There was a time — or so I’ve been told — when top contenders, instead of waiting to see if they could cash in and get a title shot, instead regularly faced each other to, you know, determine who was actually worthy of getting a title shot. It’s no secret boxing’s become diluted thanks to the plethora of sanctioning bodies, promotional cold wars, and network allegiances, not to mention Floyd Mayweather’s career model, which relied on maddening Machiavellian opponent selection. Once in a while, though, a compelling legit-contender vs legit-contender scrap gets made. And Dillian Whyte vs Oscar Rivas is that kind of fight.
For Rivas, a Columbian who bases his pro career in Montreal, Whyte represents a significant step-up in competition following his breakthrough final round stoppage of former title challenger and perennial contender Bryant Jennings, a victory that finally propelled Rivas into the discussion of which new faces in the heavyweight division were worthy of a chance at one of the title-holders. The Quebec boxing cognoscenti had been beating this drum for a while, but Rivas — partly due to injuries and partly due to matchmaking issues — simply didn’t have the record to back it up. The Jennings win helped and made a bunch of journalists up here look smart, but in the grand scheme of things it was a small step forward.
The build-up for Whyte vs Rivas betrays the fact that the vast majority of media outside of Quebec have either seen Rivas fight once or not at all. Rivas is genuinely respected heading into this fight, but it’s the kind of passing praise given to someone with a good win, deep amateur background, and undefeated record. Few, if any, pundits will pick Rivas to defeat Whyte, who, after all, is a battle-proven top contender with a vastly superior pro résumé. He’s also been a “mandatory” contender for one or more title belts for almost as long as Rivas’s best buddy Eleider Alvarez was for former WBC light heavyweight kingpin Adonis Stevenson.
Between now and Saturday and during the broadcast, this is what you’ll hear about Rivas, ad nauseam: Rivas is dangerous, can punch a little, has a superior amateur pedigree to Whyte, is coming off a career-best win, and that he’s short and physically disadvantaged against every single elite heavyweight. (You’ll also hear about how Whyte is currently the most shafted contender in boxing, and while this is correct, the extent to which you’ll hear it might make the “mute” button come in handy.) All of these facts about Rivas are true, but the physical disadvantages are overblown when it comes to speculating about the biggest hurdle Rivas must overcome against Whyte.
This brings us back to Eleider Alvarez. Oscar Rivas is eerily similar to his Olympic teammate — and that’s both a blessing and curse. Both are exceptionally skilled technical fighters who comport themselves in the ring as true professionals. Unfortunately, both — whether through poor work-rate or overthinking their offence — seem to hold back and leave spectators with the sense there’s something special lurking in them that never gets completely deployed, though Alvarez satisfied that perception when he unleashed his power on Sergey Kovalev a year ago.
Indeed, Oscar Rivas’ greatest challenge against Whyte may well be overcoming that puzzling passivity. We saw this against Jennings when Rivas failed to capitalize on a lackadaisically paced fight and allowed Jennings to pocket too many close rounds. And while his final round thumping of Jennings was impressive, it basically took trainer Marc Ramsay doing potentially irreparable damage to his vocal cords to finally light the fire under Rivas’ ass that should have been there all along. If Rivas boxes Whyte the same way he did Jennings, he could find himself way behind and again in need of a last second knockout. He’s shown he has the stamina to potentially pull that off, but Whyte is a different level of power and durability than Jennings.
That said, there are certain things Rivas can carry over from the Jennings win. He’s extremely adept at keeping his boulder-like upper body compact with a high guard, and he’ll need that kind of defensive responsibility against Whyte. Rivas did well to walk Jennings down for important stretches, and he’ll want to spend significant time on his front foot against Whyte. The Columbian can also throw effective straight shots, and he’ll have to sustain that kind of technical discipline to muster his own offence while staying in position to to parry and block Whyte’s return fire, especially that vaunted left hook. Simply put, Rivas, from a strictly boxing standpoint, has the tools to win this fight.
But my goodness, Rivas needs to let his hands go more. That’s his single biggest key to victory: throw punches. Rivas doesn’t just beat Dillian Whyte based on his boxing ability and natural talent; he’s good, but certainly not that good. Rivas’ only path to victory here is if he wants it more than Whyte and is willing to do whatever it takes to win and that will likely involve trading leather with a strong, powerful warrior who isn’t at all afraid to go toe-to-toe on the inside. Rivas can’t afford to let his punch output get stymied or to get bogged down in the futile quest to think the perfect punch into existence.
No doubt many of “Kaboom’s” fans, both in Colombia and Montreal, are drawing positives from the Jennings win, and rightfully so, but that final-round explosion remains a small sample size compared to what was accomplished in the previous thirty-three minutes of fighting. It’s not that Rivas performed poorly up until bludgeoning Jennings, far from it. But it’s the fact that the genuine urgency he showed seemed to come out of nowhere, which potentially means it was an aberration. We saw Eleider Alvarez crash back to reality against Sergey Kovalev in their rematch; will the same thing happen to Rivas to against Whyte? That’s the key question.
Rivas appears to have had a sensational camp and looks ripped and ready. He also has one of the best corners in the world, and Marc Ramsay is one of those trainers who seems to understand what’s needed at every juncture of a fight and isn’t afraid to ruthlessly demand that it be done. The thinking here is that something just might click on Saturday in London and if that’s the case, a more active and aggressive Rivas isn’t a long-shot underdog, far from it. But any sign of hesitation or complacency means Rivas will likely find himself in the position where he’ll need to replicate the Jennings knockout, and no one can count on lightning striking twice.
Needless to say, given his age and career trajectory, the stakes are massive for Rivas. If he plods his way to a lopsided defeat, he’ll stumble into a fringe contender scrapheap that would make a climb back to prominence tortuous given his injury history. An early knockout loss would obviously be a disaster. However, those two outcomes feel unlikely. Rivas is riding high right now. He’s seen what happened to Alvarez and the kind of crash that can follow a career-best win. He’s still the underdog, on the road, and expected to lose. But at the same time, it’s the perfect scenario for him to seize the moment in even more emphatic fashion and shock the boxing world. Saturday can’t come soon enough. — Zachary Alapi