By Corey Erdman
VERONA, NY—Most fighters are schooled in communicating the fact that they’re confident, but few exude it effortlessly the way Dmitry Bivol does.
Walking around the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, NY the day before his WBA light heavyweight title defense against Joe Smith, Bivol had the temperament of someone in town to attend the fight, rather than one about to face one of the division’s most fearsome punchers.
With the weigh-in just hours away, Bivol sipped an alkaline water bottle after eating a normal breakfast. He wasn’t hunkered down in his room, and he certainly wasn’t spitting into a cup, straining to make weight. During pre-fight fighter interviews with the DAZN broadcast team, Bivol sat across from his boxing hero, Sugar Ray Leonard, but in his typical cool manner, never asked for a photo with the legend.
Inside the ring, he looked as relaxed as he had while hanging out in the hotel lobby, outboxing Joe Smith Jr. en route to a unanimous decision. Scores were 119-109 (twice) and 118-110. Perhaps more impressive were the CompuBox counting stats, which showed Bivol outlanding Smith 208 to 39.
A handful of Smith’s few landed punches did appear to hurt Bivol, but his body language never suggested he was concerned about his condition. Ultimately, in the final fifteen seconds of the bout, he had Smith badly hurt before the bell sounded.
“At the end of fight I felt that I could knock him out. But that’s not my goal. It was a (dramatic) fight, it was a good defense, intelligent boxing. This is a smart sport and you have to think a lot,” said Bivol in the ring following the fight.
Heading into the ring, Bivol was unfairly criticized for having not stopped Jean Pascal and Isaac Chilemba in back-to-back bouts. Too often, knockouts are viewed as a sort of hardline barometer of momentum—score a knockout and your popularity goes up, fail to do so and your popularity goes down. This reductive line of thinking is further propagated by writers and broadcasters who like to question fighters about whether they “think about putting on a show when they’re in the ring.” This suggests that fighters are required to worry about anything other than winning and their own well-being, but also that only one style of boxing is enticing.
Bivol is proof that you don’t have to be a face-forward brawler or a sledgehammer puncher to be entertaining to watch. In fact, as a child, he found himself drifting away from pure knockout artists, and more towards the sport’s great stylists.
“When I started boxing I loved Mike Tyson, then I watched a lot of Roy Jones Jr. fights and then I (watched) fights with Sugar Ray Leonard. I like how he used his legs in the ring and I like his style--he moves a lot and he threw punches easy, he looked like he threw punches easy but they landed hard,” said Bivol at a media event last week. “And Pernell Whitaker was a very interesting fighter and one of the best fighters that I watched. I liked him because he always looked like he had fun in the ring. He was very light in the ring and he was very positive like it was a holiday. Like he was enjoying it, and I liked that very much.”
Bivol is honest about both his skillset and his intentions inside the ring. It would be easy for him to give lip-service and promise that he will hunt for a knockout or alter his style to intentionally take additional risks. His approach isn’t Mayweather-esque. He isn’t snickering at fans saying “you’ll watch anyway.” Rather, he is insistent that there is artistry and beauty to be appreciated in being a fluid, technically proficient boxer. He seems equally determined to be recognized for his wins as he is for winning in his particular manner.
“I just like to fight. I like training and I like to be in the ring. It is not enough to have just power and have just speed or technical (ability). You have to have some of everything. I don’t have the hardest punch and I am not the quickest, but it is complete,” said Bivol. “I want to show my skills to the boxing fans, it doesn’t matter to me where I fight. I have had a lot of fights in other countries and other cities. I just need the ring and the opponent in the ring.”
The ring will most certainly be there for him—thanks to a lucrative deal with DAZN, Bivol will have no shortage of dates. The issue may now be the opponent. The three other light heavyweight titleholders are all tied to ESPN, making any unification bout very unlikely. There are plenty of 175-pound fighters in the world outside of the three other champions, but with the exception of Marcus Browne, none would seem to be a significant challenge for Bivol. However, both he and his manager Vadim Kornilov insist he could easily make 168 to go after super middleweight kingpin Callum Smith.
“I want fans to know more about me and for more people to watch my fights. I want to fight for another belt. I am ready for a unification belt or to fight at 168 division. I want to be remembered in this sport. I want to be known for intelligent boxing,” said Bivol.