Steve Geffrard had a feeling this exact thing could happen.
Early in 2021, Joe Smith Jr. was scheduled to face Maxim Vlasov for the vacant WBO light heavyweight title, but Vlasov tested positive for COVID-19. Geffrard said in a YouTube interview with Marc Abrams that he thought there might be a possibility for him to step in at that point. He had won a regional WBO light heavyweight title two fights prior, he was living Florida with no restrictions on his ability to train and had been taking advantage of it. He felt he was as good a choice as any. However, Vlasov recovered and the bout went through as originally planned months later, with Smith Jr. capturing the vacant title.
Fast forward almost exactly one year later, and a near identical scenario presented itself. Smith Jr. was slated to defend his title against Callum Johnson on January 15, but Johnson tested positive for COVID-19. The search was now on to salvage the fight and the ESPN broadcast hinging on it. Top Rank spokespeople estimate that over a dozen fighters were contacted to step in.
Geffrard was two days away from a bout at the Delray Beach Tennis Center, a stay-busy bout on a club show in Florida. He’d had his last bites of food until he was set to weigh in, and posted to Instagram that he was looking forward to finally getting to eat. Instead, he got a call that a much bigger wish would be granted.
“All of the sudden I get a call from my coach Kevin Cunningham, and he says man, Steve, you’re never going to believe this. They just called you to fight Joe Smith Jr. for the world title. I couldn’t believe it,” said Geffrard, who will now face Smith Jr. for his WBO title in the main event of a Top Rank ESPN card from Turning Stone Casino in Verona, NY.
Fans might have been surprised to see Geffrard in this position, as he’s been relatively inactive over the past few years. His most recent win over Denis Grachev in March of 2021 broke a near-three year layoff. Technically, Geffrard was eligible for the title opportunity because of his Top 15 ranking within the WBO, where he sits right on the edge at No. 15.
Geffrard describes himself as a “boxing junkie” who “watches boxing all day every day” and follows each and every weight class. As a result, he’s able to put the nature of this opportunity and how unexpected it is into full context.
“For me to get a call like that is insane. I know how hard it is to even get a world title shot. I have friends like Erickson Lubin who’s been ranked No. 1 in his division and stuff, and he keeps on having to title eliminator after title eliminator. I’ve seen guys like Dillian Whyte have to wait and stuff. I’ve barely been active, so for me to even get that call and that opportunity is insane,” said Geffrard.
Opportunities and good fortune haven’t been easy for Geffrard to come by in his professional career. As an amateur, Geffrard was the US National Amateur heavyweight champion in 2010, and USA Boxing’s Athlete of the Year. In fact, in 2010 he won the rare triple crown for US amateurs, collecting National Golden Gloves, USA Boxing National and National PAL titles. The one American heavyweight to consistently give him issues was Michael Hunter, who defeated him in the 2012 Olympic Trials, and today remains a top heavyweight contender.
Geffrard signed with Golden Boy Promotions in 2013, and made his pro debut on the undercard of Cornelius Bundrage-Ishe Smith. It was an undercard populated by amateur standouts—Luis Arias, D’Metrius Ballard, Terrell Gausha—there was no subtlety as to why Geffrard was included. Unfortunately, while the others collected easy wins, he did not. In fact, he lost via TKO to Kentrell Claiborne who was 2-6 at the time. Simply looking at the result on BoxRec wouldn’t provide any context, but Geffrard suffered a freakish gash on his forehead in a fight he was otherwise winning. Unfortunately, he also lost his second pro fight too, dropping a split decision to Travis Reeves who at the time was 0-1-1, but would go on to become a fringe light heavyweight contender.
“I've definitely had a whole bunch of bad luck in boxing. Boxing hasn't been the nicest (to me). I kept on punching away even after starting my career 0-2, and managerial, business-type stuff that didn't go right. It's unreal for this to happen given some of the bad cards that have been dealt to me,” said Geffrard.
Throughout his life, Geffrard has always found a way to persevere long enough to create his own luck, but also find joy in the process. Geffrard was born in Boston, the son of two Haitian parents. His father had saved enough money to send his mother to the United States, where she gave birth to Steve. As a child, he moved in with his great aunt, where he shared a bedroom with his grandmother in their duplex in Boca Raton. It’s there that he discovered boxing after his early football dreams didn’t pan out. Geffrard enrolled with his friend at the Police Athletic League gym and fell in love with the hard workouts and the chance to get out of his tiny room.
The PAL also helped him get into St. Andrew’s, one of Florida’s top private schools. There, he was welcomed into the family of his “faculty parents,” Jennifer and Jeff Goldberg. Jennifer told Toni-ann Miller of the Palm Beach Post in 2012 that Geffrard was “trusting enough to allow himself to be vulnerable, to be able to accept the help that is being offered.” In his spare time, he volunteered at one of the same food assistance programs that aided him when he was younger. He was a model human being, but also a model student, and went on to receive scholarships to Nova Southeastern University, where he majored in business administration.
“Everyone from St. Andrew's, I'm still in contact with. Everybody who's helped me out in the past, everybody in the PAL program that helped me get by and through some of those times, getting into places like St. Andrew's and college. They're all excited for me,” said Geffrard.
Particularly after his two career losses, Geffrard found the boxing industry far less charitable than the folks in Boca Raton. But he combined two of his passions—his desire to improve as a fighter and his passion for travel and experiencing boxing cultures around the world—and took matters into his own hands. Geffrard found himself in camp with many of the top light heavyweights of the past few eras, including Chad Dawson, Glen Johnson, Sergey Kovalev, Eleider Alvarez and current lineal champ Artur Beterbiev. He travelled to Germany to experience a Wladimir Klitschko fight live. He even picked up commentary duties as far away as Kazakhstan where he was on the call for a Kanat Islam bout. All the while, he was gaining experience and building familiarity and a Rolodex within the boxing industry.
He became best friends with Erickson Lubin, whom he lived with for a period of time. One day in early 2020, right before the beginning of the pandemic, he went with Lubin to the gym where he met Lubin’s trainer Kevin Cunningham. Cunningham took an interest in training Geffrard, and the two also bonded over their insatiable appetite for boxing film. Cunningham was in his corner for his layoff-busting win over Grachev, and will lead him into the biggest fight of his life this weekend.
“He's very organized. He's involved in every aspect of your training, and really all you have to do is just show up. Everything else is set in place with you. There's no "oh who am I gonna spar, is it gonna be the style I need for this fight." There's none of that. He's a boxing junkie too. He watches boxing 24/7, he eats, sleeps and dreams about it. So, all I have to do is show up and work out and I know I'm in good hands,” said Geffrard.
There’s a tangible revelry in Geffrard’s voice as he talks about his big break, teetering between his identities as both high-level professional boxer and hardcore boxing fan just like the rest of us. Whether he was fighting this weekend or not, his day was set aside for this fight. Initially the plan was to celebrate a stay-busy win, kick back and watch the fight with his friends, but now he’ll be the one on ESPN instead.
“I was actually looking forward to the fight with Smith and Johnson because I thought it was gonna be a very exciting fight, both of those guys have styles that would go well with one another. I was looking forward to watching that fight,” said Geffrard. “Joe's style and my style, it's good for a fan-friendly fight. Not everybody gets this opportunity. It's the chance of a lifetime.”
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman