Ramirez’s promoter, was able to get the bout sanctioned by the WBA.

For Smith, however, the stakes have never been higher given what he carries into the ring this weekend.

“It would be nice to win this fight for Alex,” admitted Smith. “He was always there for me, and always looked up to me with everything I’ve done. It always meant a lot to make him and my family proud.

“Alex always supported me no matter what. Now he is always with me and I am going to win this fight for him.”

Jake Donovan is a senior writer for Twitter: @JakeNDaBox