Who is the best light heavyweight in the world?
WBO titlist Sergey Kovalev (34-3-1, 29 KO) is surely the most experienced. At 36, he is also on the cusp of the highest profile fight of his career. He will be challenged next month by reigning middleweight king Saul Alvarez (52-1-2, 35 KO). Kovalev has had a strong 2019, rebounding from a stunning knockout loss to upend Eleider Alvarez by decision in their rematch and then stopping Anthony Yarde.
There is a case for Kovalev.
28-year old WBA titlist Dmitry Bivol (17-0, 11 KO) racked up another lopsided decision last weekend, his fourth distance defense in a row. The Russian is as fundamentally sound as anyone in the division and has lost few rounds in his career to date. While his resume lacks for some of the bigger names, his wins include veterans Jean Pascal and Isaac Chilemba and solid contenders in Sullivan Barrera and Joe Smith.
There is a case for Bivol.
The other two men with major belts will go a long way towards making their case on Friday (10 Pm EST).
In what is arguably the best fight made this year on ESPN or ESPN+, thankfully airing on the broader platform, 32-year old WBC, TBRB, and lineal 175 lb. king Oleksandr Gvozdyk (17-0, 14 KO) will face 34-year old IBF belt holder Artur Beterbiev (14-0, 14 KO). It’s an intriguing unification battle that could put the winner front and center in the race to seize the top of the class.
It’s a step towards clarification; a step towards undisputed in a weight class where no has separated from the pack.
It’s a step toward finding out who the one, true man of the hour is right now.
The quality of the fight and the skill level both men bring to bear would be evident with no titles on the line. Beterbiev was a two-time Olympian who won Silver and Gold medals in the World Amateur championships along the way for his native Russia. Gvozdyk won Bronze at the 2012 Games for Ukraine.
Both men have continued to excel in the paid ranks, if along different paths.
Beterbiev got off to the sort of start as a pro that makes it surprising he’s only now at his fifteenth fight. He had eight fights in his first two years as a pro, waffling former titlists Tavoris Cloud and Gabriel Campillo before getting stuck in neutral. He had only two fights in 2016, one each in 2017 and 2018, and now at 34 has his career seemingly on track with time not on his side.
Gvozdyk was built more deliberately before really breaking through in 2016. Stoppage wins over Chilemba, who exited with an injury, and Yunieski Gonzalez marked him a potential rising star. Last December, he toppled long reigning Adonis Stevenson with a dramatic and near tragic knockout win. After a customary first defense that had “win” written on it before the opening bell, he’s right back in to the fire.
It’s another gem in what has been a solid year at light heavyweight. Along with Kovalev’s two wins, there was also Marcus Browne’s bloody victory over Badou Jack and then Pascal’s stunning upset of Browne. While Kovalev-Alvarez will undoubtedly be the biggest fight of the year, Gvozdyk-Beterbiev has the chance to be the best of the bunch.
The biggest question for Gvozdyk, or anyone else facing Beterbiev, is whether he can take the power of the heavy handed Russian. We know there was a time where Gvozdyk couldn’t, suffering a stoppage to Beterbiev roughly a decade ago.
So far, Gvozdyk’s beard has been no issue as a professional. He took some serious stuff from Stevenson last year. While the Canadian favorite was past his best days, Stevenson still carried some of the scariest power in the division.
For Beterbiev, one wonders what happens when he faces serious resistance. He’s answered questions about whether he can carry power late so we know he can be a threat all night. Can he take it if he dishes it out and Gvozdyk is still there? Gvozdyk isn’t light of fist and has developed a well-rounded attack.
We don’t know what will happen in the best way possible.
We don’t know how this will all play out, Friday or beyond.
Friday’s might be the sort of fight that leads to demand for a rematch. Alvarez could defeat Kovalev and change the face of the division…or immediately vacate and leave light heavyweight behind. Bivol could continue to languish off center stage or find himself an attractive foe for the winner of Gvozdyk-Beterbiev. While Gvozdyk holds claim to history’s crown, Stevenson’s often-lackluster title run made the distinction less interesting for many. Purists can call him champion but no one can truly say they are the man just yet.
The trend in recent years has been toward unification in classes where it’s possible. We had crystal clear unifications at Jr. welterweight and Cruiserweight by Terence Crawford and Oleksandr Usyk respectively. Should Kovalev win next month, his relationship with ESPN and increased notoriety might make a three-belt showdown easy to make.
It has to start somewhere.
Friday, we get a start and we might get so much more than that.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org