Will Beterbiev Make Montreal Great Again?

After losing by knockout, Oleksandr Gvozdyk held up his hands in honest submission. The gesture came on his way back to the dressing room when a group of Ukrainian fans applauded his noble effort. “The Nail” had boxed beautifully, with ample reserves of skill and courage, before three knockdowns in round ten encouraged the referee to deny him further abuse. His sportsmanlike resignation emphasized the near impossibility of the test he had just failed. Such is the reality of facing Artur Beterbiev.

Beterbiev defeats Gvozdyk
A vanquished Gvozdyk gets a kiss from trainer Teddy Atlas.

Among the most anticipated matches of 2019, last week’s main event was excellent. Before this, Beterbiev was in action back in May when he stopped Radivoje Kalajdzic in five rounds, while Gvozdyk’s previous match came in March against Doudou Ngumbu. That fight ended by stoppage, but it was the Ukrainian’s December bloodletting of Adonis Stevenson – which left the Montrealer in a coma and prompted The Montreal Gazette to call for boxing’s abolition – that sealed his reputation as a premier light heavyweight. Whether his skills and pedigree would be enough to overcome Beterbiev’s power is what drew fans to ESPN and Philadelphia’s Liacouras Center. 

It is a testament to Beterbiev’s indomitability that Gvozdyk could have boxed so well and still be stopped. It is not the ambition of this article to provide a synopsis of the bout, nor is it to restate the obvious: that Beterbiev was simply too strong, too patient, and too powerful to be held off for twelve rounds. Rather, the salient question after his masterclass of control and execution in the most important fight of his career is, where does Artur Beterbiev go from here?

Beterbiev was just too strong and relentless for “The Nail.”

To answer that, it is perhaps best to revisit the stalled and twisting path his career has taken over the past few years. After distancing himself from the person, Anna Reva, who brought him to Montreal in the first place, Beterbiev’s relationship with promoter Yvon Michel ended in similar acrimony and litigation. Today he is contractually tied to Top Rank’s Bob Arum, who will serve as Beterbiev’s conduit to the American market, but the boxer is without a promoter in Montreal, the city where he lives, trains, and started his professional career. 

This would not be an issue if there was a sizeable appetite to see Beterbiev fight in the United States, but there doesn’t seem to be one. The majority of those who attended last week’s event were firmly pro-Gvozdyk (and pro-Ukraine), and however brilliantly Beterbiev performed it seems doubtful he will become a mainstream draw anytime soon. Unlike Gennadiy Golovkin, whose dogged violence and campy behaviour helped him transcend some obscure cultural and geographic origins, Beterbiev is more inaccessible. He is a strict Muslim who speaks halting English and is either indifferent to, or incapable of, popularizing himself on his own. 

Beterbiev with Anna Reva, who helped him begin his pro career in Montreal.

That is not a criticism. Beterbiev is a grimly focused fighter whose priority is repeating Friday’s performance on larger stages. But where might these platforms be? Maybe not in the United States, but rather back in Montreal where he has a fan-base, however modest, and presumably an interested promoter in Eye of the Tiger’s Camille Estephan. If Estephan could enter into a co-promotional agreement with Arum, they could conceivably stage one or more Bell Centre cards featuring Beterbiev and Arslanbek “The Lion” Makhmudov — the mountainous heavyweight who rushed the ring and launched Artur into the air as they celebrated his victory over Gvozdyk. Makhmudov’s profile would surge if he were introduced to the masses before a Beterbiev title defense.

It’s a shame more fans didn’t see Beterbiev’s brutal destruction of Tavoris Cloud.

There’s an obvious selfishness in calling for Beterbiev’s Canadian return. He is originally from Chechnya, not Montreal, but returning to “The Fight City” is a scenario that makes sense. To watch one of the sport’s most exciting boxers perform in Philadelphia before a smaller crowd than his talents deserve was to witness a fighter without a country. After his mandatory IBF defense against China’s Meng Fanlong, it would be a shrewd career move if Top Rank could entice Dmitry Bivol or Sergey Kovalev to face Beterbiev in Montreal, which hasn’t hosted a fight of consequence since Adonis Stevenson steamrolled Andrzej Fonfara in June of 2017, or when Billy Joe Saunders euthanized David Lemieux later that December. In fact, the last time Beterbiev fought here was in 2016 when he submitted Ezequiel Osvaldo Maderna in six rounds. 

Beterbiev trounces Maderna at the Bell Centre.

Now for some justified complaining. With some exceptions, the majority of Montreal cards serve as exhibitions where local fighters dispatch of whomever their promoters have plucked from Mexico or Eastern Europe. These events let the city’s Montreal-based talents build their records but serve no larger, meaningful purpose. It is a wanting, anti-climatic and even repellent experience to consistently watch lambs fed to lions, and perhaps this lack of competitive drama explains the dearth of excitement right now in the Montreal boxing scene. 

Let us cite an upcoming example: the city’s biggest boxing event of 2019 is set for December 7th at the Bell Centre, a major show from Eye Of The Tiger Management, but of the three headlining matches there isn’t one whose outcome isn’t preordained. For example, heavyweight Makhmudov will face aged former top contender Samuel Peter, who is 39-years-old, 2-2 since returning to the ring this past February, and before that was inactive for three years.

Montreal wants fewer mismatches and more Beterbiev.

The match is being sold as a ‘step up’ Arslanbek, one that will hopefully not inflict lasting damage on the Nigerian. But rather than staging such one-sided advertisements, a Beterbiev title defense versus a legitimate opponent would help Montreal reclaim its luster as a leading fight destination.

Unfortunately, Beterbiev’s next move will likely be determined by the same people who architect these frustrations. It is my hope they will realize that a lucrative boxing landscape, with crowds that exceed five digits, is reachable, but its location is in Montreal, a city where thousands of eager fans lay dormant. Failing such a move, we will be left to make the same resigned shrug Gvozdyk did as he walked back to his dressing room last Friday. And if that’s the case, we won’t arrive at that state because of any harm done to us by Artur Beterbiev, but rather because of the apparatus that, before last Friday, made following his career a trying experience.         

— Eliott McCormick

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