12:22 AM ET

  • Dan RafaelESPN Senior Writer

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    • 2013 BWAA Nat Fleischer Award winner for excellence in boxing journalism
    • ESPN.com boxing writer since 2005
    • Five years at USA Today

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Light heavyweight contender Joe Smith Jr., best known for ending the career of legend Bernard Hopkins, put a serious dent in the career of Hopkins’ protégé, Jesse Hart, on Saturday night.

Smith, a heavy puncher, rocked, rattled and dropped Hart and won a split decision in an exciting fight that headlined the Top Rank Boxing on ESPN card before 3,415 at Etess Arena at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

Two judges had it for Smith, 98-91 and 97-92, but one judge, James Kinney, shockingly had it 95-94 for Hart. ESPN had Smith winning 97-92 and most at ringside also had him winning handily.

Hart had come into the fight desperately wanting to defeat Smith as vengeance for what Smith did in December 2016, which was knock out Hopkins, literally sending him flying out of the ring, to end the career of the former middleweight and light heavyweight world champion.

The way Hopkins went out saddened and angered Hart, who was inspired to box at age 7 by Hopkins, the mentor he has grown close to and considers part of his family. Once Hart moved up to light heavyweight he specifically sought out a fight with former world title challenger Smith aiming for revenge. But it was not to be.

“I got two Philly guys now and it feels great,” Smith said. “It would have been nice to get [Hart] the same way but you can’t always do that.”

Hart came to the ring wearing an executioner’s mask as an homage to Hopkins, who did the same thing for years because he was known as “The Executioner,” but Hart said he was dealing with an injury.

“I hurt my right hand a week ago,” Hart said. “You can see it’s messed up. I don’t want to make no excuses, because Joe fought a great fight. I hurt the hand in my last sparring session and thought I could overcome that. Credit to Joe for doing what he had to do.”

There was considerable outrage, however, about the Kinney scorecard.

“I was a little worried there, but I was very confident I would get the decision,” Smith said. “The one judge made me a little nervous. With the knockdown and the hard shots, I felt I won.”

Top Rank’s Bob Arum, who promotes Hart and has options on Smith, blasted the judge.

“That judge should be banned from scoring a fight — and I promote Hart,” Arum said. “How can you ever score that fight for Jesse Hart? It was a terrific fight, good for boxing, good action fight, and then you have a damn judge who screws it up.”

Hart’s game plan was evident right away — that he would try to move a lot and stay away from Smith’s considerable power, but Smith, despite missing wildly with many punches, also landed many heavy ones.

Smith rocked Hart with a right hand in the second round and Hart immediately clinched, which he would throughout the bout when he got clipped.

Hart (26-3, 21 KOs), 30, whose other two losses came by decision in super middleweight title fights against Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez, bounced back well in the third round, landing quick combinations and stunning Smith with an uppercut.

Smith (25-3, 20 KOs), 30, from New York’s Long Island, had Hart in trouble again in the fourth round when he landed an uppercut that turned him sideways and then landed a solid right hand that buzzed him.

Smith, who had swelling under his right eye, had a big seventh round, nailing Hart and forcing him back. Hart tried to hold desperately and looked ready to go when Smith caught him with a right hand that dropped him to a knee late in the round. He beat the count but Smith battered him over the final 10 seconds.

“He’s got a lot of heart,” Smith said. “He’s very tough. He had the will to make it through the fight.”

Hart took a shellacking in the ninth round as Smith battered him around the ring and opened a cut over his left eye. Referee Harvey Dock called timeout to have the ringside doctor examine it. Smith finished the fight continuing to press Hart, nailing him and making him hold.

Smith landed 135 of 501 punches (27%) and Hart landed 99 of 465 (21%), according to CompuBox.

“I thought I had him a few times. He was a little slippery and he tied me up well,” said Smith, who bounced back from a one-sided decision loss to light heavyweight world titlist Dmitry Bivol in March. “My career was on the line. I had to come here and prove I belong.”

He sure proved that he did and set himself up for another notable fight, possibly against the winner of the Jan. 18 ESPN main event between former titlist Eleider “Storm” Alvarez and Michael Seals.

“I would like him to fight the winner of that fight,” Arum said.

Star Boxing’s Joe DeGuardia, Smith’s promoter, added, “Light heavyweight is a hot division and we’ll be there next week. Certainly the winner is a potential opponent for Joe.”

Smith said he would eventually like a rematch with Bivol but is open to anything.

“Whatever my team thinks is best I will go with it,” he said. “I never turn down a fight.”

