Thursday, November 16, 2017

Showdown in the Light Heavyweight Division

Every now and then, a boxing division brims with a collection of impressive talents, featuring not just one or two potentially great fighters, but handfuls of hopefuls. This rare phenomenon is currently occurring in the 115-lb. division, where the likes of Inoue, Gonzalez, Srisaket, Estrada, Cuadras, Yafai, Ancajas and others are starting to battle for supremacy. 2018 promises to have a number of exciting fights within this grouping and boxing fans, and the industry as a whole, have started to take notice of a division usually reserved for deep undercard placements and off-TV fights in foreign lands. Suddenly, and almost without precedent, the boxing scene is looking forward with rapt attention to this assemblage of 115-lb. talents. 

Yes, the secret's out with the super flyweights, but perhaps by this time next year, the boxing world will feel similarly about another beleaguered weight class: the light heavyweight division. Unlike the super flyweights, the best at 175 lbs. have never had a problem gaining wide exposure in the sport, but there has been a generational issue with the lack of depth in the division. In the 20 years since Roy Jones won his first light heavyweight title, there have seldom been more than two top-tier talents fighting in the division at the same time. A quick glance at some of the names over the past two decades yields some impressive talents: Jones, Michalczewski (if you are so inclined) Tarver, Hopkins, Dawson, Kovalev and Ward. However, there's little depth behind that. I might like Montell Griffin or Glen Johnson as much as the next guy, but no one has ever confused either one with a great fighter. 

With Andre Ward's retirement earlier this year, the light heavyweight division (as well as his three title belts) has been opened up to an impressive collection of contenders. In similar scenarios – like what is happening in the junior welterweight division as a result of Terence Crawford moving up to welterweight – often the belts will wind up being disseminated to significantly lesser talents. But in the light heavyweight division, there are a number of intriguing candidates who could emerge as the alpha dog. Perhaps more importantly, the process of finding out who will be the number one guy will be loads of fun. In addition, these light heavyweights aren't just cuties; almost all are certified bangers. Boxing fans should be in for quite a treat if these talents meet in the ring. 

Before we fully start to salivate over the potentialities in the division, now should be the time for the obligatory reminder about the politics of boxing, promotional turfs, network difficulties and uncooperative fighters that often can deprive the sport of the best matches in a given weight class. (Adonis Stevenson somehow encapsulates or has represented all of these issues, what a guy.) But for now, let's speculate; let's dream. Let's discuss who could possibly emerge as the best light heavyweight.

It's July of 2018 and the World Boxing Super Series has just completed its successful inaugural set of tournaments, crowning Oleksandr Usyk and Chris Eubank Jr. as the winners of the Muhammad Ali Trophy. A newsflash comes across the boxing wires: the light heavyweight division will be selected for the 2017-2018 tournament; boxing fans rejoice and immediately start to speculate on whom will enter. 

What follows below are the eight fighters whom I would want in that tournament. Yes, it's certainly possible that not all will enter, so I'll include a couple of alternates. 

The Top Four Seeds: 

1. Sergey Kovalev
2. Adonis Stevenson
3. Dmitry Bivol
4. Artur Beterbiev

The Next Four 

Badou Jack
Oleksandr Gvozdyk
Sullivan Barrera
Eleider Alvarez


Marcus Browne
Joe Smith Jr. 

Let me make a quick note on the seeding. It's clear from how the WBSS ranked the super middleweight division that current champions were seeded higher than non-title holders, regardless of potential or quality. Thus, Bivol and Beterbiev, who currently hold belts, will most likely be seeded in the top-four, irrespective of talent. 

As you can see, just the first round of this hypothetical tournament provides mouth-watering possibilities. Let's say the initial fights are as follows: Kovalev-Alvarez, Stevenson-Barrera, Bivol-Jack and Beterbiev-Gvozdyk (the top four seeds get to pick their opponents). Already, in just the opening matchups, we'll see fireworks a plenty. 

However, for the rest of this article, I'm not interested in predicting the outcomes of hypothetical matchups but I want to provide some additional depth on these fighters. A few in this group are household names to fight fans (Kovalev, Stevenson) while others are just starting to get known (Gvozdyk and Bivol). Below I'll list for each fighter some biographical information, descriptions of their style and strengths and weaknesses. 

