Less than a month before Saul “Canelo” Alvarez invaded the light heavyweight division for the first time and knocked out Sergey Kovalev in 11 rounds in November 2019, Dmitry Bivol was preparing for another defense of his WBA title, which turned out to be a near-shutout 12-round victory over Lenin Castillo.
At the time, Bivol was about to win his 17th pro bout without a loss, he was a world champion, and he had already defeated Sullivan Barrera, Isaac Chilemba, Jean Pascal and Joe Smith Jr., all with relative ease.
But when it came to the “big” fights, the ones attached to fighters like Alvarez, Bivol’s name was mentioned only as a sign of respect, not as a realistic option. And he knew it. So I asked him about having such a patient nature when it came to his boxing career.
“I’m in life the same way, a patient man,” Bivol said. “It’s normal for me. Sometimes, of course, you want to talk too much and get the bigger fights than the one you have. But I understand why things happen and I will wait for my chance for the big fights.”
He beat Castillo. Did the same against Craig Richards and Umar Salamov. All wins, all dominant, all fairly under the radar. Meanwhile, Alvarez vacated the WBO belt he took from Kovalev, Smith regained his place in the pecking order and Artur Beterbiev emerged as the fighter (and champion) to beat at 175 pounds.
But when Alvarez made noise about moving back up after four consecutive wins over Callum Smith, Avni Yildirim, Billy Joe Saunders and Caleb Plant, suddenly Bivol’s patience paid off.
The big fight was here.
“This is very important for me especially because I’m fighting one of the best, if not the best, in the world right now,” said Bivol, who defends his WBA crown against Alvarez on Saturday in Las Vegas. “I want people to be able to see me and my skills; this is a big fight that can give me the ability to achieve my other goals and go on if I win this fight.”
It’s been a long road for the Kyrgyzstan native, one that belies the fact of him having just 19 pro fights since his debut in 2014. There were the reported 283 amateur fights (268-15) and the reality that he has been fighting since the age of six. Back then, it was just for fun. Then it got more serious by the time the 31-year-old was a teenager.
“At first, I won 20-30 fights as an amateur as a kid and I knew I had some potential, but you don’t think about it that much when you’re a kid,” he told me in 2019. “Later on, I was 10-15 years old, and I started to understand that maybe I can make a career out of this, and when you’re older, you begin to really understand that.”
What Bivol understood more than most was patience. In that way, he and Alvarez are kindred spirits, only in the case of the Mexican superstar, he learned his craft and paid his dues in the pro ranks, logging over 30 fights before the bigger names and better paydays started materializing. There were similar hopes for Bivol, at least in terms of making a mark and becoming a marquee name like Eastern European stars like Vasiliy Lomachenko and Oleksandr Usyk who won their pro titles with just a handful of fights.
Bivol was moved well and did his part, taking the interim WBA belt in ninth bout by stopping Robert Berridge in four rounds on February 23, 2017. He had also been mixing in fights at home in Russia with bouts in the United States and he got a good push on HBO, but he never connected like knockout artists Kovalev and Gennadiy Golovkin, the charismatic Usyk or the phenomenal Lomachenko.
He was patient, he was calculating, and what he did best was something that didn’t show up on sizzle reels. He simply won fights. He was better than the other guy, night in and night out. It was death by a thousand cuts and not with a single swing of the sword, and that doesn’t usually sell. Not in the United States, where home runs, touchdowns and slam dunks are celebrated and the sacrifice bunt, the pull block and the pick are ignored.
So if Alvarez thought that Bivol was going to light up the marquee like so many opponents before, that wasn’t going to be the case. And that’s not an issue for him, because Alvarez can fight anyone and fill an arena and sell pay-per-views. He’s the sport’s reigning, defending and undisputed superstar, and it doesn’t matter who is across the ring from him on fight night when it comes to his legion of fans, especially on Cinco de Mayo weekend. If there’s a fight and Canelo is involved, let the party begin.
And that’s where Bivol can crash the party.
There will be no trash talk from him, no shoves at the weigh-in. Bivol will be Bivol all through fight week and on fight night, when he will not ceremoniously hand his belt over to the pajama-wearing host.
“I'm not thinking about that,” said Bivol at the grand arrivals on Tuesday when asked his thoughts on Alvarez being a belt collector. “I'm just thinking about my skills, and I believe in my skills and in my victory. This is why I'm here.”
This is what he’s been waiting for. Patiently. All those years honing his craft, fighting on undercards, hoping for the phone to ring with an offer he couldn’t refuse. And now he’s here and as a matchup Alvarez may not be walking through like he has in the past. Bivol is well-schooled, disciplined, and he’s made good fighters look ordinary. But if you’re of the opinion that Alvarez has already reached the “great” category, can he make a great fighter look only good enough to lose?
That’s the task ahead for Bivol, who told me back in 2017 that, “A career is like a staircase.”
He’s reached the penthouse.