If Top Rank chairman Bob Arum’s plan comes to fruition three of the four major light heavyweight world title belts will be unified in the first half of 2021.
There is a three-fight plan in place to make it happen, Arum told BoxingScene.
The first bout will be when Artur Beterbiev, the lineal champion and owner of the IBF and WBC belts, will face Adam Deines in their rescheduled fight on Jan. 30, probably in Moscow, with the fight to air on an ESPN+. The bout has been delayed multiple times, from Oct. 23 to Dec. 11 and now to Jan. 30, in part because Beterbiev suffered a rib injury.
Step No. 2 will be a fight between Joe Smith Jr. and Maxim Vlasov for the vacant WBO world title on Feb. 13 in the main event of an ESPN card from a site to be determined.
And step No. 3 will be to match Beterbiev, if he beats huge underdog Deines, with the Smith-Vlasov winner to unify the three 175-pound belts.
Arum said Beterbiev-Deines will be Top Rank’s first event of 2021. He said Top Rank plans to move slowly at the start of the year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We told ESPN we want to take January off and in February, March and April we are going slowly,” Arum said to BoxingScene.com.
“We are going to do one a month and maybe one of the months we do two shows and then starting in May we gear up for a full schedule because what I’m gambling on, what I’m hoping, is we have the (COVID-19) vaccine by then and whether it’s in the United States or abroad we can start doing events with spectators. Right now doing events without spectators is killing us.
“Right now I’m in a stall pattern to do as few fights as we can get away with hoping to get into some sunshine where can do spectators.”
But even with a slow start planned for 2021, Arum is looking forward to what’s in store at light heavyweight, especially if spectators are widely allowed to attend events.
“If Beterbiev wins we put him with Joe Smith if Joe Smith wins the (WBO) title,” Arum said. “That’s a big fight for Madison Square Garden (in New York). That fight would do a ton of business in Madison Square Garden.”
The WBO recently ordered a negotiation for the mandatory bout between Smith and Vlasov and said if there was no deal a purse bid would be ordered, but that won’t be necessary. Arum promotes Vlasov and co-promotes Smith with Joe DeGuardia of Star Boxing. They both told BoxingScene they have made a deal for the bout.
“The deal has already been made. It’s all done,” Arum said.
As for where it will take place Arum said it is not determined but that it likely would be in Las Vegas.
“We’re trying to break out of the bubble so we can get some spectators,” Arum said. “We’re talking to casinos to do our protocol with testing and everything and open up the (MGM) Grand Garden Arena or Caesars (Palace) or one of these places for 1,000 or 1,500 people. Joe Smith will bring in 300 people.”
DeGuardia said he and Arum worked things out quickly for the fight.
“We’re set, we just haven’t signed it yet. But we know where we are and what’s going on with the fight,” DeGuardia said. “We are ready and prepared and looking forward to it. And then if Joe wins, him and Beterbiev is a huge fight. We want the biggest fights for Joe and I think Joe, as this year has gone by, he’s become a much better fighter, developed an awful lot in the last few fights. Sky’s the limit.
“I think Joe wins the fight with Beterbiev, but he is not looking past the fight with Max. Max is strong, a Siberian tiger so to speak, and he has to take care of that first, but I’m not worried about Joe with anyone in the light heavyweight division. He really looked good this year in his wins against Jesse Hart (in January) and Eleider Alvarez (in August).”
The Smith-Vlasov fight came about when another boxer Arum promotes, Las Vegas-based Russian Umar Salamov (25-1, 19 KOs), 26, came down with COVID-19 and had to pull out of a planned semifinal title eliminator against Vlasov that was most recently planned for Nov. 20 in Minsk, Belarus.
Smith (26-3, 21 KOs), 31, from New York’s Long Island, had already won his semifinal eliminator by ninth-round knockout of former world titleholder Alvarez (25-2, 13 KOs) on Aug. 22 inside the bubble of the conference center at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to earn his way into the world title bout.
With Salamov sidelined, the WBO ordered Smith-Vlasov for the title vacated by Canelo Alvarez. Arum said he would put Salamov on the undercard of a possible Beterbiev-Smith fight and if Salamov wins match him with the Beterbiev-Smith winner.
Montreal-based Russia native Beterbiev (15-0, 15 KOs), who turns 36 on Jan. 21, will be making his fourth title defense but has not fought since he knocked out Oleksandr Gvozdyk to unify a pair of 175-pound world titles and send him into retirement in October 2019.
Deines (19-1-1, 10 KOs), 29, a Russia native fighting out of Germany, has won two fights in a row but been idle since September 2019.
Vlasov (45-3, 26 KOs), 34, of Russia, has won three fights in a row since a one-fight move up to the cruiserweight division, where he lost a unanimous decision in an interim world title bout to Krzysztof Glowacki in November 2018 in Chicago in the quarterfinals of the World Boxing Super Series tournament.
Dan Rafael was ESPN.com's senior boxing writer for fifteen years, and covered the sport for five years at USA Today. He was the 2013 BWAA Nat Fleischer Award winner for excellence in boxing journalism.