By Lyle Fitzsimmons
If you’re a fan of incendiary interview rhetoric, here’s a tip:
Dmitry Bivol may not be for you.
The 27-year-old Russian leans more toward respectful confidence when it comes to pre-fight chats, but reveals a bit more of his flame-thrower side upon actually stepping through the ropes.
He’ll do the latter once again on August 4 in Atlantic City, where he meets 11th-ranked veteran Isaac Chilemba in defense of his piece of the light heavyweight pie at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
It’ll be Bivol’s third ring entrance as the WBA’s full-fledged champion, a tag he claimed when the organization upgraded his bogus “interim” tag upon the retirement of Andre Ward last September.
It’ll also serve as the appetizer on a two-bout HBO “World Championship Boxing” show that’ll include WBO champ Sergey Kovalev’s main-event defense against unbeaten challenger Eleider Alvarez.
The plan – just as it was when Kovalev shared a premium-cable bill with Adonis Stevenson in 2013 – is to eventually get the two together for a unification. But unlike Stevenson, who bolted to the Showtime side of the street not long after that show in Quebec City, Bivol is looking for an immediate end game.
Though he’d like to make certain there’s sufficient time for it to marinate.
“Definitely, it’s something that’s on my mind,” he told Boxing Scene.
“I’m sure the Kovalev fight is not far away.
“I’m hoping that there’s going to be a way to make this fight where a lot of the fans come and see it, because it’s going to be a great fight. I’m hoping it’s going to be more than just a couple thousand fans, that it’s going to be a big fight with a lot of fans because it’s a big unification. It’s two of the top light heavyweights in the world and it could be one of the biggest fights in the division.
“We’re hoping that’s what it will be.”
Bivol is expecting – and no doubt hoping – that Kovalev, now 35, will handle his assignment with the unbeaten Colombian, who’s not fought since defeating ex-champ Jean Pascal in June 2017. And when it comes to staking his claim on the top spot among the 175-pounders, the younger man is deferential to his fellow Russian as well as the division’s other high-profile championship claimants.
The aforementioned Stevenson still holds the WBC title he won after vaporizing Chad Dawson in 2013, while yet another Russian – 33-year-old Artur Beterbiev – has been IBF champion since last November.
Stevenson and Kovalev occupy slots No. 1 and 2 according to the Independent World Boxing Rankings – which rank all fighters regardless of the belts they possess – while Bivol is slotted sixth, also trailing recent Stevenson challenger Badou Jack, Alvarez and (Oleksandr) Gvozdyk.
Chilemba, incidentally, is several spots down the list at No. 17.
“I think that I’m one of the top four in the weight class,” Bivol said. “I don’t think that’s just me thinking that. That’s kind of proven by the titles held. There’s four world champions and I’m one of them. As far as who the best is, I don’t think we’ll be able to get that answer until we fight each other.
“All I can say is that I want to fight the best in the division and that means unifying with other champions. It’s hard to speak for others because we know that Stevenson has not done any type of unifications and it’ll basically be each other fighter speaking for himself.”
HBO’s Jim Lampley speaks for himself, and he believes Bivol is the real deal.
“He’s sensational. Athletic quality - A, skill level - A, intelligence and temperament - A, devotion to continued improvement – A,” he told Boxing Scene. “Kovalev will try to put it off, I suspect, but it is inevitable and Bivol has never experienced negativity. You have to give him the edge going in. So fast.”
Ward’s occasional broadcast colleague Andre Ward is equally impressed.
“He’s a thinker. If you look at Dmitry’s favorite fighters, you know, one of them is Sugar Ray Leonard,” he said, in a recent HBO feature. “You see little tidbits of the American style mixed in with the Eastern Bloc style that he grew up being trained by. You see the flavor, you see the feints, you see, you know, the hesitation – giving you the commitment and then firing.”
In Chilemba, Bivol will face a 13-year pro who’s won 25 of 32 career fights – with 10 KOs and two draws – but has fallen short in recent meetings with both Alvarez and Kovalev, losing majority and unanimous decisions in 2015 and 2016. He held the IBO’s title at 168 pounds and defended once back in 2010, then drew and lost in a two-bout series with two-time light heavyweight challenger Tony Bellew in 2013.
In his most recent fight, on March 16, he beat former Kovalev victim Blake Caparello by decision.
“I’ve seen his fights. I’ve seen his fights against Kovalev, against Gvozdyk, against (Vasily) Lepikhin,” Bivol said. “He’s a strong guy. He can work 12 rounds and he has good experience. I know he’s lost fights, but sometimes defeat makes you better. I know that he can move backward and he can move forward. He can do everything and he’s a quick boxer. But we train to be the winner, to beat him.
