TAMPA — The heavyweight champion of the world is, to many, the most prestigious title in boxing.
And for Sarasota's China “The Dragon” Smith, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become the division's next world champion has finally come his way.
Tonight at 7:45 at the Forum, Smith will face Mike Sheppard for the vacant World Boxing Federation North American heavyweight title, setting up a chance to fight for the WBF world title, which has been vacant the past nine months.
“The World Boxing Federation, unlike all the other sanctioned bodies, goes by computer ranking, so this particular fight, there is a lot on the line because the winner of this fight will be one side of our vacant world title,” said Bill Calogero, WBF continental coordinator for North America. “There's a lot of stuff on the line for both these guys.”
Smith (34-4, 27 KOs) is a two-time National Boxing Association heavyweight champion. At 35, some would believe Smith wouldn't have enough in the tank for a world title push.
Henry Grooms, the only trainer Smith has had in his nearly 20-year career, believes otherwise.
“Light-heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins is over 40 and Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s pressing 38,” Grooms said. “This is a situation where China Smith is a well-conditioned athlete that is getting an opportunity in his comeback.”
Said Smith: “I'm at my best right now. I feel great. I'm stronger, I'm wiser, more mature and more hungry than ever, because I've been there before.”
Smith exited boxing in 2007, but he returned in 2013 and defeated Rubin Williams at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in a seventh-round TKO. Smith hasn't fought since.
“For me, it's the biggest opportunity of my life in my late career,” he said of tonight's fight. “I say late career, but it's a new beginning in my career. Not just a fight at home in the Tampa Bay area, but fighting for the North American WBF title. When I win that, I'll continue to move up to the next level, the continental and maybe the world title.”
And possibly a shot at IBF, WBO and WBA champion Wladimir Klitschko?
“After they win our world title, they're right in line with every other world titleist, so theoretically, they could fight Klitschko right at that point,” Calogero said. “The thing is, would Klitschko fight them?”
Smith's opponent is coming off a loss to Tampa Bay product Antonio Tarver and is 21-16 overall, with nine wins by knockout. Sheppard, 39, is also viewing the fight as his last opportunity at a world title.
“I've been doing this for 21 years, and (Smith) has probably been doing this a while, too, so we've paid our dues and this is where it all comes together and pays off for our legacy,” Sheppard said.
The co-main event will feature Plant City's Chevelle Hallback, a four-time women's champion, against Dominga Olivo. Also on the undercard is relatively new female boxer Noemi Bosques and lightweight Jose Resendez, both from St. Petersburg.
“I'm a four-time world champ, I've traveled all over the world, was voted top-10 pound-for-pound boxer by Ring Magazine, but all of that can't compare to this moment right here, fighting at home in front of my fans, in front of my family, my friends and in front of my mom,” Hallback said.
“This will be the first time my mother has actually ever seen me fight live.”