In the waning days of HBO Boxing, Dmitrii Bivol was promoted by the network as an emerging star, a knockout machine and a fighter ready to take on the best in boxing. Yet over time, the light heavyweight's luster dimmed. Prior to his upset victory earlier this year over Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, Bivol had squandered much of his earlier fanfare. While his manifold skills remained, the knockouts didn't, and without them his brand of technical mastery didn't appeal to certain corners of boxing fandom. Bivol was often criticized for being robotic, doing just enough to nick rounds, and not keeping his foot on the gas.
To those who doubted his prospects against elite competition, he provided a couple of data points to support that belief. In 2019, he was cracked late in a fight against Joe Smith and it took him well over a round to recover. In addition, after a long layoff due to the COVID pandemic, Bivol put forth a listless performance against Craig Richards, where Bivol almost squandered a sizable lead. Perhaps ring rust was to blame, or maybe his heart wasn't into the sport as it once was...or maybe, these are just some of the things that happen in boxing – fighters will get cracked from time to time and almost everyone has an off-night of some form.
But there's no denying that something has clicked for Bivol in 2022. Facing an elite talent in Canelo and a legitimate contender in Gilberto Ramirez, he's lost no more than a handful of rounds (ignore the official Canelo cards; they were absurd). Bivol was able to neutralize both opponents even though they possessed wildly divergent skill sets and strategies in the ring.
|Photo Courtesy of Mark Robinson|
Canelo tried to KO Bivol with single left hooks and right hands. He probably saw the Joe Smith fight and believed that he had the delivery system to land his best punches and take Bivol out. And even though Canelo was able to connect with a couple of those menacing power punches (a right uppercut in the fourth and a left hook in the 12th were two memorable shots), Bivol was able to take his power. Furthermore, Bivol dominated almost all of the rest of the action in the fight. As Canelo waited to throw, Bivol peppered him with shots – leads and counters, lefts and rights, it didn't matter.
When Canelo changed tactics, moving to the ropes to try to pick Bivol off when he was coming in, Bivol exhibited the same type of mastery. His hand speed was superior. He kept enough distance to remain defensively responsible, and his feet were almost always moving to reset the action. Canelo did have a Plan B, but it turned out to be just as feckless as Plan A; Bivol was that brilliant.
Ramirez's in-ring attributes differed significantly from Canelo's. Long, rangy, a southpaw, a fighter who liked to throw volume to the head or body, Ramirez could win in a variety of ways. Yet, Bivol confounded him. Bivol immediately targeted the wide gap between Ramirez's gloves, shooting quick counters down the middle. Bivol's output and accuracy forced Ramirez into indecision. By the end of the first third of the fight, Ramirez lacked confidence in throwing his best punches and no longer believed that he could have success as the aggressor. As a result, most of the fight was essentially a high-level technical boxing match from the outside, where Ramirez stood no chance against the better boxer with faster hands and superior accuracy.
And similar to the Canelo fight, Bivol didn't throw pitty-pat punches. He connected with hard hooks and right hands. In perhaps one of his best maneuvers, which was completely missed by the DAZN commentary team, Bivol would counter in the southpaw position with a straight left hand. Ramirez couldn't adjust to that move all fight. Ultimately, Bivol won nine or ten rounds of the fight and once again displayed his mastery in the ring.
Bivol has a very large toolkit, but he doesn't necessarily feature all of it against every opponent. For instance, there were occasions where he demonstrated his brilliance on the inside against Canelo, but against Ramirez he was rarely closer than mid-range. Yes, he sometimes doesn't sit down on his shots, but when he needed to against Canelo and Ramirez, he threw plenty of punches with spite. Bivol can do lots of things in the ring, but he has a belief in a certain type of domination that strips opponents of their hope. He wants to disparage and dissuade, and not do anything that could embolden them. Thus, some of his weapons will stay holstered given a particular matchup.
At the start of 2022, Bivol wasn't necessarily in anyone's plans to become one of the sport's dominant figures. He was seen as an inconvenient, tricky titleholder who could fail to inspire. But Bivol had his own designs for his future. Now he has demonstrated that he can shut down great fighters, but he's also far more than just a defensive wizard. That he was once considered a KO machine is now a quaint memory, but he has reminded us that he packs a punch. Don't let his smoothness in the ring or his mild temper out of it fool you; his fire burns. He wants the best and has proven that he isn't afraid of a modern-day legend or a popular fighter with an undefeated record.
Bivol's 2022 has changed the trajectory of his career. His bank accounts are much flusher, but seemingly more important to him, he is accomplishing his goals. He wants to measure up to the best of his era and build a legacy.
And to the boxing industry, Bivol once again matters. He is a problem, and because of his fantastic showing this year, it's now worth it to see if anyone can solve him. He is a great fighter, but he's also become important. Bivol has made the stars align.
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