The Curious Case Of King Artur

There’s that old tale about Androcles, the slave who fled his master and then pulled the stinging thorn from the lion’s paw. Both were later captured and the runaway slave was condemned to be fed to the big cat, but when the hungry lion was unleashed he recognized his friend; instead of eating Androcles, the lion embraced him. It’s a fable about gratitude and faithfulness and one speculates it might be lost on undefeated power-puncher Artur Beterbiev. Or else he would likely see himself as the slave in the story, not a well-fed lion with precious few thorns to worry about.

We note that the light heavyweight KO artist recently announced via social media that he had signed a contract to face Germany’s Enrico Koelling (23-1), the winner of the match, tentatively scheduled for July 29th, to then be the mandatory challenger for the IBF light heavyweight title. In theory at least, either Beterbiev or Koelling (but to be candid here, Koelling’s chances of prevailing are slim indeed) will be the next opponent for the winner of the upcoming championship rematch between Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward.

The significance of this news is not just that a win over Koelling will mark another major step forward for the undefeated Chechen power-puncher as he closes in on a chance at a world title. It’s also an odd twist in the already peculiar situation in regards to Beterbiev’s status as a boxer promoted by Groupe Yvon Michel and managed by Al Haymon. This is because the previous important announcement the undefeated fighter had issued via social media was on May 8, when he let it be known he was pursuing legal action to seek an end to his association with Yvon Michel, the Montreal-based promoter allegedly a thorn in Beterbiev’s paw.

But Artur’s reasons for wanting to terminate his contract do not, collectively, appear to come anywhere close to outweighing the benefits he has received from his professional association with both Michel and Haymon. This is a boxer with only 11 pro matches to his credit but who is universally regarded as one of the top light heavyweight contenders in the world. As noted, a win over Koelling almost guarantees him a chance at one of the world title belts.

Beterbiev’s rapid progress is of course due to his own talent, but also to Groupe Yvon Michel working to fast-track his career, matching him with world-class prizefighters when he was still a professional novice. In September of 2014, and in just his sixth pro bout, Beterbiev headlined a Montreal fight card to face former world champion Tavoris Cloud, the NABA light heavyweight title at stake. Some wondered if Michel and company were overestimating their fighter’s readiness to take on serious professional competition. Considering Artur’s relative inexperience and the fact Cloud had several championship wins to his credit, it was reasonable to question the move. But we knew Yvon Michel had assessed his fighter’s talents correctly when Beterbiev knocked Cloud out and broke his jaw in less than four minutes of action. Cloud has not fought since.

Beterbiev demolished former champion Cloud in two rounds.

In the knockout victories following that huge win, Beterbiev was featured on major fight cards and three Premier Boxing Champions broadcasts, picking up two more titles in the process. And, as per his contract with Al Haymon, he has received a cool quarter million in payment for those wins. Considering that Beterbiev, a native of Chechnya, has no fan following to speak of and little drawing power, it can be argued he has been compensated most generously, if not grossly overpaid. And yet he’s dissatisfied and now wishes to acquire different representation.

Reportedly, the reasons for Beterbiev instructing his lawyer to request a “Declaratory Judgement” confirming that his contract with Groupe Yvon Michel is no longer valid, revolve around the number of fights he has had and the fact that on two occasions payments have been late in coming to him. But, as noted, absolutely no one can argue with a straight face that Beterbiev is in fact worth $250 000 per fight, or that Yvon Michel has failed to get him meaningful matches in a timely fashion. Indeed, it was an injury to Artur’s shoulder which saw him inactive for a full year following his June, 2015 win over Alexander Johnson. How can Michel be blamed for that?

Anyone who cares to ask around quickly learns that Beterbiev’s people have been earnestly trying to secure him a match with one of the top light heavyweights for some time, but to no avail. Michel had even won the rights to a Beterbiev vs Sullivan Barrera tilt before Barrera found a way out. When it comes to “King Artur,” a fighter with nothing but knockouts to his credit, it appears the top contenders at 175 have developed a collective case of the jitters, though who can blame them? In the words of referee Michael Griffin after Beterbiev demolished otherwise sturdy-chinned Isidro Prieto in a single round: “I don’t know if anybody [else] hits that hard.”

King Artur and ex-manager Anna Reva in happier days.

But, even so, if Beterbiev ends his relationship with Yvon Michel, where does he go from here? Some speculate he’s eyeing a move to Michel’s crosstown rival, Camille Estephan, and his company, Eye Of The Tiger Management. But that would appear unlikely given that Estephan works with Anna Reva, who had acted as Beterbiev’s manager before he turned his back on her and signed with Al Haymon. She has since sued Beterbiev and that case is still working its way through the courts.

One then wonders if an American promoter is trying to lure Artur, but how does anyone market this pugilist, Haymon or no Haymon, south of the border? While he is generally referred to as being Russian and did represent Russia at the Beijing and London Olympic Games, Artur Beterbiev is a Chechen, and a Muslim Chechen at that. In the days of Donald Trump, with millions of Americans fearful of anyone who frequents a mosque, Beterbiev’s cultural background represents a serious hurdle, though to leave his adopted city, where the fighter has been based since 2013, makes little sense anyway. Montreal is where his pro career has been established and whatever fan base he has is to be found primarily in La Belle Province.

King Artur’s 2016 stoppage of Ezequiel Maderna was broadcast on PBC.

But it makes even less sense when one looks a bit further into Beterbiev’s background, or spends a bit more time on his Twitter page. After all, it does not appear that this is an immigrant who has exactly embraced the social values of where he now lives, works and earns large piles of cash. In fact, it would seem that Beterbiev is an earnest supporter of Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen Republic, a Vladimir Putin-backed dictator intent on brutally repressing his own people. In addition to violently intimidating any form of public dissent and expressing his personal approval of so-called “honor killings,” Kadyrov has recently attracted horrified global attention as his soldiers arbitrarily arrest Chechen citizens, locking them away in prison camps where they are tortured and even, it has been alleged, killed, for the crime of not being heterosexual.

But even if none of this were so, even if he did not come from a fascist police state, the fact remains, as our own Manny Montreal noted in a recent video, that Beterbiev has made almost no effort to endear himself to boxing fans, let alone sports fans, in Montreal or anywhere else. What popularity he does enjoy stems solely from his undefeated record and astonishing knockout power. With nothing else to justify public interest, he has done extraordinarily well, both in terms of his progress upward through the light heavyweight division and his financial remuneration. It’s bewildering to think that he has taken stock of his situation and concluded that he has not been well treated or that he could do better elsewhere.

But then again, he can’t possibly have come to that conclusion when he’s just signed to fight Koelling, right? How do you ask your lawyer to seek a legal means to terminate a contract with your promoter, but then agree to a fight which that same promoter has worked to organize on your behalf? What, one wonders, is the Chechen word for “loyalty”?

The situation appears confounding no matter how you look at it, but Yvon Michel, sounds resigned, if not serene.

“I have a lot of admiration for him,” Michel told this scribe recently, “but we disagree regarding his status. It’s going to the courts and we will abide with whatever a judge decides. We had three meetings and everything was very cordial. There are no hard feelings. This is business and he’s doing what he believes is best for his career. And we are trying to do what is best for our business and for him.”

No hard feelings, says Michel. But is it not frustrating to work to further a boxer’s career, to get them fights and promote them, and in return they want to sever all ties?

“It’s disappointing,” says Michel, “because we are trying to secure him good opportunities. He has been well paid and, yes, he was paid late after his last fight, but otherwise there have been no problems. And remember, he is ranked at the top of the division and he has fought on CBS, Showtime, ESPN. Everyone knows he is the future of the division. Now he has the chance to fight Koelling and the winner will be the mandatory challenger for the IBF championship. That match is a financial gamble for us but we know it’s the right thing to do for his career, so whatever happens in the end, we will know we did everything we could for him.”

Yvon Michel: hopeful the dispute will be resolved.

Is the fundamental problem, the true source of his discontent, a frustration at having not yet received a chance to fight a legit top contender, or for one of the world titles? And is that due to Beterbiev simply being too good for his own good?

“Yes,” answers Michel. “Absolutely. And boxers want huge compensation to face him. For example, we had talked with Yuneski Gonzalez about possible fights with both Stevenson and Beterbiev, and Gonzalez wanted more money to fight Beterbiev than to fight Adonis Stevenson in a world title fight. That makes no sense, but this is what everyone is doing. To get this one match done for the IBF title eliminator, we had to go through five or six different contenders before finally someone said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’ So it’s difficult, but it’s hardly our fault.”

Michel also suspects that, despite the generous compensation that has come Beterbiev’s way, money may also be a factor in his unhappiness.

“His contract stipulates a minimum of $250 000 U.S. per fight. We staged the Prieto match in Gatineau and there was very little media coverage, no U.S. television, and he was still paid that much. The money came a bit late, but he was paid and he’s been paid at that level since his eighth fight. But in his mind, he keeps winning so he deserves bigger payments, but there’s nothing left to give to the opponent, so how can he be paid more? And if our contract is terminated, he is still under contract to Al Haymon so I don’t understand how he expects to do better. Whatever the case, I have hope this will eventually be resolved and we’ll continue to work together.”

Artur and Yvon in happier times.

But if Michel is hopeful that the situation will be resolved, he shouldn’t necessarily be surprised at the fact of Beterbiev’s ingratitude. It could be said that Anna Reva removed from Beterbiev’s paw the thorny dilemma of how to successfully transition from the amateurs to the pros, how to make the move from a country where no professional boxing exists, to a place where an athlete with a gift for throwing incredibly concussive blows can become a highly paid sports star. But when Al Haymon came calling with a contract that promised Beterbiev $250 000 per fight, the former Olympian didn’t hesitate: Marsa jayla, Anna! (That’s presumably Chechen for “See ya around, sucker!”)

And so here we are, wondering how this will all be straightened out, looking forward to Beterbiev’s next fight, while reflecting upon a most curious image, the one near the top of this article. It begs the question: what type of person signs a contract to take advantage of an opportunity secured for them by the same associate they wish to turn their back on? As the old story goes, even a hungry lion has better sense than that.

— Michael Carbert 

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