Some ten minutes—was it even that long?—after the opening bell of the light heavyweight unification fight between Artur Beterbiev and Joe Smith Jr., there was a sign that one of the more endearing of boxing’s current trends should continue. Not Beterbiev’s knockout streak, which, after his expeditious destruction of Smith before a lively crowd in Madison Square Garden, now stands at eighteen (in eighteen professional fights). No, this trend is beyond one fighter; it seems almost contagious.
There are currently eleven unified or undisputed champions in boxing, sufficient proof that a critical refrain has become fantasy, a holdover from a more frustrating era. Boxing is not without its ills, it is ever-ready to disgorge reasons to turn away, but its best fighters are facing each other—there is no shortage of ambition at the top. Beterbiev is but one more daring example of that. Asked whether he preferred satisfying a mandatory defense against Anthony Yarde—a fighter who owes his profile primarily to the indiscriminate adoration of his countrymen—or a bid to become the undisputed light heavyweight champion, Beterbiev spoke to and for the masses. “Unification fights is more interesting,” he said, “It’s more inspiring. I’d rather unify.”
Beterbiev is right. Even an uncompetitive unification is likely more evenly matched than a mandatory defense. The latter is too often the handiwork of sanctioning bodies and promoters, both of whom are guilty of orchestrating foregone conclusions, of being averse to upsets. There are too many titles in boxing, especially if you suffer learning them all. But when one fighter drapes himself in the belts that constitute UNDISPUTED, the title that matters is his.
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Truthfully, Beterbiev–Smith was neither evenly matched nor particularly clarifying. Before answering the bell against Beterbiev, Smith, who won a vacant title by majority decision over Maxim Vlasov, had faced but one world-class fighter in his prime (Dmitrii Bivol in 2019). That fight was neither competitive nor compelling. Scalping Smith did very little for Bivol, who had been a frustrating and fireless fighter before slapping around Saul Alvarez in May. Meanwhile, Beterbiev first unified light heavyweight at the expense of Oleksandr Gvodzyk, who won his title with a brutal stoppage of Adonis Stevenson, and who, after ten rounds against Beterbiev, retired eighteen fights into his career. Not all champions are created equal, nor are paths to the title. Beterbiev was without question the sternest challenge of Smith’s career. Yet for Beterbiev, the “Common Man” was but a checkpoint in the race to something greater.
And yet such considerations were quieted by the promise of carnage. You needed to wager your home to make any money betting the stoppage in Saturday’s main event. For Smith, it was simple: stretch Beterbiev on the canvas or take your spot on it. Smith may have had little more than a puncher’s chance, but his punch (particularly his poleaxing right hand) and a few glimpses of early vulnerability from Beterbiev explained that meager hope. Expected to deliver a knockout, Beterbiev had to destroy Smith to do more than confirm his superiority. The simplicity of those desiderata—intensified by the context, amplified by the setting—guaranteed entertainment. What remained was simple execution—and Smith was executed in two rounds.
In his phenomenal Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon writes of the homicide detective’s orientation toward the medical examiner’s office: “To the part of the detective which calls itself professional, the medical examiner’s office is a laboratory. And yet, to that other part, which defines itself in hard but human terms, the place is an abattoir.” What has this quote to do with boxing? Perhaps little. But let’s subject it to the scalpel.
Consider the ring a laboratory, a space for scientific experimentation and research, for confirming or falsifying theories. Here Beterbiev proves himself world-class. He countered Smith’s longer jab with perfectly timed right hands that produced knockdowns in both rounds. Loading up his cross, Smith brought his left back low and his head forward. Beterbiev identified and exploited this mistake immediately. The punches that dropped Smith were almost grazing, had the first two knuckles on Beterbiev’s right hand found Smith’s chin or temple on the first knockdown the subsequent three might’ve never come.
His body punching is brilliant. For frequency, look to Errol Spence Jr., for ferocity, to Naoya Inoue; but few fighters surgically eviscerate like Beterbiev. His body punching may be understated because he employs it in service to more eyecatching and catastrophic punches upstairs, but Beterbiev sickens men to the body. Smith learned this too—all part of being introduced to a new and unforgiving world between the ropes.
Outside of effect, though, there is nothing particularly savage about Beterbiev, an unlikely quality considering his power. He is a thinking destroyer, a measured, patient, inexorable force. Everything he throws is purposeful and painful, and he knows it. So even in his trying moments, Beterbiev fights within himself. There are no demons to exorcise, no bloodlust to satisfy—only the application of strategy, the exercise of technique, and the mess to clean up afterward.
But there is that “other part” to Beterbiev, the undeniable part defined in “hard but human terms.” A menace exudes from his dark eyes, heavy brow, wiry beard, his almost animal musculature, the secrecy preserved by what remains of a language barrier. His ruinous power is at work on this more visceral plane too. It isn’t only how Beterbiev hurts his opponents: it’s their reaction to it, the physiological fallout of his punches landing. Smith rose from four knockdowns and finished the fight on his (admittedly recalcitrant) feet. But his expression after rising the last time? It wasn’t fear; at no point was Smith afraid of Beterbiev. No, he was awestruck by him.
Whatever it is that compels people to watch two men, stripped nearly naked, use their fists to affect dramatic, often irreparable changes in the other; whatever primordial satisfaction, whatever sweet discomfort is produced by such a spectacle, Beterbiev speaks to that. He will meet his match eventually, perhaps as soon as most thirty-seven-year-old fighters do. But his opponent on that night will have to find comfort in the abattoir to do it.