By Jake Donovan
There’s a touch of irony to how Beibut Shumenov managed to land in a light heavyweight title unification bout with Bernard Hopkins.
The once-beaten light heavyweight belt holder enters his eighth title fight in just 16 pro fights. Do the math and you find that literally half of his pro career has been spent on the championship stage by the time the opening bell sounds for their Showtime-televised main event Saturday in Washington D.C.
For most of his career, Shumenov served as his own promoter and the captain of his ship. Much like Hopkins, the Kazakh boxer has done it his way. The biggest drawback to his career thus far, however, has been the fact that his 15 pro fights to date have been spray painted over a seven-year span. Saturday marks just his fifth title defense covering four-plus years.
Shumenov (14-1, 9KO) blames the politics of the sport for not remaining more active. He did his best to stay busy, as evidenced by title defenses over mediocre competition. It was the big fights that failed to materialize, though, to explain the lapses in activity.
Attempts were made to secure past unification bouts with several past champions, including Chad Dawson, Nathan Cleverly and former lineal light heavyweight champ Zsolt Erdei. Where the blame resides for those fights not happening is wide open for debate. What’s undeniably true is that Shumenov was unable to make a relevant fight ever since winning a title.
“At that time, I was promoting myself and we tried to make a fight against Cleverly; it didn't happen, and then, we tried to make a unification title fight against Chad Dawson,” Shumenov states. “Again, we didn't get any success. So, I couldn't get any of those big names, and I couldn't get to all those big networks. That's why I got stuck and couldn't do anything.”
Two important steps have been taken by the 29-year old to ensure that he never again experiences that as a pro. Both involved giving up a certain amount of control over his career, but a habit worth breaking now that adviser Al Haymon and promoter Golden Boy Promotions are in his corner.
The union formed last year, with Shumenov’s debut for both entities coming last December in San Antonio. The reigning light heavyweight titlist appeared on the undercard, scoring a 3rd round knockout of unbeaten but overmatched Tamas Kovacs in his first fight in more than 18 months.
Some things are worth waiting for. While going that long between fights certainly wasn’t pleasant – especially since the time was spent watching all of the fighters he intended to face over that period – Shumenov not only lands a dream assignment, but one that is part of a path towards long-term opportunities.
It doesn’t matter that it’s a living legend like the ageless (though actually 49-year old) Hopkins – the longest reigning middleweight champ in boxing history and three-time light heavyweight titlist - standing in the opposite corner. More important to Shumenov is that he finally lands assignment against an opponent who rates with the general public.
“They didn’t mention Bernard, but at the time I told my manger Mr. Al Haymon and then to Richard Schaefer (CEO of Al Haymon Golden Boy Promotions) that I want to fight the best,” Shumenov recalls of when he first signed with both parties. “I want to keep fighting until I fight for all of the championship belts. So, I want to fight all those champions.”
Saturday’s bout will mark four months between fights, his quickest ring turnaround since his first title challenge back in Aug. ’09. A narrow points loss to Gabriel Campillo in his native Kazakhstan was followed by a controversial split decision win five months later in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas.
It wasn’t out of the norm for Shumenov to fight every six months or so following his title win, but a dramatic decrease in ring activity came following his 9th round knockout win over journeyman Danny Santiago. The July ’11 bout aired live on Telefutura, marking his third U.S.-televised ring appearance in a span of four fights, only to disappear for nearly a year.
His first taste of life with Golden Boy came in his next ring appearance, a 12-round shutout of Enrique Ornelas in June ’12. The bout aired live on Fox Deportes, and with the hope that Shumenov would emerge as a fixture in the light heavyweight sweepstakes.
Instead, he disappeared for another 18 months, in which time the division underwent a massive overhaul. Adonis Stevenson and Sergey Kovalev have emerged as the fighters to beat in the storied and reloaded weight class, while Hopkins (54-6-2, 32KO) managed to creep back on the championship stage following a 12-round decision over Tavoris Cloud more than a year ago.
This weekend’s showdown with Hopkins marks Shumenov’s first unification bout, but more importantly perhaps his first fight with a clear map of the future already in place. Stevenson recently signed with Al Haymon and also pledged his allegiance to Showtime after having emerged as a rising star on HBO.
Stevenson makes his Showtime debut in May, defending his lineal light heavyweight championship versus Andrzej Fonfara in Canada. The winner of that fight (Stevenson is a heavy favorite to defend his title) is being dangled as the potential prize for the victor of this weekend’s headliner in D.C.
Such a showdown could happen as early as September, which would give Shumenov or Hopkins three fights in the span of less than a year, the type of activity neither has enjoyed in years.
A shot at the genuine light heavyweight championship – not to mention the upside of claiming wins over Hopkins and Stevenson – would normally serve as the opportunity of a lifetime for most other fighters.
But even with a clear view of his immediate future, Shumenov is content to take it day by day and let the rest fall into place.
“[M]y main goal is to unify all of the titles, (but) I’m not thinking ahead,” Shumenov insists, despite so much conversation already surrounding this weekend’s show. “I’m only concentrated and focused on my upcoming fight against Bernard Hopkins… and it kind of motivates me more.”
Why, you ask? Perhaps it’s because the majority of the discussion doesn’t necessarily have Shumenov winning this weekend.
“They’re only talking about Bernard fighting Adonis Stevenson,” Shumenov points out. “It motivates me more. I don’t care (about being the underdog). It makes me train even harder. It makes me a better fighter.”
With a win on Saturday – and with the blessing and backing of two of the most influential figures in the sport today – it will hopefully make Shumenov a far more active fighter from here on out.
Of course, beating any version of Hopkins from the past 20 years has never proven easy. Shumenov is well aware of this – and, more importantly, made a conscious effort to prepare from the moment the idea of such a fight was first floated.
“Since my December fight, which was before the (actual fight with Kovacs), a lot of people starting asking about potential fights between us,” Shumenov reveals. “[T]hen, right after the fight Bernard got in the ring and I got the feeling that the fight would happen in the near future.
“Right after the fight, I started watching his fights and studying him. I'm preparing to win each round clearly to leave no doubt for judges.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as the Records Keeper for the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and a member of Boxing Writers Association of America.