A fighter’s appearance can project his menace. Think Tyson, gold tooth glinting through his snarls, neck so thick his head seemed mounted at the earlobes; think Duran, the ferine fire burning in his predatory stare; or prime George Foreman, his aura so chilling his opponents could see their breath. IBF light-heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev has a touch of that. Dark brows, darker eyes, a shambolic beard arranged around a nose flattened by decades in a rough trade. Beterbiev is a hard man; at least he looks it. And the fourteen men who comprise Beterbiev’s professional record, none of whom have survived to the final bell, are likely to endorse that impression.
The features of Oleksandr Gvozdyk, who faces Beterbiev in a light-heavyweight unification fight from the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia on Friday, reveal no such evil. Light eyes, cheeks retaining their youthful plumpness, a quick and disarming smile searching for approval—all effect a charming puerility in the WBC light-heavyweight champion’s expression. If there is any teasing amongst that Ukrainian troupe of Gvozdyk, Vasiliy Lomachenko, and Oleksandr Usyk, bet that Gvozdyk is the victim of it; he looks like the easiest target.
Looks can be deceiving, though. In the ring, Gvozdyk, 17-0 (14), has never been victimized, and Beterbiev will need more than a mean mug and a reputation to relieve “The Nail” of his title.
That title is one Gvozdyk, Kharkiv, Ukraine, won the right way. In November 2017, Beterbiev picked up a vacant belt at the Save Mart Arena in Fresno, California (the arena name apropos of Beterbiev’s achievement). He stopped Enrico Koelling, a fighter with only two recognizable names on his ledger: Tomas Adamek (but not that Tomasz Adamek) and Robert Mueller (but not that Robert Mueller). It was a fight intended to do little more than furnish Beterbiev with some red-leather leverage.
Gvozdyk meanwhile, invaded Quebec City last December and crushed long-standing champion Adonis Stevenson. Stevenson, who spent time in a medically-induced coma following the fight, met a violent undoing and legitimized Gvozdyk in the process. Moreover, Stevenson proved the much-ridiculed Gvozdyk‒Teddy Atlas pairing fruitful. Atlas may have worn out his welcome among aficionados after years of shouting bizarre metaphors during ESPN’s Friday Night Fights series, and it has been ages since his penchant for angling himself into the fighter’s spotlight has escaped criticism. He showed Gvozdyk how to nullify Stevenson’s third-rail left hand, though. No small feat, that—flying a kite in a thunderstorm. Moreover, he earned Gvozdyk’s trust, such that even when hurt, Gvozdyk stared down the danger he’d been trained to risk. If Beterbiev is what he appears to be, Gvozdyk will need Atlas at his best again.
Stevenson had ghastly power, something Beterbiev hasn’t proved because he hasn’t had to—it takes a world-class fighter to confirm such things and Beterbiev faces his first one on Friday. Even if he lacks Stevenson’s atomizing snap, however, Beterbiev, Khasavyurt, Russia, is undeniably a bruiser. With power in both hands, the kind that lingers at the point of impact, “Arthur debilitates people when he hits them,” said assistant trainer John Scully. “When he hits them, they just lose it.” Indeed, even the punches he misses seem to have a percussive quality to them, a whooshing that betrays their defeaturing potential. There are no quick rounds with Beterbiev, only short ones should he find the way to your chin, and it will take all of Gvozdyk’s discipline to temper the wolverine.
Whether he can do so isn’t clear; thankfully; little about this fight is. While the two fought as amateurs in 2009, a fight Beterbiev won by second-round stoppage, Gvozdyk admits that he “was not ready for that fight—neither mentally nor physically.” Gvozdyk also had a broken nose when he fought Beterbiev, at the time an older, more experienced and decorated amateur champion. It’s difficult, then, to draw too many conclusions from an amateur fight fought under extenuating circumstances ten years ago.
But could Beterbiev stop Gvozdyk in two rounds again? Possibly. Gvozdyk negotiated Stevenson’s power effectively, but he could get caught early, and Beterbiev is not the kind of fighter to let an opponent off the hook—certainly not in the biggest fight of his young career. And while Beterbiev, already thirty-four, is two years older than Gvozdyk, the version of Stevenson that Gvozdyk felled was forty-one and coming off a grueling draw against Badou Jack. Beterbiev could be the best opponent of Gvozdyk’s career.
Might Gvozdyk—by some distance the best fighter he’s faced as a professional—fold Beterbiev early? Certainly. We don’t yet know whether Beterbiev can take the kind of power Gvozdyk did against Stevenson. He’s also hit the canvas early against fighters nowhere near Gvozdyk’s level. A momentary carelessness in the first round of his 2014 fight against Jeff Page Jr. left Beterbiev on his trunks. He explained away the knockdown, saying, “I felt a bit sleepy before the fight. I think I just lost my concentration for a fraction of a second.” If Beterbiev loses his concentration against Gvozdyk, further sleepiness awaits. A year ago, Callum Johnson dropped Beterbiev hard with a counter hook. Beterbiev’s fighting arrogance, his belief that he needn’t land clean to hurt his opponent, played a role in both knockdowns and, it should be noted, the stoppages he scored when he regained his feet. It will be interesting to see how that arrogance factors Friday, should Gvozdyk not only withstand Beterbiev’s assault but reciprocate.
Carnage seems imminent in a fight between two titlists with a combined 91 percent knockout rate—and if Beterbiev is going to have success, he should tempt it. Gvozdyk moves too well, is too disciplined, too precise, to be allowed to set the pace and distance. Even Beterbiev’s bloodthirsty best might not keep him from getting turned and tamed for twelve rounds (or less). Even that, though, would be a spectacle of sorts. You needn’t deliver violence to produce intrigue so long as the threat of that violence is genuine and persistent. Still, the likelihood that either fighter is good enough to nullify the other completely is slim as the margin for error either permits. In short, someone is likely getting stretched.
Which means there will be one less light heavyweight champion Saturday morning. And in his stead, a unified champion who became one the right way.