Being a boxing fan is a tough gig. Don’t let anyone tell you different. And yes, we know, 2018 has been an impressive year in many respects, but, as always, along with the excitement there’s also plenty of agitation. A quick survey of some of boxing’s most intriguing weight divisions makes clear why many die-hard fans are in a state of constant frustration, despite the sport offering strong pairings on a regular basis this year. Bottom line: there’s too many excellent match-ups that, for whatever reason, just don’t happen, and not nearly enough clarity. In other words, too much flash and sizzle, not enough substance.
Fact is, it’s difficult for those following the sport avidly not to feel like a pet dog constantly being teased with treats and toys that disappear and then reappear out of reach with maddening frequency. We get excited about a potential duel, then it slips away, then it appears again, then it’s snatched away once more. What other sport operates this way? Every single year, without fail, football and basketball fans get to see the best take on the best. Only in boxing are fans denied, over and over again, the most meaningful confrontations. Yes, I know, you’ve heard it all before, but allow me to vent. After all, if there’s anything boxing fans enjoy more than a great fight, it’s being able to complain about the vagaries of the sport they both love and love to hate.
And spare me the hallelujah chorus for the recent announcement that Shawn Porter and Danny Garcia will meet on September 8 in Brooklyn. Seriously, instead of celebrating this news, fight fans should be offering a chorus of, “Well it’s about friggin’ time!” Porter vs Garcia is a match-up we have every right to expect to happen, not one which we should get down on our knees and thank the powers-that-be for putting together. These are two of the top welterweights in the world, signed to the same promotional outfit; it makes perfect sense for them to throw down.
But this is just one example of how things have been unfolding in a talent-laden welterweight division which just can’t seem to get going. For example, in addition to Garcia and Porter, we have two of the finest competitors in the sport today, Errol Spence Jr. and Terence Crawford, and naturally one might think it would just be a matter of time before they throw down in a high-stakes clash. But as soon as people start getting excited about such a match, we’re told it will never happen because Spence is with Showtime and Crawford is with Top Rank, blah, blah, blah. We hear the same things about Lomachenko vs Mikey Garcia and Inoue vs Sor Rungvisai and a long list of other great match-ups.
Which brings us to the light heavyweight division. Because the situation at 175 is, for this observer at least, simultaneously the most intriguing and the most vexing. Intriguing because there are just so many elite talents in the division. Vexing because it’s taking way too long for the meaningful match-ups to happen and thus we have virtually no prospect of ever finding out who is the division’s true king. It doesn’t help that the WBC and lineal champ, Adonis Stevenson, has ducked his most deserving contender, Eleider Alvarez, for two years or more. And it also doesn’t help that Andre Ward, after decisively beating Sergey Kovalev in their rematch, then decided to pack up and retire.
Kovalev has rebounded nicely with impressive wins over Vyacheslav Shabranskyy and Igor Mikhalkin and is currently the WBO champion. He is now set to face Alvarez on August 4th in what is currently the most significant match for the division that we can look forward to at this point. That could and should be a great fight. Oleksandr Gvozdyk, the current WBC interim champion, is not the most active of fighters, but he is formidable and the WBC has ordered Stevenson to face him. Artur Beterbiev is the current IBF champion but due to injuries and legal troubles his career has been stalled with only three fights in the last two years. And Badou Jack, coming off his 12 round war with Stevenson, has to be regarded as a major force in the division as well.
But there’s an interesting fact about all of these leading lights at 175: they are all 30-years-old or older, their athletic peaks in the rear view mirror. And thus the fertile ground of the light heavyweight division is ripe for new conquests by a new force, a warrior who is younger, hungrier, his best fights and best performances still ahead of him. The fighter touted by some as the division’s heir apparent is the WBA champion, Dmitry Bivol.
Originating from Kyrgyzstan, Dmitry lives in St. Petersburg, Russia with his wife and young son, but he now trains in Los Angeles with coach Gennady Mashianov. In 13 pro wins, the 27-year-old has so far demonstrated adaptability, fast footwork and concussive power. As an amateur, Dmitry never represented Russia at the Olympics due to boxing behind Egor Mekhontsev, who won gold at the 2012 games, but Bivol did go on to represent Russia at the World Series of Boxing tournament for semi-pros before becoming a full-fledged professional in 2014.
