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Kovalev has the name, but Bivol is ‘the future’ at 175, says promoter

WBA light heavyweight titlist Dmitry Bivol. Photo by Amanda Westcott/SHOWTIME
02
Mar

It is not often that a boxing promoter takes the kind of risk with an unbeaten fighter that Main Events is taking with Dmitry Bivol Saturday night at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

After all, even though Bivol has a title belt – the WBA promoted him from its “interim’’ light heavyweight champion to the real thing after Badou Jack vacated its belt last year – he has had just a dozen pro fights and even main Events CEO Kathy Duva acknowledges that he has yet to be tested.

That test will come against Sullivan Barrera in the 12-round co-feature to the Sergey Kovalev-Igor Mikhalkin main event, that rare undercard bout that is more highly anticipated than the main event.

The reason is obvious: Barrera is the real thing, having lost just once — by decision to Andre Ward — in 22 pro fights, and having upset Joe Smith Jr. — who put the final exclamation point on Bernard Hopkins’ career — last July, breaking his jaw in the process.

And the stakes are high: If Bivol beats Barrera, he is probably headed for a showdown against Kovalev, a rocking matchup that will no doubt pack the Garden’s main arena with enthusiastic Russian fight fans.

If the prospect of moving that kind of a potential talent too quickly is frightening to Duva or Bivol’s camp, at least by the time this fight is ove,r they will know what they have. A win by Bivol over Barrera will be more evidence that this is a young fighter who belongs on the fast track.

“It’s looks like he’s got everything,’’ Duva said. “But it’s a real 50-50 fight and you can’t safely predict the outcome.’’

That is why although everyone will linger to watch Kovalev’s expected routine win over Mikhalkin, the fight they are really coming to see is Bivol-Barrera. And the fighter they are most likely coming to see is Bivol.

Although there are striking similarities between Kovalev and Bivol – both are Russian-born, six feet tall and KO punchers – we have probably already seen the best of Kovalev, who will turn 35 in April, while it is safe to assume that Bivol’s best days are still ahead of him.

And unlike Kovalev, who in some respects is damaged goods following his two losses to Ward, Bivol remains a promise-in-waiting, unblemished as a pro and with a solid foundation of nearly 300 amateur fights, a background that prompted Kovalev to pick Bivol to win because “he has much more experience than Barrera.’’

An added factor in Bivol’s favor is that he is younger than just about every significant fighter in the division, with the exception of Smith (28) and Marcus Browne, who like Bivol is 27.

Bivol has 10 KOs in his 12 pro wins, most of them courtesy of his sharp right hand. He is a well-schooled fighter with a solid base, efficient if spare footwork and a vicious left hook to the body. It’s too early to make a judgment on his chin, but Barrera, though not a killer puncher (14 KOs), might provide it with a test.

“I know this is a big fight and I’m excited to get to fight a guy like Barrera,’’ Bivol said. “On Saturday night, the fans will get to see what I am all about.”

Interestingly, Barrera was offered the main event against Kovalev and a $400,000 purse, but opted to take less money ($250,000) to challenge for Bivol’s title. Barrera’s rationale was that a win over Bivol would exponentially increase his purse for a fight against Kovalev down the road.

“I have to give him credit for betting on himself,’’ Duva said.

Main Events, however, is betting on Bivol, even if a win over Barrera is not likely to propel him into a showdown with Kovalev right away. Duva said that if Barrera wins, he would be Kovalev’s next opponent, later this year and probably in New York. But if Bivol wins, they will continue to try to build him up for a megabucks, all-Russian light heavyweight title fight next year.

In that case, Kovalev would likely face Browne or Badou Jack, provided Jack beats Adonis Stevenson in May.

But the future of the division appears to belong to Bivol.

“Bivol is a nice, intelligent, well-spoken guy who happens to knock everybody out,’’ Duva said. “He’s the future. I think five, six years down the line, this is the guy who’s going to rule the division.’’