For the second time in as many years, a rising contender violently ripped away the lineal light heavyweight championship with a late round knockout. Artur Beterbiev became the king vs Oleksandr Gvozdyk Friday night in an excellent match-up square in the middle one of boxing’s periodic hot streaks, and Beterbiev didn’t just get the championship, he might just have established himself as one of the best there is.
Beterbiev had been in a suspended state of animation atop a medium-height plateau ever since loudly announcing his arrival back in 2014 against Tavoris Cloud. He’s beaten good, even better fighters since, none of them good enough to really dislodge him from mid-level contender, and he knocked every single one of them out.
Gvozdyk had become the prior violent-ripper-of-championship, although it was a wobbly performance against Adonis Stephenson, in that he was wobbled and dropped before stopping Stephenson in the 11th.
So here we got a somewhat unproven yet freshly emergent divisional king against an especially awesome looking G.I. Joe figure still in its package.
The anticipation begat delivery on ESPN.
There are debates still raging Saturday afternoon about who was winning the fight before the end came in the 10th. It makes sense. It was the kind of fight that isn’t easy to score. Gvozdyk was more active by far, slicing in with combinations then dipping out. Beterbiev was patiently landing the harder punches. They were ridiculously well-matched. Until the final two rounds, they had thrown almost an identical number of blows.
At first glance, it looked like the sort of fight where no real narrative was developing. No one style seemed to be taking over. Gvozdyk may have worn the appearance of a man unnerved, perhaps haunted slightly by his knockout loss to Beterbiev in the amateurs. Beterbiev’s face never changed, as if he lacked even a soul. Woe is the boxing analyst who reads too much into body language. The scorecards were even, or close to it. It was a battle of evenly-matched contenders, neither either to wrest control. That’s the real tale, usually.
Unless: Gvozdyk’s unnerved appearance coincided with the straight right hand Beterbiev had been stabbing into his gut and electrocuting his face with anxiety.
Gvozdyk might’ve once rattled Beterview at a round’s end, but Gvozdyk retreated repeatedly, elbows down to protect his insides, after the latest daggering.
Gvozdyk’s punches started losing zip, and by the 9th round he was slipping to the ground without much prompting, even pretending to have some kind of hand injury or something after a body shot, a maneuver that tricked the ref into giving him a break.
The 10th round, Beterbiev realized it was time to say goodnight, so he put him down three times and the ref who just got tricked saved Gvozdyk. We got a new champ.
Oh, on that word: ESPN’s commentators use “champion” more than they say “the.” The “Alice in Wonderland” absurdity of constantly calling two people in the ring “world champion” — as if there are multiple worlds? some kind of DC “Crisis on Infinite Earths?” — never sinks in for too many people in this sport.
Beterbiev is the champ. Gvozdyk was. Whoever beats Beterbiev will be. It’s really quite simple.
The question is: Who can? Gvozdyk was gutsy to take on the dude. He’s still highly viable. It might go differently for him in a rematch, even, if he could stay on his feet. That’s easier said than done.
It’s a scary thing when a man who has knocked out every one of his foes steps up and does it to someone elite. That Beterbiev power is no illusion. Nor is he some laser-blasting automaton. He’s smart, well-schooled, doesn’t throw lazy punches ever. He’s focused, can take a shot, can box, and can, of course, punch.
What’s good about Beterbiev as as the new champ is, there’s a new, daunting mountain to climb, and no shortage of men with spikes who might be willing. Dmitry Bivol, the current #2 contender, could give Beterbiev trouble on paper. If the winner of Sergey Kovalev vs Canelo Alvarez wants to keep taking dangerous challenges, they now know exactly where to go.
Light heavyweight is a hot spot within a hot streak of boxing. Let’s see how high the temperature can get.
(photo via Top Rank)