Staying Busy: Dmitry Bivol Faces Isaac Chilemba, Hopes for Sergey Kovalev

Felix Valera (L) and Dmitry Bivol in their interim WBA world light-heavyweight title bout at Megasport Arena in Moscow, Russia, May 22, 2016. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)

Interview with Dmitry Bivol, by Sean Nam. See more Hannibal Boxing interviews >>

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Though WBA light-heavyweight champion Dmitry Bivol credits a childhood under the spell of Jackie Chan films with guiding him toward a career in prizefighting, it is Sugar Ray Leonard whom the Kyrgyzstan-born boxer cites as being his biggest influence. And, in some ways, that includes the art of deception.

“The way [Leonard] looks is very interesting,” Bivol explained in a phone interview that alternated between his native Russian and fast-improving English. (His manager Vadim Kornilov was present on the call, interpreting as needed). “It’s disguising.”

Disguising?

“It’s misleading,” Bivol clarified, sounding a bit philosophical. “He looks like a rabbit… but he’s so dangerous.”

On that last point, Bivol could have been talking about himself.

With a record of 13-0 (11), Bivol, twenty-seven, is perhaps not the first boxer that springs to mind when it comes to identifying the sport’s baby-faced assassins, but the disparity between his demeanor (relaxed) and his performance in the ring (brutish) suggests that the description is not far-fetched either.

In his last fight, Bivol notched the biggest win of his career when he scored a twelfth-round TKO over a game Sullivan Barrera in March. A precise one-two combination dropped Barrera hard. Although he beat the count, the battered Barrera, whose only loss had been at the hands of now-retired Andre Ward, wavered just enough for the referee to stop the fight. Barrera looked relieved and made no attempt to protest the stoppage.

“I need to keep my hands up higher, so I don’t get headbutts,” Bivol remarked, pointing out what he learned in that fight after sustaining a cut from an accidental clash of heads. The learning curve, otherwise, for this fighter of Moldovan-Korean extract, seems especially short.

Indeed, Bivol ranks among the top talents of a competitive, if top-heavy, 175-pound division. But if his victory over Barrera is considered something like a statement, it should be viewed with caution. Though he has built up a profile as a dangerous fighter, until he actually confronts a fellow world-class professional, Bivol is still an unknown quantity—despite what the blogosphere will tell you. Indeed, it says a lot of about the state of boxing that a fighter can win a world title and yet still be the subject of much uncertainty. (Bivol picked up the WBA version of the light-heavyweight crown only after Badou Jack relinquished it.)

Such confirmation will have to wait. On August 4th from Atlantic City, Bivol faces off against perennial B-side Isaac Chilemba in what figures to be another relatively lopsided drubbing. “Chilemba is one of the top fighters of the light-heavyweight division,” Bivol said. “It will be a good chance for me [to show my skills]. I’m really happy about this fight.”

But even Bivol knows Chilemba is nothing more than a stay-busy opportunity, and his manager conceded as much. “Dmitry was asking if there was anybody better,” Kornilov said while pointing out that he had been in preliminary talks with “four to five fighters” about facing his charge, before all of them eventually declined. “And I said to [Bivol], ‘this time this is the best that we could do.’”

It is a problem that dangerous, top-notch fighters with limited profiles routinely face today: the dearth of suitable opponents. And yet, luckily for Bivol and the public, a meritocratic path exists.  Not coincidentally, for the third time Bivol will be the supporting act to one of the division’s most proven and menacing fighters, Sergey Kovalev, who will face ranking 175-pounder Eleider Alvarez in the HBO main event. A future showdown with Kovalev would be the quickest way to determining if Bivol is more than a talented upstart; conversely, it would also reveal if Kovalev, after his two controversial consecutive losses to Ward, is still that elite fighter prone to harboring intense, unalloyed feelings of malevolence toward his adversaries (just ask Jean Pascal). Given that both fighters’ promoters (Kovalev is represented by Main Events, Bivol by World of Boxing) have a healthy working relationship and that both fight for the same network, it seems at least on paper that a Kovalev-Bivol fight is one of the easier unification fights to make in the division. “Well,” Kornilov warned, “unification fights are never easy to make. Main Events and Kovalev’s team has to agree as well.”

As it stands now, the only intrigue that a Chilemba fight brings is if Bivol can beat him more impressively than either Kovalev did—against whom Chilemba went the distance—or fellow beltholder Oleksandr Gvozdyk—who iced Chilemba in eight — managed to do. Bivol is aware of the narrative being pushed.

“It’s obvious to everybody that [a fight with Kovalev] is next in the storyline and that’s why HBO keeps putting us together,” Bivol said. “Hopefully that is going to bring more attention to our future fight. Right now we’re both at the top of the division so I’d be happy for it to happen sometime soon.”

That is unless Bivol ends up fighting in different conditions. Earlier this month, a report circulated that Matchroom Boxing’s Eddie Hearn had signed Bivol to an exclusive deal to his streaming service, DAZN. “I called Vadim right away when I heard this,” Bivol recalled. “Like, Vadim, What is this?”

“Eddie and us are close, we’re partners, but we haven’t made any kind of deal,” Kornilov said, though he acknowledged that the rumor was not completely unfounded. In addition to speaking with Hearn, he has had talks with many other promoters who are interested in signing Bivol to a significant deal. If nothing else, the rumor did illustrate the deep political fissures that run through the industry and the often stonewalling effects they have on possible collaboration. In addition to Hearn and his own entrepreneurial goals, Top Rank works exclusively with ESPN and Al Haymon’s PBC stable is featured largely on Showtime. “We’re open to conversation,” stated Kornilov, who preferred to be optimistic about the chances of seeing Bivol facing off against the other titlists in the division: Adonis Stevenson and Artur Betebiev. “I think those fights will all have to happen. But right now, Dmitry’s fighting on HBO and that’s going to continue.”

Bivol added, confidently, “I’m an HBO fighter.”

Time will tell if that designation will serve as an incentive, and not a hindrance, to making significant matchups.

About Sean Nam 24 Articles
Sean Nam has written for The Cruelest Sport, Undisputed Champion Network, and The Sweet Science. His non-boxing writing has appeared in New Rambler Review, Slant Magazine, Atlas Obscura, Rain Taxi, Mubi Notebook, The Brooklyn Rail, and Cineaste. In 2017, he curated the Boxing on Film series for the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. He is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.