Nelson stops Kilic

Super middleweight Steve Nelson stopped Cem Kilic in the eighth round when Kilic’s trainer, Buddy McGirt, threw in the towel rather than allow Kilic to absorb more punishment.

“I’m just happy that was no harm done to me and no major harm done to him. He’s a great opponent,” Nelson said. “Buddy knows his fighter. He knows when enough is enough.”

Nelson (16-0, 13 KOs), 31, of Omaha, Nebraska, where he shares trainer Brian McIntyre with friend and welterweight titlist Terence Crawford, claimed a vacant regional title.

The fight was initially scheduled to take place Dec. 14 deep on the Terence Crawford-Egidijus Kavaliauskas undercard in New York but was moved to the Saturday co-feature when former middleweight world titlist Rob Brant suffered a torn biceps and withdrew from the co-feature against Habib Ahmed. Nelson took advantage of the greater exposure with a strong performance.

There were several high-contact exchanges, but Nelson seemed to get the better of most of them and eventually wore Kilic down.

A 2012 U.S. Olympic alternate, Nelson landed several stinging uppercuts, but Kilic (14-1, 9 KOs), 25, a Germany native fighting out of Los Angeles, continued to march forward and targeted Nelson’s body, which trainer McGirt implored him to do.

But Nelson continued to land clean shots against a tiring Kilic, whose right eye was closing. Finally, McGirt had seen enough and signaled for referee David Fields to stop the fight, which he did at 1 minute, 44 seconds of the eighth round. Nelson was ahead 70-63 — a shutout — on all three scorecards at the time of the stoppage.

Nelson outlanded Kilic 215-62, according to CompuBox.

“By this time next year, I want to fight for a world title,” Nelson said. “I leave that in the hands of my management and Top Rank.”

In other undercard bouts

  • Sunrise, Florida, welterweight Xander Zayas (3-0, 2 KOs), the 17-year-old blue-chip prospect and high school senior, was pushed past the first round for the first time in a shutout decision of Corey Champion (1-2, 1 KO), 21, of Louisa, Virginia. Zayas doled out major punishment throughout the fight, especially in the second round, when he brutalized Champion with body shots and gave him a bloody nose. “It was an awesome experience going the distance for the first time,” Zayas said. “I think it was great for me to get those four rounds. I know the guy was hurt and I was trying to get the knockout. It didn’t come and we did our job and got the victory.”

  • Philadelphia heavyweight prospect Sonny “The Bronco” Conto (6-0, 5 KOs), 23, cut through Curtis Head (5-5, 3 KOs), 35, of Southfield, Michigan, with ease in the first round. Conto, 218 pounds, dropped the rotund 271-pound Head to a knee twice with body shots, and on the second Head took the full count from referee David Franciosi at 2 minutes, 8 seconds in a less-than-stellar effort.

  • Lightweight Joseph Adorno (14-0-1, 12 KOs), 20, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, whom many view as one of Top Rank’s best prospects, fought to a split draw in a very tough test against journeyman Hector Garcia (14-7-4, 8 KOs), 25, of Mexico. One judge had it 77-75 for Adorno, one had it 77-75 for Garcia and one had the fierce fight 76-76. Both fighters took and gave a lot of punches and were bloodied.

  • Allentown, Pennsylvania, junior featherweight Jeremy Adorno (4-0, 1 KO), Joseph’s 19-year-old brother, won a shutout decision over Fernando Ibarra (2-3, 0 KOs), 19, of Fairfield, California. All three judges had it 40-35 for Adorno, who landed a perfect left hook on the chin that dropped Ibarra hard on his back in the second round.

  • Welterweight Shinard Bunch (6-1, 5 KOs), 20, of Trenton, New Jersey, defeated Dennis Okoth (4-3-1, 2 KOs), 26, of Kenya, when Okoth abruptly retired with 20 seconds left in the sixth and final round of what did not appear to be a grueling fight. However, in the final seconds Okoth suddenly turned away and walked toward his corner and declined to continue, forcing referee David Franciosi to stop the fight. Okoth, who complained of dizziness, received oxygen and was taken from the ring on a stretcher as a precaution. Bunch also needed medical attention after vomiting in his dressing room after the fight.

  • Super middleweight Chris Thomas (14-1-1, 9 KOs), 21, of Toms River, New Jersey, needed only 47 seconds to stop Samir Barbosa (37-17-3, 26 KOs), 39, of Brazil, although the stoppage appeared to be a bit quick. Thomas had forced Barbosa to a corner and was landing punches, but Barbosa never seemed hurt or wobbled when referee Sparkle Lee suddenly stepped in.

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