TAMPA – Bradenton heavyweight China “the Dragon” Smith took another step forward in his comeback Friday night with a 10-round unanimous decision over tough journeyman Mike Sheppard at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Smith improves to 35-4, while picking up the WBF North American belt.
Smith, 35, looked to have knocked quite a bit of rust off since his last fight, a 7th round TKO over former Contender star Rubin Hollywood Willians, which was his first after a six-year hiatus from the sport.
The slick southpaw used a persistent body attack and high punch rate to grind down the tough West Virginia brawler, who despite taking plenty of punishment, remained game until the final bell.
Sheppard had his moments, connecting on several haymakers, but despite sporadic rallies throughout the fight, was never able to put enough together at one time to put Smith in real danger.
China suffered a cut above the right eye late in the fight, but came on strong in the final two rounds to seal the victory, finding a consistent home for his short right hook over his tired opponent's low guard.
The 10th round saw both fighters putting their bodies on the line in a sprint to the final bell, and the crowd responded with a vigorous standing ovation. The victory will put Smith in line to fight for the WBF championship, which was once something of a fringe title, but gained a measure credibility when Evander Holyfield beat Frans Botha in Las Vegas to gain its crown in 2010.
Smith had previously held the Tampa-based NBA heavyweight title on two occasions before his extended layoff and hopes he can parlay his comeback run into a major title bout sometime next year.
Friday's event drew a healthy crowd to the Forum, despite heavy rains. Plenty of local sports luminaries were on hand to take in the action including boxing legend Antonio Tarver, Major League Baseball star Fred McGriff and Hall of Fame Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks.
Smith's team plans to have him back in action at the Forum in late August for another major event. Meanwhile, the fighter will look to head back to the Manatee PAL as soon as possible to resume his training.
The judges' scores for the bout were 97-93 and 98-92 (twice). Plant City native Chevelle Hallback stopped Dominga Olivo in the second round on the card's co-feature bout.
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