Sergey Kovalev 
Record: 30-2-1 (26 KOs)
Age: 34
Country: Russia
Stance: Orthodox
Current Title: None
Next Fight: Nov. 25 against Vyacheslav Shabranskyy (for the vacant WBO title)
Style: A come-forward stalker with one of the best one-two's in the sport. 
Strengths: Straight right hand, jab.
Weaknesses: Mental temperament, out-of-the ring issues, conditioning.

Kovalev, a former unified champ in the division, lost his last two fights to Andre Ward; both featured their share of controversy. A clear majority of fight fans believed that Kovalev won their first fight. He earned a knockdown early in the match and controlled most of the bout's first half. The second fight was ruled a knockout for Ward despite Andre landing several low blows in the concluding salvo. With a more sympathetic ref, perhaps Kovalev gets time to recover in the ring and is allowed to keep fighting. Nevertheless, Kovalev was getting smacked around late in the fight and his conditioning was poor. 

Kovalev will have the opportunity to reclaim one of his former belts later this month against Shabranskyy, and he certainly should win that fight. Despite Kovalev's conditioning flaws and perhaps a lack of creativity, he is still one of the best knockout punchers in the sport and is capable of stopping anyone in the division. However, Kovalev hasn't lived a Spartan lifestyle out of the ring and he's in the middle of a trainer switch. If he's right, he's still a threat to anyone in the division and would probably be the favorite to win the tournament among this pool of fighters (keep in mind that bookies and gamblers often like known quantities). But can he recover from his losses? Will he acknowledge that he still has a lot to learn in the sport? Or will his arrogance and a desire to cut corners be his downfall?

Adonis Stevenson
Record: 29-1 (24 KOs)
Age: 40
Country: Canada by way of Haiti
Stance: Southpaw
Current Title: WBC, lineal king of the division
Next Fight: N/A
Style: An athletic, aggressive southpaw with one of the best left hands in boxing.  
Strengths: Straight left hand, left hook, jab, hand speed. 
Weaknesses: Chin, age, out-of-the-ring temperament.

Adonis Stevenson has been the WBC light heavyweight champion for over four years and has somehow found a way not to fight the two best talents in the division during that time frame, Kovalev and Ward. He's even avoided his mandatory challenger, Eleider Alvarez, for well over a year. Stevenson's victim list does include credible fighters like Andrzej Fonfara and Tony Bellew, but it's also composed of lesser talents like Dmitry Sukhotsky and Tommy Karpency. In truth, it would be a wild stretch to assume that Stevenson would enter a tournament like this one. He's already turned down significant offers and chances to prove his greatness. 

But let's say that Stevenson by some stroke of fancy decides to put it on the line. He's still a formidable fighter. His left hand can end anyone. In the ring, he appears to be a frontrunner. If one of the bangers from this group can survive the early rounds, Stevenson could be in real trouble. In addition, age has to catch up with Stevenson at some point. Very few fighters are major factors in their 40s. Can Stevenson put together three strong performances in a row at such an advanced age? 

Dmitry Bivol
Record: 12-0 (10 KOs)
Age: 26
Country: Russia by way Kyrgyzstan
Stance: Orthodox
Current Title: WBA
Next Fight: N/A
Style: Power puncher with excellent balance and punch technique.
Strengths: Multiple power punches, footwork, balance, punch placement. 
Weaknesses: Lack of professional rounds, weak competition.

A Russian amateur champion with an astounding record of 268-15 before turning pro, Bivol has recently emerged on the world level. He features ferocious punching power. His sterling boxing technique belies his 12 professional fights. With Bivol there's no wasted motion. Every punch has a purpose and he moves with a singular focus. He seemingly can knock people out without even landing his hardest shots. 

Despite Bivol's auspicious start in the pro ranks, there are still a number of unanswered questions regarding his ascension in light heavyweight division. What happens when someone can take his punch? Can he go 12 rounds? What is his defense like? As of now, much of this is speculation but Bivol certainly possesses the power and fundamentals to capture the imagination of the boxing public.

Artur Beterbiev
Record: 12-0 (12 KOs)
Age: 32
Country: Canada by way of Russia
Stance: Orthodox
Current Title: IBF
Next Fight: N/A
Style: A power puncher with a huge right hand. Not necessarily a top athlete but he is very good at applying pressure and cutting off the ring. 
Strengths: Punching power, right hand.
Weaknesses: Lack of professional rounds and experience, out-of-the-ring promotional problems.