“We prepare full out 100 percent every time for every opponent. My trainer tries to make sure that the strong qualities get developed more and more and I get better and better at the things that I do well, instead of looking for the certain negative qualities of the opponent. Because we believe being more confident and strong and better at what we do will make us better in the fight against the opponent.”
Chilemba has never been knocked out and failed to last the scheduled distance just once, retiring with a broken hand against Gvozdyk after eight rounds of a scheduled 10-rounder in November 2016.
He’s one of only two challengers – the other being Bernard Hopkins – to have lasted 12 rounds with Kovalev during “Krusher’s” first reign, losing eight, nine and 10 rounds on the three scorecards.
Bivol was diplomatic in his words, but certainly sounded like he wanted to better Kovalev’s results.
“Of course, I want to try to do my best,” he said.
“The most important thing for me is to show an exciting fight and be exciting and impressive for my fans. I don’t think much about trying to be better than other fighters with him that fought him before I did. I just want to do the best I can for this fight and for all my fans.”
The Chilemba fight will be just his 14th appearance since turning professional in late 2014, though his transition to fighting for pay came after a prolonged amateur run in which he won 268 of 283 bouts. He won a pair of world championships in the under-17 age group, a bronze medal at the AIBA’s 2008 youth world championships and Russian national amateur championships in both 2012 and 2014.
So, while others may still consider him a prodigy, he’s not surprised at the quick advancement.
“I’m glad. It makes me happy,” he said. “The reason I’m not surprised it because it was a lot of work that I had to go through and the rest of my team – including my trainer and my promoter and my manager – had to work hard to make all this happen. The hard work is paying off. That makes me glad.
“One thing that’s important. I did not obtain my title to lose it. I will be there to defend my title and I will do everything to defend my title.”
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s legit title-fight schedule:
IBF/WBA/WBC/WBO cruiserweight/junior heavyweight titles – Moscow, Russia
Murat Gassiev (IBF, WBA champ/No. 2 IWBR) vs. Oleksandr Usyk (WBC, WBO champ/No. 1 IWBR)
Gassiev (26-0, 19 KO): Third IBF title defense; Five KOs in bouts scheduled for 12 rounds (7-0, 1 NC)
Usyk (14-0, 11 KO): Fifth WBO title defense; Russia will be the sixth country in which he’s fought
Fitzbitz says: I believed Usyk was the class of the 200-pound World Boxing Super Series when it began, and he’s done nothing to change my mind since then. Should be a great one to watch. Usyk in 5 (52/48)
WBO junior middleweight title – Las Vegas, Nevada
Jaime Munguia (champion/No. 5 IWBR) vs. Liam Smith (No. 1 WBO/No. 11 IWBR)
Munguia (29-0, 25 KO): First title defense; Six consecutive wins by KO/TKO (17 total rounds)
Smith (26-1-1, 14 KO): Fifth title fight (3-1); Three straight wins since lone career loss (3-0, 1 KO)
Fitzbitz says: Munguia has become flavor of the month since his pounding of Sadam Ali, and Smith has been MIA since Canelo body-shotted him into submission. Momentum continues. Munguia in 8 (67/33)
IBO minimumweight title – Umata, South Africa
Simphiwe Khonco (champion/No. 7 IWBR) vs. Toto Landero (No. 8 IBO/No. 20 IWBR)
Khonco (18-5, 7 KO): Third title defense; Won 12 of 13 fights since 6-4 start (12-1, 4 KO)
Landero (10-2-2, 2 KO): Second title fight (0-1); Lost WBA title shot at 105 pounds in March
Fitzbitz says: The South African took two tries to become a champ, but he’s assumed the role well and seems better now on the top level. Landero is a test, but one Khonco passes. Khonco by decision (75/25)
This week’s bogus title-fight schedule:
WBA super featherweight title – Las Vegas, Nevada
Alberto Machado (“World” champion/No. 3 IWBR) vs. Rafael Mensah (No. 1 WBA/No. 73 IWBR)
Fitzbitz says: I hope HBO’s broadcasters will correctly label this a “nonsense” title, rather than the innocuous “secondary” tag given by flaccid types when lauding Pacquiao’s bogus strap win. Grow a pair.
Last week's picks: 0-2 (LOSS: Yamanaka, Waseem)
2018 picks record: 45-22 (67.1 percent)
Overall picks record: 966-326 (74.7 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.