In the 29 years that Artur Beterbiev has been boxing, he has suffered just a single cut of any significance: a serpent-shaped gash, about 3 inches long, that squiggled upward from his brow toward his hairline.
As there’s little fatty tissue on the forehead — actually, I’m not sure Beterbiev has fatty tissue — closing the laceration during combat was an impossibility. It leaked in a steady drip, the kind for which you might call a plumber. Before long, everything was shaded in crimson: Beterbiev; his opponent, the dangerous Marcus Browne, who seems to have a knack for opening these kinds of wounds; the referee Michael Griffin; and the ring itself, which came to resemble the grisliest kind of crime scene.
What happened in the fourth round that night — Dec. 17, 2021 — provided the kind of test for which no fighter can prepare. Usually, a fighter will look to the ref first. (In Beterbiev’s case, it’s worth noting, the fight could’ve been declared a “no contest” if it was stopped before four rounds were completed.) Then, upon returning to his corner, he then tries to read the trainer and cutman. Because it’s human nature to seek reassurance, especially in times of hemorrhage, cornermen will typically lie: It’s not bad at all. With Beterbiev already covered in blood, however, that wasn’t really an option.
“This was a cut you couldn’t control,” says Luc-Vincent Ouellet, who was pressed into service when Beterbiev’s regular cutman, Russ Anber, tested positive for COVID-19.
Not that it bothered Beterbiev. “Guys cut that bad are usually looking for somebody to stop the fight,” says John Scully, an assistant in the Beterbiev camp. “They come back and ask, ‘Is it bad?’ or ‘How’s it look?’ But Artur didn’t say anything. I mean, nothing. No expression.
“I’ve never seen that before.”
Likely, he’ll never see it again. Beterbiev, who defends his three light heavyweight belts against his mandatory challenger — the formidable Anthony Yarde from England — in London on Saturday, isn’t merely unique by virtue of power and temperament. He’s the most egregiously undermentioned champion in boxing. He has 18 knockouts in 18 pro fights. Per Compubox, he’s boxing’s second-longest reigning world champion after Errol Spence Jr., and its second-oldest after Gennadiy Golovkin. Still, those numbers fall short as descriptors. When Golovkin was 38, as Beterbiev is now, he was already in decline. No shame in that — it’s human nature — but Beterbiev appears to be peaking.
In June, it was a second-round knockout of the WBO champion, Joe Smith Jr. Before that, Browne. Beterbiev bled for five more rounds that night, until Browne finally dropped to a knee from which he refused to rise until the ref had safely counted ten. Apart from the blood, though, it was the typical Beterbiev win: a slow-tightening noose, strangulation masquerading as destruction.
Beterbiev got a late start in the pro game. After competing in two Olympics for Russia, he was recruited by Marc Ramsay, a Canadian trainer who had devised an ingenuous scouting system to find medal-less Olympians who’d win professional titles. All of them, as it turned out, were light heavyweights. First Canada’s Jean Pascal, then Colombia’s Eleider Alvarez, now Beterbiev. Ramsay had been a 16-year-old right winger looking to get in shape when he first stepped foot into a boxing gym. Now, he was a kingmaker.
Unlike many of boxing’s kingmakers, however, his ego remained of this earth. In 2016, Beterbiev asked that a former pro be added as an assistant trainer. Another trainer wouldn’t have agreed. But Ramsay called on “Iceman” John Scully, a former contender at light heavyweight and fixture on the U.S. boxing scene since the 1980s. Ramsay remembered the sparring work Scully had given Pascal and the way Scully had trained Chad Dawson for his victory over Bernard Hopkins.
They’re an odd couple, Beterbiev and the Iceman. Scully lives and breathes boxing. Beterbiev, he says, “probably doesn’t know who, like, Spence is.” Beterbiev is circumspect, Sphinx-like, a devout Muslim Chechen from the Russian republic of Dagestan. Scully is exuberant and American.