Because of injuries and promotional issues, Beterbiev has only fought three times in the past 18 months. At 32, much of his prime has been wasted. Beterbiev turned in a listless performance against Enrico Koelling last Saturday. He threw very few combinations, didn't apply his customary pressure and displayed a curious lack of urgency. Although he won practically every round before stopping Koelling in the 12th, it was perhaps his worst outing as a professional. Beterbiev is embroiled in a lawsuit against his promoter, Yvon Michel. It's certainly possible that the out-of-the-ring drama played a role in his sub-optimal performance. There's also no sense of when he might fight next. We'll know more after his legal proceedings are complete. 

At his best, Beterbiev, a decorated amateur, obliterates opponents with his menacing right hand. However, like Bivol, he hasn't had the competition or experience with those at the top of the division. He's not the most athletic in this group and could struggle with boxers and movers. His punch will keep him in every fight but he doesn't seem to have the same fluidity of Bivol at this point in their respective careers. 

Badou Jack
Record: 22-1-2 (13 KOs)
Age: 34
Country: USA by way of Sweden
Stance: Orthodox
Current Title: None, although recently had a lesser WBA belt
Next Fight: N/A
Style: An aggressive banger who comes on later in fights. Jack applies tremendous pressure and wears down opponents in the second half.  
Strengths: Physicality, toughness, self-belief, inside fighting, body punching.
Weaknesses: Slow-starter, straight-line fighter, can be outworked early.

A little more than three years ago, Jack was an afterthought at the top levels of boxing. Having been iced be unheralded Derek Edwards in the first round, Jack was dismissed as a Mayweather Promotions hypejob. Well, Jack has proved his doubters wrong. He became a super middleweight champ and defeated George Groves in a notable fight. Earlier this year he fought to a spirited draw against fellow titleholder James DeGale. He subsequently moved up to light heavyweight and knocked out former champ Nathan Cleverly.

Jack appears to be at his ideal weight at light heavyweight. Although he's not the biggest puncher in this group, he certainly possesses the heavy artillery to threaten opponents. Jack's relentless dedication to body punching pays dividends as fights progress and few boxers are capable of mixing it up with him on the inside. Jack can be outworked on the outside and he can drop early rounds. Still, he's no one's idea of a picnic.

Oleksandr Gvozdyk
Record: 14-0 (12 KOs)
Age: 30
Country: Ukraine
Stance: Orthodox
Current Title: None
Next Fight: N/A
Style: An athletic boxer-puncher with great feet and rhythm in the ring. He's very tricky to time and throws unconventional combinations.  
Strengths: Athleticism, movement, punch variety, intelligence.
Weaknesses: Can be caught coming in and out. Takes a lot of risks in the ring. 

Gvozdyk announced himself on the world stage with impressive stoppages of Isaac Chilemba and Yunieski Gonzalez. A former Olympic medalist, Gvozdyk has a strong amateur pedigree and a unique pro-style. His legs make him very tricky to time and his ring generalship separates him from others in this pool of fighters. He can get a tad overconfident in the ring and he has learned to respect his opponents better. He moves so much in-and-out that he can leave himself vulnerable to long or sweeping shots. Still, his athleticism and unique ring style will present problems for the top fighters in the division. 

Sullivan Barrera
Record: 20-1 (14 KOs)
Age: 35
Country: USA by way of Cuba
Stance: Orthodox
Current Title: None
Next Fight: Nov. 25 against Felix Valera
Style: A boxer-puncher who is physical, crafty and also a little chinny. 
Strengths: Jab, right hand, physicality.
Weaknesses: Chin, defense during exchanges.

Barrera is an exciting fighter who has won a war against Shabranskyy (Kovalev's next opponent) and got off the canvas to defeat Joe Smith Jr. Last year he was overmatched against Andre Ward but against mere mortals, he has looked threatening. Barrera has good fundamentals. He features a nice double jab and a sneaky right hand. He can go to the body and he can display a good uppercut. Barrera likes to trade a little bit too much for his own good. Although he has the requisite toughness of a champion, his chin might not be at the same level. Expect him to engage in a few more shootouts against the better talent in the division. He could KO or get himself KO'ed against any top fighter. 

