Joe Smith Jr. didn’t expect a move up in weight to produce his first fight in front of a Las Vegas crowd.

Fittingly, the stakes are similar for his return to the boxing capital of the world.

Smith faces fellow former titleholder Gilberto ‘Zurdo’ Ramirez this Saturday on DAZN from the Chelsea Ballroom at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. The scheduled 12-round bout marks just the second career fight in Vegas for the 34-year-old New York native, whose debut in this town came more than three years when fans weren’t permitted in attendance due to the coronavirus pandemic at the time.

“I didn’t really see something like this being my first fight in Vegas with fans,” Smith admitted to “This one should be a pretty good one. I’m looking forward to it.”  

The stakes were recently raised for the fight, which carries a maximum contracted weight limit of 193 pounds. Golden Boy Promotions, Ramirez’s promoter, was able to gain last minute sanctioning as a WBA cruiserweight title eliminator with the winner to become the mandatory challenger to current titlist Arsen Goulamirian.

Smith (28-4, 22KOs) punched his way into title contention in his prior Vegas adventure. A ninth-round stoppage of Eleider Alvarez saw Smith become the top contender to the WBO light heavyweight title following their August 2020 clash in the MGM Grand bubble.

“I didn’t get to have fans there for that fight,” Smith said of his first career fight in Vegas. “Now I get to have fans there in the crowd and go hang out afterwards. We couldn’t do that last time in the bubble. This time we get to enjoy ourselves a little instead of being trapped in a room.”

Smith went on to win the WBO 175-pound belt one fight later in a twelve-round, majority decision over Maxim Vlasov in April 2021. One successful defense followed before he suffered a second-round knockout defeat to Artur Beterbiev in their lineal, WBC, IBF and WBO championship unification last June 18 at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater in New York City. He has not fought since that night.

Similarly, Ramirez (44-1, 30KOs) has been out since a lopsided defeat to WBA light heavyweight titlist Dmitry Bivol last November 5 in Abu Dhabi. The Mexican southpaw attempted to return earlier this year but was grossly overweight which led to a canceled light heavyweight clash versus Gabriel Rosado due to have taken place in March.

Despite both making their respective debuts at cruiserweight and coming off a loss, Ramirez enters as a significant betting favorite. BetMGM has the 32-year-old Mazatlan native as a healthy -350 favorite to beat Smith, who is listed by the same sportsbook as a +275 underdog to prevail at a career-heaviest weight.

Jake Donovan is a senior writer for Twitter: @JakeNDaBox