NEW YORK – What a difference four years has made for Billy Dib.
Just four years ago, Dib, who was on the comeback trail following his lone professional defeat, entered the ring to “Many Men” by 50 Cent to face a fighter with a 15-0 record in his native Sydney, Australia.
This Friday, Dib will enter the ring as IBF featherweight champion, accompanied by his promoter 50 Cent at the Foxwoods Resort in Mashantucket, Conn. headlining an episode of ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights.
His opponent? Russian Evgeny Gradovich, who has an ironic record of 15-0 (8 knockouts). Everything has come full circle for Dib.
Dib’s (35-1, 21 KOs) prospects were looking down after losing a unanimous decision to then-WBO featherweight titleholder Steven Luevano in a sloppy fight in 2008. Now, after signing a deal with SMS Promotions, the boxing company started by the rapper from Queens, N.Y., born Curtis Jackson, Dib’s stock is higher than ever.
Dib, who is in New York finishing up training, says the whole deal transpired after his previous fight, a unanimous decision win over Juan Antonio Rodriguez in July.
“It happened overnight,” said Dib of the deal. “Before my last fight, my father said to me, ‘I’ve got a big surprise for you, just make sure you pull off the win.’ Right after the fight, I was gone away on a holiday, went to Dubai to spend time with [former world champion Naseem Hamed] and my brother Amir said, ‘Listen, remember that thing we were telling you about? I need you back in Sydney because we’re flying to Vegas to meet with 50 Cent.'”
Dib and his team were flown business class to Vegas to meet with Jackson, wined and dined at a fine hotel before reaching an agreement.
“Within 24 hours the deal was done. He’s a man of his word, everything he promised, he delivered that on the contract. Like I’ve been telling people, 50 Cent is rich, but with me he’s gonna get richer.”
The Gradovich fight will be Dib’s third defense of the title he won by defeating Jorge Lacierva in 2011, and his first in the U.S. since the Luevano fight, a second chance at a first impression with American audiences. Dib doesn’t view it as such, however.
“Honestly, I don’t feel that what people were saying was too harsh,” said Dib of the criticism post-Luevano. “I’m an athlete, I take criticism on the chin and I go out there and better myself. What I did was, I resurrected myself, I hired a new team, I went from being the boss to having a boss, I just worked under the radar, perfected my craft and went on to win one of the most legitimate world titles.
“I’m happy, I’m in a good place in life and I have nothing in me that wants to come here and prove to anybody that I have unfinished business. When I came here last time, I was young, inexperienced. I’ve come back now as a man, more experienced and this is the second phase of my career.”
Since the loss, Dib has won 14 of his last 15 bouts, with the lone blemish being a no-contest. Dib returned to Sydney and aligned himself with trainer Billy Hussein, the brother of former world title challengers Nedal and Hussein Hussein. Billy Hussein admits that he was hesitant to work with the awkward Dib, but gave him a shot on the insistence of his brother Hussein.
“Firstly, I didn’t want to train him,” said Hussein. “I didn’t think I had the right style to help him, plus he was coming off a loss. I sat down with Billy, and the first thing I said to Billy was, ‘I know you’ve ran your own race the whole time but I don’t operate like that. If I’m gonna be there you have to listen to me as a trainer, respect.'”
Dib admits that he and Hussein didn’t exactly mesh together when he first walked into Hussein’s Body Punch Boxing Gym in Sydney. It was Hussein’s insistence on taking his career one fight at a time over a period of 18 months that made the system work in the end.
“I was confused at the start, trying to adjust to his style,” admits Dib, who is rated No. 4 by THE RING at featherweight. “But he originally said to me, ‘I don’t want to hear anything about world title fights; I want ten fights with you before we challenge for a world title.’ Believe it or not, every fight that we had showed improvement.”
Says Hussein of the transformation: “I know he was able to do it, but he was never confident to do it. He felt he had to run around the ring and throw a low volume of punches, pull his head up to evade punches. To his credit, he changed everything that he was doing poorly before. It was scrappy, it was effective to a certain level but it wasn’t pretty to watch. I wanted him to keep winning fights but I wanted it to be fan-friendly. I wanted him to hit the body, I want him to move his head, slip punches instead of pulling out of punches. To his credit, he did it.”
Like Dib, Gradovich is 26, but has been a professional for only three years. The former Russian national amateur team member has been trained by Robert Garcia, who is the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) Trainer of the Year for 2012, for the past year, and stepped in on short notice after the original opponent Luis Franco abruptly retired.
“Gradovich is definitely a tough guy,” said Dib. “I know for a fact that a kid who is getting an opportunity for a world title who is 15-0 fights like a guy 30-0. You fight out of your skin when you get a shot at a world title. This is a biggest achievement in the world of boxing, every fighter dreams to fight for a world title. He’s hungry, but I’m more hungry.”
Unlike the Lacierva fight, Dib-Gradovich will air live in Australia on Fox Sports.
Dib’s deal with 50 Cent has the potential to make him more than a boxing champion, with the potential to cross over into different mediums that his promoter dabbles in, including movies, radio, music, etc. Dib is a fighter first and foremost, and he’s loving every minute of it so far.
“To me it’s not about proving anything to anybody, I’m just enjoying myself,” says Dib. “I love the sport of boxing, regardless of what happens tomorrow or the day after, I’ve reached the pinnacle of this sport. I’ve won a world title, I’ve gone down in history and they can’t take it away from me.”
Photos / Mike Flokis-Getty Images
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to The Ring magazine and GMA News. He can be reached at [email protected]. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.