Eleider Alvarez
Record: 23-0 (11 KOs)
Age: 33
Country: Canada by way of Colombia
Stance: Orthodox
Current Title: None
Next Fight: N/A
Style: A boxer with tons of talent, athleticism and tools who can sleepwalk through portions of a fight.  
Strengths: Jab, left hook, combination punching, poise.
Weaknesses: Fights at one speed, can display a lack of urgency and focus. 

In any given round, Alvarez can look like an elite fighter. His jab can be a piston. He throws pinpoint combinations. His defense is sharp. He can hit opponents at will. However, keep watching. Suddenly, listlessness sets in. His punch volume drops. Guys he was comprehensively beating suddenly get off with their punches. He can be a maddening fighter. 

If you look at Alvarez's record, you'll already see two majority decisions that wound up going in his favor. Stuck in limbo as Adonis Stevenson's mandatory, Alvarez hasn't had many opportunities to face top fighters. There's a sense that he fights up or down to the level of his competition. If that's the case, then he can be a dark horse in this hypothetical tournament. But perhaps a more pressing problem for him is putting 12 consistent rounds together. 


Marcus Browne
Record: 20-0 (15 KOs)
Age: 27
Country: USA
Stance: Southpaw
Current Title: None
Next Fight: N/A
Style: An athletic, aggressive boxer-puncher who can be undisciplined in the ring, leaving himself open for counters 
Strengths: Straight left hand, hand speed, offensive temperament
Weaknesses: Defensive flaws, can be caught admiring his work, doesn't get out of the pocket fast enough. 

In Browne's most notable fight, he was lucky to score a victory against Radivoje Kalajdzic. In truth, he should've lost but sympathetic officials helped preserve his undefeated record. He rebounded nicely from that performance by knocking out Thomas Williams Jr. and Seanie Monaghan. Browne possesses the hand speed and power to trouble fighters in the upper echelon of the division. However, he also will give them opportunities. He tries to draw every fight into a shoot-out. He throws punches from wide angles and can be countered fairly easily. He also doesn't seem to have a high Ring IQ. When he needed a Plan B against Kalajdzic, one wasn't readily available. 

Joe Smith Jr.
Record: 23-2 (19 KOs)
Age: 28
Country: USA
Stance: Orthodox
Current Title: None
Next Fight: N/A
Style: A heavy-handed puncher who can be very basic in the ring.  
Strengths: Right hand, toughness, understands his strengths and weaknesses as a fighter.
Weaknesses: Athleticism, lack of creativity in the ring. 

Smith had memorable knockouts of Andrzej Fonfara and Bernard Hopkins in 2016. However, the party ended in 2017 against Sullivan Barrera. After knocking down Barrera in the first round, Smith struggled throughout the rest of the fight and wound up having his jaw broken. Smith possesses a strong right hand and he understands rudimentary boxing fundamentals. However, he's not a natural fighter. His hand speed is average and his offensive forays can be predictable. Still, his right hand is a real weapon. An opponent has to neutralize that punch to beat him. 


Ultimately, this light heavyweight tournament would bring excitement to the sport. Unlike the current WBSS contests, American TV networks most likely would jump to televise this pool of fighters. With the exception of Alvarez, all of the boxers mentioned have knockout ratios of over 50%. The tournament would promise ferocious power punching and memorable knockouts. In the real world, it's unlikely that all eight of the featured fighters would accept this invitation. But suppose all except Stevenson do? Even if only five or six of the top eight participate, that's still an exceptional tournament. 

It's possible that a full light heavyweight tournament fails to materialize. However, even if matches are kept in-house, that still could provide excitement. Imagine Kovalev-Bivol on HBO, Stevenson-Jack on Showtime or Beterbiev-Gvozdyk on ESPN. Those are all must-see fights. Essentially, even with minimal cooperation between networks and promoters, some great fights could happen with relative ease. 

But let's hope for the best. Here's wishing that the powers that be in boxing realize the depth and talent in the division. If everyone decided to play nice with each other, something truly special could happen. Yes, often we wear our skeptical hats as we follow the sport. It protects us from the cynicism and falsehoods which are all too common in boxing. But let's remove our caps for just a brief instance and imagine how exciting such a tournament could be. We're on the precipice of a golden age in the light heavyweight division. For today, let's luxuriate on those possibilities before the cold realities of the sport attempt to interfere.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of
He's a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.

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