After six straight knockout wins, Bivol faced undefeated Felix Valera and in dominating fashion, Bivol dropped Valera twice with fluid combinations and took a unanimous decision victory and the interim WBA Light Heavyweight title. After notable wins over Samuel Clarkson and Cedrik Agnew, Dmitry then defeated Trent Broadhurst with a devastating right cross at the end of round one, ending the match with authority.
Then came the big test, a showdown with top contender Sullivan Barrera, who was on a four fight win streak after losing to Andre Ward in 2016, including an impressive decision win over tough Joe Smith Jr., the man who conquered both Andrzej Fonfara and Bernard Hopkins. Bivol vs Barrera represented a clash of two of the best contenders in the division, a match that would bring some clarity as to who deserved to be considered a real threat to the guys ensconced at the top of the weight class, Stevenson, Kovalev and Alvarez.
But if Barrera was viewed as a serious test for Bivol, it was one the Russian passed with ease, in the process impressing even his most ardent fans. Showing remarkable skill and poise given his relative lack of pro experience, Bivol won almost every round before decking Barrera in round 12 with a huge right hand. Sullivan beat the count but the referee declared him unfit to continue; it was the first stoppage defeat for Barrera in 24 pro bouts.
But as impressive as this victory was, Bivol displayed admirable humility in his post-fight comments, demonstrating the kind of attitude which leads to future excellence as he expressed dissatisfaction with his performance.
“Barrera showed me a lot … and I have to work on a lot of things,” said the undefeated warrior. “I feel like I’ve got the goods to be the best, but I still have a lot of work to do.”
If Bivol believes he needs to improve his technique, so be it, but it’s clear he already carries some impressive weaponry and boxing IQ into the ring. His sturdy jab upsets an opponent’s balance while also setting up his lethal right hand, and when stalking his opponent, he uses feints to create openings. Further, he doesn’t just head-hunt, but systematically changes levels to keep his opponent guessing. His mode of attack resembles Gennady Golovkin’s but with more agility, though Bivol cites Sugar Ray Leonard as an idol and, similar to the legend who defeated Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, Bivol is always thinking in the ring, setting up his opponents and then aggressively taking advantage of openings and mistakes.
Watching him in action, it’s easy to forget Bivol has only 13 pro fights to his credit, but with an 85% knockout ratio, it’s also easy to understand why none of the top names in the division appear eager to face him. He has been compared to his compatriot, Sergey Kovalev, but naturally Bivol insists he is forging his own path, a path which could very well lead to domination of the light heavyweight division. At the very least, it is clear this is what Bivol has in mind. Like Lomachenko, the young destroyer from Saint Petersburg wants to face only the best.
The next challenge is contender Isaac Chilemba, the bout is the co-feature along with Sergey Kovalev vs Eleider Alvarez at the Hard Rock in Atlantic City on August 4th, and while few, if any, regard the South African as an imminent danger to the “Bivol Express,” at the same time he represents a legit challenge. After all, he went the distance with Kovalev and gave Eleider Alvarez a tough 12 round battle. Most recently he scored a clearcut points win over Blake Caparello to keep himself in the rankings. A victory over Bivol would be an upset, but at the same time it would be foolish for anyone to dismiss Chilemba’s abilities and experience.
But assuming Bivol prevails the next step is clear: the winner of Kovalev vs Alvarez. That could mean either a huge showdown against his Russian comrade Kovalev, or a high-stakes clash with Alvarez. Either way, it means a fight with both the WBA and WBO title belts at stake. And, assuming Ward stays retired, the winner of that prospective tilt would have to be regarded as the top man of the division, especially after Stevenson’s very close call against Badou Jack this past May.
And so, while being a boxing fan often means waiting and waiting for the best to fight the best, the night of August 4th in Atlantic City may represent a turning point for the light heavyweight division, and a prelude to matches even bigger and better. Is it too much to hope for?
Like all die-hard prizefighting fans, we know better than to take anything for granted. But once the smoke clears, the winners of Bivol vs Chilemba and Kovalev vs Alvarez will be standing tall, and the stage could well be set for an epic “best vs best” confrontation. Talk about flash, sizzle and substance. And we got a feeling one of the two under the spotlight, ready for his close-up, will be Dmitry Bivol, a young man who could well be poised to become the new king of the light heavyweights.
And should that all transpire over the next few months, here’s one long-suffering fight fan who will be giving thanks to the boxing gods and not uttering a single word of complaint. Because sometimes it’s great to be a boxing fan. — Jeffrey Fuss