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The Dmitry Bivol dilemma 

Image: The Dmitry Bivol dilemma 

By Rory Hickey: Dmitry Bivol (21-0, 11 KOs) has had a spectacular year. In May, he dethroned Canelo Alvarez in a unanimous decision victory to retain his WBA light heavyweight championship. Bivol defied the oddsmakers and handed Canelo his first loss since September 2013. Bivol used his size to frustrate and wear down the smaller Canelo.

Fast forward to November, and Bivol defended his championship against Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez (44-1, 30 KOs). It was clear at the weigh-in that Bivol would not enjoy a similar size advantage in this title defense. Though both fights were at the same 175-pound weight limit, the 6-foot-tall Bivol was on the shorter end of the same four-inch height gap against the 6’ 4” Ramirez that he enjoyed against 5’ 8” Canelo. By the time the fight was over, the size difference was so irrelevant that Bivol could have boxed 7’ 4” French basketball phenom Victor Wembanyama with the same level of comfort.

With his two high-level victories, Dmitry Bivol could be the fighter of the year for 2022, and 2023 may be another big year for him. Bivol may take on the winner of Artur Beterbiev (18-0, 18 KOs) vs. Anthony Yarde (22-2, 21 KOs). Beterbiev and Yarde will face off on January 28th, 2023, for Beterbiev’s IBF, WBC & WBO light-heavyweight championships. Bivol could get an opportunity to become the undisputed light-heavyweight champion in the second quarter of 2023. Boxing fans have wished for a fight between Bivol and Beterbiev for years.

Bivol could also opt to have a rematch against Canelo Alvarez. Alvarez has recently indicated that he would like another fight with Bivol. That would be the more lucrative option, but financial security does not seem to be the determining factor for Bivol. When asked about a rematch with Canelo before his victory over Zurdo Ramirez, Bivol said, “Money is good, but legacy, I think, is better. I love money too. Everybody loves money. But money is not the main thing I’m thinking about when I came to boxing. When I box, I want to make history. If I thought about money, I would never be here.”

In our current age of short attention spans and streaming services, boxing has been doing everything possible to develop its next big star. Bivol has the skills and the look of the next big box office attraction in boxing. With Bivol’s talent, plus his win over Canelo Alvarez, the current top guy, he should be at least in the conversation to be that next big star in an ideal world. As you may have noticed from glancing at the news, we are far from such a world. The one complicating factor is that Dmitry Bivol is Russian.

On November 8th, at the annual World Boxing Council convention in Acapulco, Mexico, officials from the WBC announced they plan to remove boxers of Russian descent from future rankings. Those boxers will not be eligible to fight for any WBC championships. Exceptions will be considered and will likely apply to someone who is Russian-born and no longer lives in the country.

Dmitry Bivol was born in Kyrgyzstan, but his family moved to St. Petersburg when Bivol was eleven years old. Bivol still lives in St. Petersburg but trains out of Joel Diaz’s gym in Indio, California. Artur Beterbiev, the only current Russian full WBC titleholder, represented Russia at the Olympics in 2008 and 2012, but once he turned professional relocated to Montreal. Given these circumstances, this WBC ruling will likely not apply to Bivol or Beterbiev.

But why are Russian athletes banned from international sports competitions due to the actions of the Russian government? It is one thing if the Russian government sponsors a team. A state-sponsored club should not be generating revenue to help fund the war effort. But in an individual sport like boxing, what purpose does it serve to bar a Russian fighter from being ranked? Other than punishing them because they were born in the wrong place?

In March, when Russia first invaded Ukraine, Bivol said, “I have a lot of friends in Ukraine. I have a lot of friends in Russia. My family is in Russia. I have a lot of friends everywhere. I wish them only peace and only the best. It’s really sad for me. Every day I wake up and read the news. I hope [the war] stops.”

Sports and global politics are more intertwined than ever, most notably with the FIFA World Cup currently ongoing in Qatar. Leagues like Formula 1 and the NFL, among others, are trying to grow their audience by holding events in different countries. Saudi Arabia has started the LIV Golf Tour to compete with the PGA Tour. Attempting to figure out all of the moral ambiguities and bad actors involved with these leagues is becoming a sport unto itself.

Part of the appeal of boxing is that, at its core, boxing is two competitors entering the ring and seeing who the better boxer is. After a grueling training camp, media appearances, and whatever else, it comes down to two combatants, mano a mano, inside the chamber of truth. And the truth is, whatever you think of his nation’s politics, Dmitry Bivol is one of the best boxers in the world.

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