A pound of flesh.
That famous Shakespearean phrase from "The Merchant of Venice" raced through my mind as I watched Artur Beterbiev's performance against Oleksandr Gvozdyk from ringside on Friday. Sure, Gvozdyk scored points early in the fight and may have gotten the better of individual exchanges, but in many of those moments Beterbiev was still able to connect with a thudding right to the body or a right over the top. Beterbiev did lose some early rounds; however, he was unceasing in exacting his pound of flesh.
Beterbiev had bricks in his hands and a massive advantage in punching power. In the ninth round Gvozdyk started to succumb to the body assault, bending over from the waist, looking for any reason to clinch, hold or delay the proceedings. By the tenth round, he couldn't withstand the onslaught any further. Taking a knee three times in the round, he submitted. The weight of all of those pounds of flesh had accumulated, and Beterbiev would exit the Philadelphia night as a unified light heavyweight titlist and one of boxing's supreme destructive forces.
|Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams/Top Rank|
I'm not sure what more Gvozdyk could have done without having made radical changes to his style. He boxed well at different stages of the fight. He used angles and turned Beterbiev. He successfully limited Beterbiev's offense throughout a lot of the first eight rounds. Perhaps Gvozdyk could have thrown an uppercut more frequently. Beterbiev would bend his head forward after connecting on counter shots; the uppercut was there for him. Maybe Gvozdyk could have played hit-and-run.
But to win the fight and not just survive, Gvozdyk had to hold his ground and fight, even if doing so selectively. And although he's a solid puncher, and landed several of his best rights during the match, his power just couldn't compare. Beterbiev's missiles, even if they were sparse in number, had their desired impact.
Power is the great equalizer in boxing. Gvozdyk had greater hand and foot speed. He possessed a more comprehensive arsenal of punches. He was a better combination puncher. But ultimately it was power and not the myriad check marks on a head-to-head comparison that proved to be the difference.
Don't let the "skills pay the bills" crowd off the hook. Skills are nice, and often they are separators in title fights. But elite skills don't guarantee victory. In the round-robin of boxing styles, no one ring style consistently wins. And on Friday it was power that reigned supreme.
This is not to suggest that Beterbiev is a one-dimensional crude banger. Much of his work on Friday was a product of solid training and expert execution. He landed short left hooks in between Gvozdyk's gloves because there was a small gap in Gvozdyk's glove positioning; Beterbiev exploited that opening. In addition, the right hand counters to the top of the head were unfurled with little hesitation. It was clear that those particular punches had been drilled into him leading up to the fight. Beterbiev and his team saw that Gvozdyk took fractionally longer than needed to return his hands to a defensively responsible position. Also, Beterbiev fired those right hands to the body because they were available. He capitalized on that opportunity.
Let's also take a moment to credit Beterbiev for his chin and conditioning. Gvozdyk connected with his best right hands in the third, fifth and eighth rounds. They did affect Beterbiev, but not enough to knock him down, or even make him revise his game plan. Beterbiev, who had previously been dropped twice in his career, had no issues with his chin on Friday.
In addition, even in many of the rounds that Gvozdyk won, Beterbiev was the fighter who closed more authoritatively in those frames. His overall performance in the fight was not just based on power. He was only able to execute his game plan and withstand Gvozdyk's offensive firepower because he was in such fantastic shape.
Beterbiev might not have done anything particularly flashy on Friday, but he didn't need to. He stayed within himself. He didn't panic after failing to dominate the early portions of the fight. Like a seasoned pro he paced himself and didn't burn himself out trying to force a knockout.
Artur deserves further credit for putting forth that type of performance against the best opponent of his career. Gvozdyk is no Enrico Koelling. He's one of the best at light heavyweight and presented Beterbiev with a series of problems early in the fight. And in Beterbiev's previous 14 bouts, he had rarely been tested, especially in the second half of a match. (In fact, Friday's fight was only the second time Beterbiev had to go past seven rounds.)
|Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams/Top Rank|
There sometimes exists a tendency in boxing for fighters and their trainers to overthink a game plan when preparing for a big fight, to change what had worked previously. Beterbiev never had faced an opponent with Gvozdyk's versatility and skill level. Yet Beterbiev and head trainer Marc Ramsay went the other way in their fight preparation. They further simplified the game plan: Take what's available, focus on two or three specific types of shots, and trust the power.
Ramsay has helped to engineer a number of huge wins at light heavyweight, such as Jean Pascal over Chad Dawson, Eleider Alvarez against Sergey Kovalev and now Beterbiev’s performance over Gvozdyk. He has an acute understanding of opponents and uses their fighting styles against them. He studied Dawson's passivity, Kovalev's problems with his gas tank and Gvozdyk's predilection for combination punching. Each of these opponents presented unique problems and opportunities, and like a grand chess master Ramsay figured out how to exploit weaknesses, or even perceived strengths.
Ultimately Beterbiev and Ramsay used Gvozdyk's strengths against him. Yes, Oleksandr would land flashy three-punch combinations, but those moments also provided opportunities for Beterbiev to counter with something big. Gvozdyk's trainer, Teddy Atlas, noted in the lead up to the fight that they can't be too greedy, that giving a puncher too many opportunities was a problem. And perhaps in hindsight Gvozdyk may have fallen victim to this just a little too often.
Gvozdyk mostly fought his fight, in the style in which he was accustomed to. He was up on two of the cards prior to the 10th round (I also had him up one point at that juncture). To win Saturday's match perhaps he needed to fight in a radically different manner. Perhaps one shot and get out of the pocket. Maybe back-footing Beterbiev with pot-shots. However, those adjustments would have involved massive changes, which may have caused even greater problems for a fighter not used to that style. Gvozdyk competed on Friday, he performed well. He was just bettered.
Beterbiev now emerges as the top fighter at light heavyweight and I'm not sure too many top guys in the division will be rushing to face that version of hell. On one hand he's at the advanced age of 34, but consider that he's only had 15 pro fights and so few opponents have been able to push him. He certainly could have a few years at the top of the division.
But whatever happens throughout the rest of his career, and even if he's unable to land another unification match at 175 lbs., the boxing world now fully grasps his devastating dimensions. He's a problem, a killer. He's destruction incarnate. And he waits for the next brave man.
Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com. He's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
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