Stephen Smith and John Simpson are products of their environment. Smith is a Scouser, they of the romantic heart, sardonic wit and swift, accented lilt. He fights as he speaks, in quick, vivace bursts – and he’s confident. An accomplished amateur and a prodigious talent, his fledgling career has yet to come within range of a boundary rope and you feel if it ever did, he’d merely look to saunter on over the top of it.
Simpson, meanwhile, projects inward. Sullen and morose, the Scotsman’s career has been marked by dour battles and sour fortune. He’s a grinder whose successes have been built around a stout heart, a willingness to toil and a solid understanding of how to scrap in at close quarters. His understated technique, one that often fails to impress ringside scorers on the look-out for more obvious pointers, has seen seven decisions scored against him in his 29 fight career -- miserable nights all, yet knock backs which the Greenock man would be all too willing to argue he was done a disservice by, including the verdict which landed on Smith’s side of the fence last year.
“Swifty” leapt into a Commonwealth title fight against Simpson in September after ten bouts spent belting about journeymen and novices in four and six rounders. A tense entree before Ricky Burns’ big night against Roman Martinez at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow, Smith’s confidence, that of a man assured he was on the road to Damascus, and his superior speed, overuled a greenness in technique which allowed him to grab a split decision from a nip-and-tuck contest.
On Wednesday evening they meet again, this time in Smith’s backyard in Liverpool, yet Simpson, resilient as ever, has stolen a march on the younger man since last they met.
After mangling his lead mitt in the first quarter of their first bout, Smith reluctantly forfeited a British featherweight title bout against Belfast‘s Martin Lindsay for hand surgery and rehabilitation. Simpson, snatching at the first whiff of a break to have presented itself throughout his hardscrabble career, stepped into the breach and outfought the Ulsterman in the house that Barry McGuigan used to rock. Rather than ruing his luck, though, Smith sees it as an ideal opportunity to show how much he’s come on.
“I couldn’t have asked for it to be a better opponent, really,” he explained. “The reason being, a lot of people thought the first fight was close and I’ve got the chance to go in there straight away and put it right and show people that I’m a better fighter than John Simpson and I’ll beat him well on the night.”
The Liverpudlian’s self belief is striking, yet it comes across as more than just whistling in the dark. Smith was well accustomed to being head and shoulders above the domestic field as an amateur and believes it only logical that he’ll follow suit in the pros. Rather than seeking to rag on those who remain in his way, though, Smith reserves for them only respect, which says much about his character. “I haven’t really looked past this fight,” he confesses. “I wouldn’t dream of disrespecting Simpson by looking past him.”
Now under the wing of Britain’s answer to Freddie Roach, the sagacious Joe Gallagher, Smith will look to box Simpson from range, yet will almost certainly have a few more tricks up his sleeve should Simpson manage to drag the argument inside.
“He was doing the better work up close,” admits Smith of Simpson. “But I was limited with the hand injury and I wasn’t willing to exchange -- I was just trying to smother him up close. I’ve worked on a lot of things with Joe, there’s a lot of things we feel Simpson does wrong -- a lot of things he does repeatedly -- and I’m hoping to expose it on Wednesday night.”
One of a triumvirate of fighting brothers (siblings Paul and Liam also box professionally), it was big brother Paul (a former "Contender" contestant in the U.S.) who inspired the young Stephen to try on the gloves. “Like most young lads you follow on from your brother,” he offered. And whilst his brother got him started, it’s his little sister, Hollie, who keeps him going.
“I’ve got a severely autistic little sister and we always wear 'autism' on our shorts to raise awareness," he said. "The more people that’ll ask about it the better, it’s good to get the exposure.”
Victory on Wednesday evening, most likely by decision, would ensure plenty more of that.