By Thomas Gerbasi
At 28, Dmitry Bivol is the considered the young kid on the championship block in the light heavyweight division and, chronologically, that’s correct. But when you realize that the Kyrgyzstan native has been boxing since the age of six, well, he’s not exactly wet behind the ears when it comes to the sweet science.
“I didn’t know right away,” said Bivol through manager / translator Vadim Kornilov when asked if it hit him immediately that boxing was going to be his path. “I just enjoyed training and I liked my team and the guys at the gym and I enjoyed going over there and spending time there.”
Of course, no one gets that lightning bolt of a lifelong vocation at six, but soon enough, Bivol realized that he had something special in the ring and that it might be his ticket to a life vastly different than that of his peers.
“At first, I won 20-30 amateur fights and I knew I had some potential, but you don’t think about it that much when you’re a kid,” he said. “Later on, I was 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.”
Thirteen years later, Bivol is a world champion, and despite having just 15 fights, the WBA titleholder is already considered one of the best boxers on the planet, one who many very well defeat each of his championship counterparts should they ever meet in the ring.
And that’s the issue facing Bivol as he prepares to defend his title for the fifth time this Saturday against Joe Smith. Back when he was tearing up the amateur scene to the tune of a 268-15 record, things were simple. You showed up to a tournament and if you kept winning, you moved on, eventually getting to a fight with an opponent who had done the same thing you did to get to the final. There were no negotiations, no network or promotional entanglements. If you cleaned out your side of the bracket, you fought the guy who cleaned out his side. Done deal.
It’s not that simple in the pro game, and it’s only gotten more complicated in the last couple years. Today, it’s not just about which promoter you’re with, it’s what network you fight on. Bivol fights on DAZN. IBF champion Artur Beterbiev and WBC titlist Oleksandr Gvozdyk fight on ESPN, with WBO champ Sergey Kovalev likely to compete on that network as well considering that he regained his crown from Eleider Alvarez on ESPN in their rematch last month. And if you throw interim WBA belt holder Marcus Browne into the mix, he fights for PBC.
That mess is enough to suck the joy out the game for anyone, but Bivol isn’t bothered by the current state of affairs at 175 pounds.
“It doesn’t take the joy out of it because I don’t have to think about it that much,” he said. “I have a good team and I had to think a lot when I was choosing my team. That’s when I had to think a lot. But now I have a good team, and my manager and my trainer and the rest of my team will do most of that for me. Usually what I will do is just say ‘yes’ to the fight and train and get ready to win the fight.”
Bivol’s approach is old school, but that shouldn’t be a surprise, since he’s fought his whole career like that. He’s never fought an opponent with a losing record, won the interim WBA title in his ninth bout, and in his last three appearances, he’s beaten Sullivan Barrera, Isaac Chilemba and Jean Pascal, barely losing a round in the process. But while he wants to unify, that’s not as easy as it sounds. He remains optimistic, though.
“I really believe that the big fights will come and I have a big fight coming up right now,” he said. “So it doesn’t really bother me and I’m sure that the right fights will come and we will make it happen.”
And if necessary, that fight may be at 168 pounds.
“Yes, of course,” said Kornilov. “He’s considering moving to 168 and that’s part of the plan. We want to make a possible world title fight at 168 in the near future.”
There are interesting scraps with Callum Smith and Caleb Plant to be had at super middleweight, but of course the big one would be with Canelo Alvarez. That’s worth dropping seven pounds, especially for a young man who has probably been on some sort of diet since he was a child.
“I’ll have to start making weight a month earlier than usual,” Bivol said of a cut to 168 pounds. “Overall, even now, while I’m training, I don’t anything like sweets and not a lot of carbs or fried food. But I eat very well.”
That is a conversation for another day, though, because none of it happens without a win on Saturday against the hard-hitting Smith. And while this bout doesn’t have the heat behind it that it might have had after the Long Islander scored back-to-back knockouts of Andrzej Fonfara and Bernard Hopkins in 2016 and before he lost to Barrera, Smith can still punch and he is a live underdog. But he is an underdog for a reason, and most believe this is Bivol’s fight to lose.
“To me, every fight is still a test,” he said. “And I’ve been passing these tests pretty well. Even when I had this main event on HBO with Pascal, it was a big test for me, it was something new, and mentally I had to be ready for that. Every fight is a new test.”
But he’s getting hundreds on these tests, making them look easy even when he isn’t scoring knockouts.
“It only looks that way,” he counters. “And it looks that way because I work very hard in training and I give a lot in my training camp.”
In a lot of ways, it’s still the same way it was when Bivol first entered the gym more than two decades ago. He shows up to the gym, puts in the work, and then gets to fight. Of course, everything else has changed.
“I see things coming to fruition from what I’ve done in the sport,” Bivol said. “I’ve made some money, I’ve become a world champion, I’ve made a future for my family, I’ve met a lot of new people in the sport, and a lot more people know about me. But there’s also a lot of potential. There is always more that I can achieve.”
In 2019, Dmitry Bivol goes big game hunting.