By Alexey Sukachev
Shots were fired, and a legend was born. Not in the ring, but on the streets of Saint Petersburg - the capital of the Russian Empire - by a revolutionary crowd of labourers, soldiers and sailors.
The shot was fired to signalize the birth of a new era not only for a single country but – sorry for the expression – for all mankind. It was November the 7th, the New Style date, and the day of the Great October Socialistic Revolution in Russia.
In a strange twist of irony, exactly a century after that period - another revolution has taken place – but this time in boxing.
All three belts left vacant by the sudden but frankly speaking foreseeable retirement of Andre Ward, were all captured by Russian fighters within a month.
One would struggle to find another example of one nation, not named Mexico or the United States, getting as many titles in one weight class in such a limited period of time.
The ways were different though albeit common in one aspect – every victory was a result of a knockout.
The first one was Dmitry Bivol (12-0, 10 KOs), an up-and-coming talent with a pulverizing mixture of speed, technique and damaging power. On November 4 in Monaco, Bivol did what was expected of him, icing incapable Australian Trent Broadhurst with a punishing right hand at the very end of round one for his HBO debut as a marquee fighter. Thus his paper title – one he was upgraded to after then-holder Badou Jack chose to go a different direction – got some (limited) legitimacy.
But don’t be fooled. Bivol, 26, is passing every test to prove his championship quality with flying colours. Yet, the WBA title was twice vacated before, making itself nothing but a trinket as long as such fighters like Broadhurst keep landing shots.
One point is worth noting, HBO considers Bivol a prodigy and someone to follow closely. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine why the Russian boxer, fighting a unknown opponent in Europe, got a prime exposure. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The same were used in the early portion of Gennady Golovkin’s HBO career – which has also started in the Europe’s second smallest state.
Sergey Kovalev (31-2-1, 27 KOs) was in different position than Bivol.
At 34, with a pair of damaging (at least psychologically) defetas to Andre Ward, Russia’s best fighter of the 10’s, was in position to prove something crucial. Adding extra heat was his erratic mental state – which was underlined by Sergey himself – in several recent interviews.
A journey to a sacred place – Mount Athos – could have been both career-destructive (but healing in a different way), or redeeming as is true for almost every spiritual experience.
The same can be said for a change in the corner, where Kovalev and his long-time mentor John David Jackson parted ways in a very negative way. Kovalev made an unusual move by bringing in a new coach from the amateurs, doubled by the fact that his new man was from Uzbekistan rather than from the States or from Russia. Abror Tursunpulatov was one of the architects of Uzbekistan’s triumph in the 2016 Rio Games, which they won as a team. Tursunpulatov is also the head coach for Rio Olympics gold medalist Faizliddin Gaibbnazarov.
The changes helped – at least for the fight versus Vyacheslav Shabranskiyy of Ukraine – and Kovalev looked as destructive as ever in a two-round blowout of Shabranskiyy to capture the vacant WBO world title.
Kovalev’s trademark power was intact, and so was his confidence. But only time will tell if Kovalev has really changed at quite a solid age after years of being on his own.
Ironically, the same can be said about Artur Beterbiev (12-0, 12 KOs), whose IBF 175lb bid was sandwiched between the Bivol and Kovalev title fights.
In this case, it’s the limited nature of his opponent – sturdy but powerless German contender Enrico Koelling – that prevents any hardline conclusions on Beterbiev's last-minute kayo win.
Beterbiev, as it appeared, looked considerably less frenetic than he usually is but at the same time rational and methodical. Some would even say robotic. But Koelling, whose record read 23-1, 6 KOs, before the bout, was not in possession of the proper tools, which could have prevented Beterbiev from boxing in manner without consequences. And there could have been ring rust as well – as Beterbev fought just three times in two and a half years.
The end result of the Red November Revolution (a new one)? Three major titles at light heavyweight belong to Russian boxers. Add IBO (and former long-time European champion) Igor Mikhalkin (20-1, 9 KOs) to the mix for an almost complete domination.
However, Russia's domination is not complete for two separate reasons.
First of all, there is still WBC champion Adonis Stevenson of Canada. He kicked off his reign with a bang earlier than Sergey Kovalev did, but his level of opposition degraded over the years. Those responsible for the failed negotiations to make showdowns against Bernard Hopkins, Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev have yet to be found - but here’s a tip: if you were involved in several failed negotiations in a row, it’s usually something wrong with you. At least, Kovalev has fought Hopkins and Ward (twice). Stevenson fought none of them.
Nevertheless, if one had to point at a fighter with the most solid claim of being the best at 175, it’s the Canadian. But getting him in the ring will be a tricky proposition, as Stevenson has somehow avoided taking part in fights with young, sturdy and unblemished fighters since the start of his rule.
The other reason for the landscape not being a complete domination for Russia, is due to the manner in which the Russian boxers captured their titles. Ward was an established king. But Ward's crown was decomposed into pieces, with each piece retaining only partial legitimacy.
In order to make things great at light heavyweight, a new king needs to be crowned - and that should be defined with a series of fights between the champions. If Gvozdyk enters the mix, so be it – and we could easily change the label to the Soviet national championship. Will Stevenson get involved? It depends on him but there’s no need for the other champions to wait.
In the past, making fights between the ex-Soviets, let alone representatives of the same nation, was a hard task to accomplish. Unlike American, Mexican or Japanese combatants, Russians (in particular) were usually respectful to each other with a clear intention of avoiding domestic affairs in favour of beating the foreigners. The perception has changed over the last several years. The one who made a significant rift into a different direction was Denis Lebedev with host fights against Alexander Alekseev and Murat Gassiev.
All three – Kovalev, Bivol and Beterbiev – confirmed their readiness (if needed) to fight one another, albeit with some mixed feelings. Those feelings mostly involve the Bivol side. There are no sentiments between Kovalev and Beterbiev, whose bad-bloodied rivalry has been there since their amateur days, when Beterbiev was in charge, and Kovalev was, as he says, on the wrong side of robberies by the officials (24:25 – in the finals of 2007 Russian nationals). Kovalev went as far as to mention that Beterbiev was hit so hard his head was, literally, hitting his ass after Kovalev’s punches. Unsurprisingly, the Canada-based native of Khasavyurt has a different take on what Kovalev is talking about.
There’s still work to be done to transform words into deeds. One possibility is the Bivol vs. Kovalev title fight, as both are guided (in Bivol case – partially) by the Main Events and both fight on HBO.
The path to that fight could begin on March, when both are scheduled to appear in an HBO televised doubleheader. Bivol will make a mandatory defense against Sullivan Barrera, and Kovalev collides with his countryman, Mikhalkin, in the main event.
It can be a precursor to something big in late 2018 or in the first half of 2019. It’ll be a harder case with Beterbiev, who is advised by Al Haymon and who is presently in a legal fight with his Canadian promoter Yvon Michel. Still, his mutual tension with Kovalev can make their fight possible – if they really want it – even under those circumstances.
One thing is clear: in order to leave their mark in history, the newly crowned champions have to unify. By doing that they can prolong the Red November of 2017 and turn it into the Red Reign, which will be remembered for a very long time as a distinctive era in one of its most accomplished divisions.