They started perfecting Beterbiev’s jab and then the body shots, a much-neglected part of the amateur game. For a guy who wasn’t much of a boxing nerd, though, Beterbiev was completely dedicated to the task. He displayed an unnatural capacity for concentration. Even more unnatural, at least in Scully’s experience, were the sparring partners.
“We’ve had guys literally counting the days to go home,” says Scully. “They wanted the money, but didn’t want to absorb that power. You ask them to describe it, they just shake their heads. And we tell them all beforehand: ‘Hey, don’t be a hero.'”
Still, it wasn’t necessarily the power that got to them; it was the pressure, power combined with a frightening patience. “Sparring partners would say he makes you feel like you’re suffocating,” Scully continues. “It’s like he sucks all the air out of the room, but you’re still in there with no oxygen.”
It’s just sparring, of course. But that’s how Browne went down. Blood or no blood, Browne lasted until he couldn’t last anymore. Same for Oleksandr Gvozdyk, an Olympic silver medalist from the vaunted Ukrainian national team, a fighter who knocked out the much-feared Adonis Stevenson to win his title. Though Gvozdyk was ahead on points at the time of the stoppage, the outcome somehow felt inexorable. During the ninth round Scully noticed the way Gvozdyk came out of a clinch: “He sagged. Like, I could see him melt. Artur came back to the corner, I told him, ‘He’s ready. It’s time.'”
Gvozdyk, a fine and courageous fighter, took a knee three times in that tenth round.
More apparently atypical was the knockout of Smith. “Smith knocked out a lot of good guys,” says Scully, “But he was perfect for Artur. People don’t understand. That fight wasn’t a demolition. It was a dissection.”
“You can’t match Artur’s power, so people think he’s just a banger. But he’s really a technician. He actually took his time in that fight. He let Smith come to him. Then he started turning him, pulling him into punches, grabbing his right elbow, running him into right uppercuts. That’s the refined stuff people don’t see.”
A perfect record doesn’t make you a perfect fighter, though. Beterbiev, who can make himself a square target, is hittable. He has been knocked down twice, in 2014 and 2018, each time early in the fight. That would seem Yarde’s best chance: catching him hard and early. Then again, how’d that work out for Smith?
“Artur cuts off the ring better than anyone in boxing today,” Scully says. “Remember ‘Pac-Man’ the video game? He’s like that. He follows you everywhere you go. Then all of a sudden, he stops and makes, say, a left, knowing where you want to go. Then you stop.”
“Remember Pac-Man the video game? He’s like that. He follows you everywhere you go. Then all of a sudden, he stops and makes, say, a left, knowing where you want to go. Then you stop.”
Then he eats you.
Scully doesn’t think Yarde, who tired in a 2019 11th-round knockout loss to Sergey Kovalev, will be ready for the pace. That Yarde is the WBO mandatory makes perfect sense to Scully: “Nobody on earth wants to fight Artur. You only fight him because you have to.”
Actually, there may be a single exception, and he happens to be 2022’s fighter of the year. Dmitry Bivol, coming off wins over Canelo Alvarez and Gilberto Ramirez, was Russia’s rising star when Beterbiev last fought for the national team. If Beterbiev beats Yarde, it’s a fight both men say they want.
“Dmitry has asked for the fight,” says his manager, Vadim Kornilov. “We’re just waiting to see what happens. Money is very important. But this is a big, big legacy fight.”
Bivol, undefeated in 21 pro fights, isn’t the biggest or most powerful at 175 pounds. But he’s easily the best boxer, with a sleek, confident style. His past eight victories, against some of the biggest punchers in the division, have been by unanimous decision. That’s something to root for, then: Beterbiev and Bivol for the undisputed light heavyweight championship. It may not become the splatter film some fans secretly wish for. But it’s as good a pure fight as there is in the sport, with two very different types of technicians: one who typically goes the distance and one who does not, each possessed of a frightening patience.