Sunday, January 14, 2024

On Beterbiev

A boxing friend of mine, Arran McLachlan, reached out in early 2014 to tell me how excited he was about this emerging Montreal-based Russian prospect, Artur Beterbiev. I think at that point Beterbiev was 4-0 and fighting six-rounders. Arran insisted that Beterbiev, who was an Olympian, had a style that would play spectacularly in the pros and expected him to become a world champion at light heavyweight. Now all of this sounded a little outlandish or fanciful to me, but Arran, like myself, wasn't someone who often fell in love with boxing prospects. He saw something special in Beterbiev and I noted that. So, I studied up on Beterbiev. 

And then I made a classic mistake in fighter evaluation: focusing too much on what a fighter couldn't do, instead of what could make him special. I immediately noticed Beterbiev's slow hands, ponderous footwork and lack of athleticism. Those were big red flags to me, as they would be if I had been evaluating any prospect. Although I observed his heavy hands, his ability to fire off damaging punches at close range and how ordinary-looking blows wound up brutalizing an opponent, those factors weren't enough to sway me regarding Beterbiev's future. 

I relayed my scouting report to Arran, the good and the bad, and although Arran is significantly younger than me, he treated ME with kid gloves. He was essentially saying to me, just you wait...I understand all your concerns and he will address them in due time. Arran again reminded me that Beterbiev was an excellent amateur in the punch-counting system, where a person’s power didn't carry any additional favor from the judges. Ultimately, he believed that Beterbiev had significant craft to go along with his substantial power. I remained unmoved. 

Later in 2014, Beterbiev was dropped in a flash knockdown by Jeff Page, a club fighter from Kansas. In truth, it was more of a slip/foot entanglement issue than a legit punch, but I used that opportunity to mock Arran. I can still remember the glee in those messages that I had sent to him. I questioned Arran's judgment. I was convinced by my own eyes. That Beterbiev stopped Page in two rounds was immaterial to me. 

And yet here we are, ten years later. Beterbiev is now among the best fighters in the sport, with three title belts at 175 lbs. and eight championship defenses. Arran and I were still exchanging messages about Beterbiev on Saturday as Artur was on his way to knocking out Callum Smith. But this time there was no pushback from me. I was reveling in the quality of Beterbiev's performance, just like Arran was. 

Beterbiev's jab was a key weapon against Smith
Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams

Now, it must be said that much has changed with Beterbiev in the previous ten years. He has continued to add to his game. He out-jabbed Smith on Saturday, which was quite an accomplishment considering that he was shorter and had a significant reach disadvantage. However, he was the one controlling the action with the stick, pumping it to the head and body, and using it as a clever counter. 

The first knockdown of the fight started with a vicious counter right hand by Beterbiev, where he slipped the jab and came over the top with the short right to the side of Smith's head. It was a similar maneuver to how he had initially hurt Joe Smith. And it's now obvious watching Beterbiev that he has become far more than just a brute slugger with heavy hands.

Beterbiev's lead trainer, Marc Ramsay, has played a huge role in Beterbiev's technical development. Having interviewed Ramsay twice over the years about Beterbiev, the trainer has always praised Beterbiev's boxing skills. Here's Ramsay in 2022: 

"You know what’s fun about being the trainer of Artur is that he’s a very good boxer and he can do a little bit of everything. He can box. He can put pressure. He can slug. We’ve done all of that already." (For the complete article with Ramsay, click here.) 

Ultimately what has made Beterbiev into an elite fighter, as opposed to just a guy with heavy hands, is a combination of winning intangibles: 

1.     Physical and Intellectual Aptitude

2.     Coachability

3.     Humility

Ramsay has been working with Beterbiev on various techniques to improve his boxing ability. But all of that would be meaningless unless Beterbiev agreed that he needed to further refine himself in the ring. And this is quite extraordinary. Ramsay is training perhaps the biggest puncher in the sport and says to him: you know what, it's not enough. And Beterbiev agrees! And more than that, Beterbiev has incorporated these teachings into the ring. 

Whether it's changing the eye level with power punches, controlling opponents with the jab, or how and when to throw the proper counter, Beterbiev now utilizes these facets as if they were second nature. 

Unlike so many fighters with high knockout percentages, Beterbiev didn't fall in love with his power. He realized that there was still work to do. This speaks highly of his intellect, as well as his relentless desire to improve. 

At 38 Beterbiev is now a complete fighter. He has delivered on the promise that Arran saw a decade ago. But he has also steadily improved. He wasn't utilizing foot feints and cute lateral movement in 2014. I can assure you of that!

Beterbiev after Saturday's victory
Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams

I have picked against Beterbiev in the past and been wrong. I've watched him twice live and have marveled at aspects of his performances. I saw him stop an excellent version of Gvozdyk and destroy a fellow champion in Joe Smith. I still don't know what happens if he ever fights Dmitry Bivol, but I do understand one thing: Beterbiev is one of the best fighters in the entire sport. But I was a little late to the party on him.  

In one sense I was correct about Beterbiev; the fighter of 2014 was incomplete, but what I didn't know and what Arran and Ramsay did, is that he had much more to offer than what he had displayed on his fight nights. It pays to do your homework, to ask around, and not be so settled in a first evaluation. There are fighters who have a tremendous aptitude for improvement. They may have significant skills or intangibles that won't manifest against lesser opponents in short fights.   

We all like to remember the occasions where we got it right, a spectacular fight pick, an identification of a special talent well before the general public latches on. But it's important to remember when and how we get things wrong too. As someone who has immersed himself in boxing over the last three decades, I whiffed here. Even before getting into questions about aptitude, I should have recognized that his combination of uncommon power and success in the point-counting amateur system was a winning formula in the professional ranks.  

But Beterbiev has become even so much more than that 2014 version. He has put in the work. He has ignored his own headlines. His only goal is to become the best. He is now 20-0 with 20 knockouts, but his resume somehow still undersells him: he's the complete package. And I hope that we all know that now, even if it took some of us longer than needed. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of
He's a contributing writer for Ring Magazine, a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.  

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