Dillian Whyte and Alexander Povetkin were scheduled to fight one another for the second time on Saturday night, but judging by their ring walks, you would have thought they were walking into totally different events.
When Whyte came through the LED entranceway, resplendent in a well-tailored ring coat with spiked shoulder pads, commentator Tony Bellew remarked that he looked like a professional wrestler from the 1980s. In all likelihood, the spiked shoulders reminded him of The Road Warriors, the powerhouse wrestling tag team that became known for their high intensity matches and aggressively physical style. As the first guitar riffs of AC/DC’s Back In Black began to play, Whyte mimicked a wolf’s howl and leaped up and down on the entranceway.
As Whyte paced anxiously in the ring, his opponent, Povetkin, sauntered to the ring to a brooding Russian tune. His robe barely tied around his waist, opened to show the skull and eagles design t-shirt that looked like something out of the Affliction collection. Povetkin has never been one for theatrics, but even by his own standards, he looked shabby, slow and frail.
It wasn’t the first time Povetkin’s appearance was noted by observers that week. People within the Gibraltar bubble had remarked that Povetkin seemed “tired” and “off,” and when he stepped on the scale for the pre-fight weigh-in, by boxing standards he looked fleshy and pale. As Whyte posed, flexing and clenching his fists, Povetkin stood meekly with his hands clasped behind his back.
Inside the ring, Povetkin looked ponderous and unsteady. Each time Whyte touched him, he staggered backwards, at times tripping over his own feet. He seemed to have but one idea offensively - slip to the outside and throw a home run left hook - but struggled to find the footwork to throw even that.
In the fourth round, Whyte landed a straight right hand that rocked Povetkin back against the ropes, and as Povetkin stumbled around the perimeter attempting to recover, Whyte landed a leaping left hook that ended the fight. Povetkin made it to his feet before the count of ten, but the referee, his own corner, and surely the audience, had seen enough.
It should be noted that the early rounds of the first bout between Whyte and Povetkin looked similar to this fight in that Whyte was mostly dominant and hurting Povetkin consistently. But there was something much different this time, beyond the fact that Povetkin didn’t storm back and score a miraculous knockout. The Russian veteran looked much, much worse. And try as he might, red in the face and throwing punches to get Whyte off of him this time around, at no point did he look like he had it in him to replicate what he did last August.
Even with no mitigating circumstances, it would be totally feasible for a 41-year old heavyweight to have a precipitous decline between two fights. The hourglass in boxing doesn’t always sprinkle down at an even rate—it can happen steadily or all at once.
But the elephant in the room is that Povetkin was hospitalized twice due to COVID-19 during the time between the first fight and the rematch. The first time was last November, shortly before a planned November 21 date. The second time came in mid-December after Povetkin had resumed training for a planned January 30 rematch, but was struggling so mightily that he had to be readmitted.
That a case of COVID-19 so serious that it caused a pair of hospitalizations sapped whatever was left of a fading fighter in his 40s feels like a very safe assumption. Athletes contracting COVID-19 have generally been treated as though dealing with a minor injury, with the assumption that the competitor will come back at the peak of their powers in due time. But science has told us that won’t always be the case. In the case of Povetkin, it could have denied him one last late career shot at a title. In all likelihood, the virus has taken or shortened more careers in boxing than we know, or have been willing to admit.
The condition of his opponent and the circumstances leading to it aren’t the fault of Whyte, of course, who even in the context of this particular fight did manage to look impressive. He jabbed with more frequency and confidence, and in general, fought like a dangerous puncher from bell to bell.
That said, even Whyte’s promoter is aware that his readiness for a heavyweight titlist, or a big name like Deontay Wilder, can’t be judged on that performance alone. Eddie Hearn said following the bout that they would likely be looking towards one more “stay busy” type fight, ostensibly to both further build Whyte’s confidence and allure back up, but also to allow for the litigation marring the heavyweight division presently (which Hearn himself is entangled in with Anthony Joshua) to sort itself out.
Whyte remains one of the very best heavyweights in the world, with a very solid case of being in the top four. Of Ring Magazine’s top ten heavyweights, Whyte has defeated three of them—Povetkin, Oscar Rivas, and Joseph Parker. Given that, there won’t be much leeway for him afforded by the boxing public for much more rehabilitation. A potential bout between Whyte and Deontay Wilder is one of the best and biggest fights to be made in the division, and could arguably be the most entertaining—a clash between two bombastic, high wire act punchers who are as dangerous as they are vulnerable.
Whyte’s victory in the Povetkin rematch was more of a moral vindication than anything else. After the referee waved the fight off, Whyte brought his own stool over to Povetkin’s corner and helped him onto it, offering him a sip of water and solace in defeat. One got the sense in watching Whyte care for his opponent that there was true sympathy at play. Though he had won, the man Whyte fought the first time wasn’t the same one who walked down the aisle twenty minutes earlier.