For all the aggravation boxing fans endure when it comes to not getting the fights they want to see when they want to see them, there is always the occasional oasis in the proverbial desert.
Case in point is the outstanding light heavyweight world title unification fight between Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Artur Beterbiev, a bout that was made official on Saturday night. The evenly matched 175-pounders will meet Oct. 18 in the main event of a Top Rank Boxing on ESPN card at the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia. I can’t wait.
Usually, boxing fans can’t agree on anything — even that grass is green, the sky is blue and water is wet. But the pairing of Gvozdyk and Beterbiev was immediately met with not only universal praise but also excitement, at least from my perusal of social media reaction.
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Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+: Sergey Kovalev vs. Anthony Yarde, 12 rounds, for Kovalev’s WBO light heavyweight title.
And there are good reasons for the excitement. It’s a fight that not only makes total sense for both boxers and Top Rank, but also figures to be very interesting in the ring with no clear-cut favorite. It is a high-stakes showdown between men with similar records, similar pro experience and deep amateur backgrounds. While Gvozdyk (17-0, 14 KOs), 32, a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist from Ukraine, is more of a boxer than a huge puncher, Beterbiev (14-0, 14 KOs), 34, a 2008 and 2012 Russian Olympian, has made his name with pure power, not boxing skills. This will be Gvozdyk’s second and Beterbiev’s third title defense, respectively.
Both fighters are undefeated, but they have also both shown vulnerabilities. Gvozdyk suffered a first-round knockdown in a July 2016 bout against former world title challenger Tommy Karpency and also took some huge shots from big puncher Adonis Stevenson. Gvozdyk ultimately knocked out Stevenson the 11th round in December to win the belt and the division’s lineal title.
In Beterbiev’s first defense last October, he suffered a clean second-round knockdown against Callum Johnson but rallied for a fourth-round knockout.
As if the two of the division’s best meeting to unify world titles isn’t storyline enough, it is also something of a rematch as Beterbiev owns an amateur victory over Gvozdyk, who said he remembers that 2009 loss at a tournament in Turkey.
“I lost that fight, and right now it gives me more motivation to get the rematch,” Gvozdyk said during an interview on Saturday night on ESPN. “My dream, my goal is to become undisputed champion. I can come one step closer to make my dream come true.”
Beterbiev also said his goal is to become undisputed champion, and while that prospect might take a little more time to unfold, as titlist Dmitry Bivol is a broadcast free agent, another terrific aspect of the Gvozdyk-Beterbiev match is that it does not figure to be the only significant light heavyweight fight Top Rank could make.
The company is loaded with talent in the division as the promoter for Gvozdyk and Beterbiev, as well as promoting or co-promoting reigning titlist Sergey Kovalev, former titlist Eleider “Storm” Alvarez, undefeated former super middleweight world titlist Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez (who moved up to light heavyweight in April) and former super middleweight title challenger Jesse Hart (who moved up in June).
Todd duBoef, the president of Top Rank, told ESPN that the company has every intention of mixing and matching the light heavyweights. That approach was instrumental in putting on the Kovalev-Alvarez rematch in February, and when it came time to figure out the plan for Gvozdyk and Beterbiev, it made sense to have them fight.
“The truth is this fight was driven by the fighters themselves,” duBoef said. “Beterbiev said he wanted to unify titles and fight the best opponents. He said he wanted to fight Kovalev, but Kovalev has to do a mandatory defense [against Anthony Yarde on Saturday on ESPN+], so this fight was a great option. We wanted to make this fight a cornerstone of our fall schedule and bring it to as many fight fans as we could on ESPN.
“Beterbiev is a very confident and determined fighter that just wants to be the best and prove himself. As a result of many things over the years — injuries, past promotional issues — he couldn’t do that. But now he wants to be active and fight the best. With Gvozdyk, he had the big win over Adonis Stevenson and a nice [first title defense] in March [against Doudou Ngumbu] and now he wants to fight the best opponent available and unify the titles. So this fight made all the sense in the world — stylistically, in terms of the timing for both guys. It’s all on the line.”
Neither Gvozdyk nor Beterbiev is all that well-known to the general sports public, but they are to hard-core boxing fans. By facing the best available opponent in a very meaningful fight that deserves a big promotional push, the winner surely will be elevated. The loser, too, if he turns in a quality performance.
“These are the guys who hold titles and who are among the most relevant fighters in the weight class,” duBoef said. “When people talk about the best fighting the best, this is what they mean, and we’re really happy the fighters wanted it and that we can bring a fight like this to the public.”
For a change, we are getting not only the right fight but the right fight at the right time.