History’s champion at light heavyweight, at least traced back to the winner of Jean Pascal-Chad Dawson, is already resolved.
37-year old Russian Artur Beterbiev (17-0, 17 KO) captured lineal honors, unifying his IBF belt with the WBC’s with his 2019 knockout of Oleksandr Govozdyk. On Saturday (ESPN, 10 PM EST), Beterbiev will attempt to add another belt to his collection when he faces 32-year old WBO titlist Joe Smith Jr. (28-3, 22 KO).
On its own, it’s a mouthwatering match between big punchers who come forward and look to hit the showers early. In the broader context of the division, one of two things can come out of this weekend. What are those two things?
We’ll get back to that.
Being the lineal king of a division doesn’t always mean being the best. It doesn’t have to either. When it’s functioning well, boxing has central identifiable champions and challengers there to try to replace them. Sometimes the central champions have all the hardware lying around. Sometimes, the gap between one talent and the rest of the field is so wide a fighter can be the rightful champ without any dispute no matter how many straps they have.
It was like that for Wladimir Klitschko for a while after his brother retired. It’s like that right now at bantamweight where Naoya Inoue has three of four belts and the fourth titlist, Paul Butler, simply doesn’t have any real claim to the top of the division right now.
Boxing right now is in the midst of a unification fever it hasn’t seen in quite some time. There are eleven established lineal kingpins along with fully or partially unified alphabet champions in every weight class from Jr. lightweight to heavyweight except for cruiserweight. Jr. bantamweight, bantamweight, and Jr. featherweight also have them (depending on how one sees Juan Francisco Estrada’s franchise claim at 115 lbs).
This all necessarily narrows the field and creates a more precise sport in theory. It doesn’t imply we have concrete answers in all these unified classes about who their very best man is. Jr. featherweight could use a clash between a pair of unified titlists, Stephen Fulton and Murodjon Akhmadaliev, to settle the issue. Devin Haney is undisputed at lightweight but has challengers like Gervonta Davis and Vasyl Lomachenko out there to end or enhance his reign. Errol Spence has three belts at welterweight but none came with a win over Terence Crawford so questions remain.
This weekend’s light heavyweight clash happens in the aftermath of a big light heavyweight result in May. 31-year old Russian Dmitry Bivol (20-0, 11 KO), the longtime WBA titlist, posted a lopsided win over super middleweight champion Saul Alvarez to enhance his bona fides as a professional and extend his already quietly solid reign. With excellent technique and boxing smarts, Bivol can make a hell of a case for being the best light heavyweight in the world even if the lineage of the class resides elsewhere.
The consensus top two men in the class are Bivol and Beterbiev. That’s the fight until someone makes something else the fight. That’s one of the things that makes Beterbiev-Smith intriguing.
We are either two fights away from knowing for sure who the best light heavyweight in the world is…or Joe Smith can answer the question for now with a victory.
And with a victory, the answer would not be Joe Smith Jr.
Sure, a unification match between Smith and Bivol would give us a chance at a four-belt unification and would give Bivol a chance to snare history’s crown.
We already know who the better man is in that pairing.
Prior to winning the WBO belt, Smith challenged Bivol for the WBA crown in 2019. It was no contest. Bivol survived a few big shots to win eleven rounds on two cards and ten on another. Smith can collect all the belts available and it wouldn’t matter. The burden would rest with Smith to prove he can beat Bivol and not the other way around.
It’s different if Beterbiev wins this weekend. Beterbiev has the chance to one-up Bivol and stop Smith. Short of that, he has a chance to win in his own more physical way and restate his case as the best in the game at 175 lbs.
Beterbiev-Bivol has looked like the finish line fight for their division for a couple years. Smith will have his chance to prove that false this weekend. Someone like former super middleweight titlist Gilberto Ramirez could have a similar chance against Bivol before the finish line is reached.
Regardless, we are very close to aligning the championship with an undisputed right for one man to call himself the best. How close will be determined Saturday.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org