Artur Beterbiev’s journey to light-heavyweight domination seemed to take forever. Beterbiev entered the paid ranks in 2013 atop this decade’s wave of enthusiasm for Eastern European fighters and immediately looked the part. In his sixth fight, he dispersed former-titlist Tavoris Cloud’s senses in two frightful rounds; two fights later, he stopped shopworn spoiler Gabriel Campillo in four. Already Beterbiev’s chances against his amateur victim, long-standing WBO champion Sergey Kovalev, were being bandied via bandwidth.
Sidelined by a shoulder injury between June 2015 and June 2016, and matched cautiously (a charitable euphemism) in his return, Beterbiev lost all momentum. Compounding matters, when Beterbiev returned to action, poised for a title-eliminator against Sullivan Barrera, he fell out with promoter Yvon Michel. Beterbiev claimed that Michel had failed to meet contractual guarantees. Two fights in two years followed as Beterbiev finalized his split from Michel, though he managed to pick up the vacant IBF title along the way. In February, this period of promotional turmoil ended when Beterbiev signed with Top Rank, which could deliver him a unification bout against WBC champion Oleksandr Gvozdyk.
When Beterbiev and Gvozdyk met at the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia on Friday night, Gvozdyk left the arena concussed; Beterbiev, who pulped him in ten rounds, left as the unified light-heavyweight champion. What felt like forever took Beterbiev but fifteen fights—and zero judges.
Relieved of his title and undefeated record, Gvozdyk remains one of the best light-heavyweights in the world. A knockout loss to Beterbiev puts you in growing company and does nothing to belittle your accomplishments. Gvozdyk showed world-class skills in being ground down. He moved well in the early rounds, circling right (away from Beterbiev’s right hand) and cracking the code of Beterbiev’s guard with sharp combinations. Indeed, Gvozdyk was ahead on two cards at the fight’s end. But how many fighters are better at rendering such tallies moot than Beterbiev?
With Gvozdyk in full command of his powers, there were still hints of his coming destruction, such that Gvozdyk‒Beterbiev will look decidedly less competitive on subsequent viewings. If Gvozdyk, 17-1 (14), wasn’t haywired early by Beterbiev’s vaunted power, he nevertheless confirmed it. In the second round, Beterbiev countered Gvozdyk’s jab with a right hand, after which Gvozdyk, as he would every time Beterbiev landed cleanly, bailed at its impact, holstering his weapons in sly recovery. Watching so skilled a technician as Gvozdyk control a fight all for naught brought to mind the first match between Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito, where the boxer’s command was upset by his opponent’s ultraviolent bursts, where the means to that control—movement, volume, combinations launched full bore—brought about the boxer’s undoing.
While comfortable (or at least less uncomfortable) at range, Gvozdyk was helpless on the inside, entering each clinch hoping for a ceasefire. Beterbiev, 15-0 (15), mauled him in close, that rough treatment either hurting Gvozdyk or denying him the rest he sought. Already the mental strain of facing Beterbiev was beginning to wear on Gvozdyk—his mouth open, face betraying concern, as if haunted by the memory of Beterbiev stopping him in the amateurs.
In stark contrast was Beterbiev, who, having sampled and spat out Gvozdyk’s attack like a bloodthirsty sommelier, took to occasionally fighting with his hands down, baiting Gvozdyk into counters, or exploding in behind a deceptively quick and varied jab. This switch not only showed new wrinkles to Beterbiev’s game, ones that Gvozdyk struggled to mitigate, but it also made obvious the contrast in the fighters’ conditioning. That Gvozdyk responded more and more to Beterbiev’s attack by shoving him only confirmed what Beterbiev must’ve intimidated rounds earlier, in the muted grunts, the percussive breaths of the man struggling to take his power: the knockout was coming.
That knockout came in the tenth, when Gvozdyk, slugged immobile by body shots in the previous round, could only preserve his title and senses by force. The preceding nine rounds had shown the result of such a wager. Clubbed thrice to his knees, Gvodzyk was up each time before referee Gary Rosato could reach a count of two, something that shouldn’t be overlooked in considering how “The Nail” might recover from the first loss of his career. Friday’s outcome did more to confirm Beterbiev’s legitimacy than it did to diminish Gvozdyk’s. There isn’t a light heavyweight alive who can endure this—the best yet—version of Beterbiev for twelve rounds, and there may be no other light heavyweight who can hang a loss on Gvozdyk; there certainly isn’t another one who will so brutally exploit his limitations.
Strictly speaking, the division is not yet Beterbiev’s, but it will be provided the other titlists care to prove otherwise. Undefeated Dmitry Bivol, who has openly considered a move to super middleweight for the right money, might consider the move more seriously after a night with Beterbiev. Bivol wants to fight but one way—which is to say, as little as possible, just enough to preserve control. Beterbiev would do with Bivol what no one has yet managed: make a fight that quickens our collective pulse, and in the process reveal why Bivol abstains from entertaining us. Provided he reminds Saul Alvarez why there are weight divisions, Kovalev would prove a stern challenge for Beterbiev. But Kovalev’s penchant for tiring and Beterbiev’s ability to accelerate that fatigue are a disastrous combination for “Krusher.” (And should Alvarez prevail, well, he chose Kovalev, not Beterbiev as his one-off-light heavyweight opponent for a reason.) Perhaps the best thing going for the other belted light-heavyweights is that Beterbiev is now burdened with mandatory defenses for two titles.
Which is to say, if you thought Beterbiev’s rise to the top took a long time, wait until you see how long he stays there.