By Keith Idec
At 33 years old, the last thing Artur Beterbiev needed was wasted time.
When Beterbiev enters the ring Saturday night in Chicago, the Russian knockout artist will fight for the first time in almost 11 months. A prolonged legal battle with promoter Yvon Michel has helped keep him out of the ring since he knocked out Enrico Koelling in the 12th round last November 11 in Fresno, California.
The unbeaten IBF light heavyweight champion’s power makes him one of the fan-friendly fighters in boxing, but inactivity has slowed his ascent to stardom. Beterbiev has boxed just 12 times since making his pro debut in June 2013.
Beterbiev doesn’t say much, but the Montreal-based boxer’s trainer, Marc Ramsey, hopes his optional title defense against England’s Callum Johnson marks the beginning of a successful, lucrative stretch for the hard-hitting 175-pound champion.
“I think that there is still some stuff [happening] in court,” Ramsey told BoxingScene.com. “I think they’re appealing. But the thing is, right now we’re going forward. The promoter got him a fight and he is gonna fight. I’m happy to see him back in the ring. As a coach, especially when you have a special boxer like this, you want him in the ring, not sitting out.”
Beterbiev tried to terminate his contract with Michel by contending that its terms weren’t honored. A Montreal superior court judge disagreed and ruled June 8 that their contract is valid until 2021.
That ruling led to Michel making this fight for Beterbiev through British promoter Eddie Hearn’s partnership with DAZN, the well-funded streaming service that launched in the United States on September 22.
Beterbiev-Johnson is one of four featured fights DAZN will stream Saturday night from DePaul University’s Wintrust Arena (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
Once his court case concluded, it wasn’t exactly easy to find a ranked opponent willing to challenge Beterbiev, who has knocked out each of his 12 professional opponents. The largely unknown Johnson didn’t hesitate to accept this dangerous assignment, but Beterbiev has been installed as at least an 11-1 favorite by most Internet sports books.
“With Beterbiev, they went two times through the whole ratings before somebody said yes,” Ramsey said. “The IBF had to re-organize the ratings after the first 15 guys said no. Callum Johnson stepped up and said, ‘Yes, I’m gonna fight Beterbiev.’ I have a lot of respect for the guy. He’s a tough guy, but at the end of the day I think maybe it’s too [soon] for him. Beterbiev is something special.”
Ramsey doesn’t expect Beterbiev’s long layoff to hurt his performance against Johnson (17-0, 12 KOs), another 33-year-old whose career stalled while he dealt with the death of his father in 2016.
“He’s getting older,” Ramsey said of Beterbiev, “but at the same time, Artur Beterbiev is the type of guy who the only things he has are family and boxing. He’s never out of the gym. Even when I tell him to take a week off, he’s at the gym. There’s something special about him. He’s in his prime right now. If we would have had an opportunity to have a couple of more fights, it would be better.
“But he has over 300 amateur fights. He was a world amateur champ, fought in two Olympics. Especially at the beginning, we didn’t want to put him with guys who were journeymen. He was already at another level. He proved that when he fought Tavoris Cloud and knocked him out in two rounds. Cloud,  months before that, was world champion. Beterbiev is that special.”
If Beterbiev beats a big underdog Saturday night, Ramsey hopes he can secure a light heavyweight title unification fight next.
Ramsey also trains new WBO champ Eleider Alvarez (24-0, 12 KOs), who’s headed for an immediate rematch with Sergey Kovalev (32-3-1, 28 KOs) on February 2 in Frisco, Texas (ESPN). While the Ramsey-Alvarez partnership takes one potential option away from Beterbiev, Ramsey would welcome fights against WBA champ Dmitry Bivol (14-0, 11 KOs) or WBC champ Adonis Stevenson (29-1-1, 24 KOs).
Michel also promotes Stevenson and Beterbiev-Stevenson would be a big fight in Quebec. The 41-year-old Stevenson must first make a mandatory defense of his title against Ukraine’s Oleksandr Gvozdyk (15-0, 12 KOs) on December 1 in Quebec City, Canada.
“Artur’s ready for that,” Ramsey said regarding unification fights. “He has the amateur experience. He has boxed since he was 11 years old. He’s ready for that. We don’t wanna wait at all. Any kind of unification fight that we can do, any kind of big challenge, he’s gonna go for it. We want to fight Bivol or Stevenson right away. We have the same promoter that Stevenson has and it’s a dream to fight him, especially in Montreal. It would be something very big. But we’ll see.
“We’ll let Yvon Michel do his job, but this is what we want – no doubt about it. I know Artur wants to fight him. It’s nothing personal. It’s just that it’s a challenge. He loves challenges. Especially because he comes from Montreal, also, it’s something special for us. He wants to fight Stevenson, but Stevenson has a tough fight on his hands. Gvozdyk is a very, very good technician. It’s gonna be a good fight in December.”
In the event Beterbiev-Stevenson can’t be made in 2019, Beterbiev-Bivol is an attractive alternative. A bout between Bivol and Joe Smith Jr. (24-2, 20 KOs) was in the works for December 8, but HBO’s announcement last week that it is moving away from broadcasting boxing has left Bivol’s immediate future unclear.
Hearn has pursued Bivol while trying to strengthen DAZN’s stable of fighters. If the Kyrgyzstan native agrees to fight on DAZN, a Bivol-Beterbiev bout would be one of the most fascinating fights it could offer its subscribers.
“That’s a great fight, too,” Ramsey said. “Bivol is a very young, promising guy. But at the end of the day, I really believe I have the best guy in the division. I think [Bivol is] in a little bit of the same situation as Artur. He don’t have that many fights and he’s already a world champion. I think if we have the opportunity, we’re gonna be there, for sure.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.