The pupils of his eyes narrowed. They could have pierced metal, tearing holes through opponents with an eerie sense of calm. The predatory gaze of the understated Russian carried menace, no doubt.
From Khasavyurt, Dagestan to Montreal; from much-revered amateur prospect to troubled, gifted champion; the only World title holder with a one-hundred-percent knockout ratio sat down exclusively with Boxing Social to plot, plan and ponder.
Things have changed though, for Artur Beterbiev (12-0, 12 KO’s)…
The IBF light-heavyweight world champion has spent a large chunk of his career waiting: legal disputes, spells of inactivity and the struggle for viable opponents have contributed to the Russian’s myth-like career thus far. On October 6th, he faces Lincolnshire’s Callum Johnson, a refreshingly-willing challenger.
I’d read pieces on Beterbiev previously, discussing his time in the unpaid ranks and his issues as a professional. However, I wanted to understand the transition from one side of the planet, to the other. He’d moved from a region where young boys literally wrestle bears, to the bright lights of Canada’s East coast.
“Well, in the early part of 2013, I was invited to Canada by some promoter. Then, I started training and I really liked this place; the atmosphere, people, nature.
Most people here love sport and I like that! Of course, the most popular sport in Canada is hockey, everyone knows that. But more and more people have started loving boxing and I think it’s also a very popular kind of sport here.”
As we spoke, Artur was deep in preparation. His life in Montreal vastly differed from those long, hot days in the desert.
Dagestan had become infamous for its conveyor-belt of combat athletes. Typically a grappling-heavy region, their iron will and concrete durability had put the region firmly on the map, with UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov recently securing a mega-fight with Conor McGregor. That fight, remarkably takes place on the same day as Beterbiev v Johnson, in what could be a celebratory evening for the East.
For almost twenty years, the Russian republic has played host to low-level guerrilla conflict. A population of just under three million people, on the edge of the Chechen crisis, they had overcome adversity and were now thriving in industries such as; brick-making, designing and producing garments and – of course – fighting.
In Khasavyurt alone, Beterbiev joins a list of Olympic athletes, though he stands alone, as a boxer amongst a golden crop of freestyle wrestlers.
Artur opened up on his youth, “I grew up in a family [environment]. My dad was a bus driver. My mum was a nurse at our local hospital. I have three brothers and no sisters. I can’t say we had rich life, but my parents did everything to give us all we needed.
I’m a native Chechen, but I was born in Dagestan. I don’t think it’s a tough place to grow up. But, at that time myself and other children didn’t have much choice, because you could either go into boxing or wrestling. At the beginning I did both sports, but then decided to stay in boxing!”
After the devastating loss of his father, Artur had continued to pursue his career in the sport, dedicating his success to the man who spent his remaining savings purchasing his son’s Russian amateur team uniform.
Stepping up to look after his mother, he began winning medals worldwide, ending his amateur career with an astounding reported record of 295-5. Two of his five losses were at the hands of Ukrainian phenomenon Oleksandr Usyk, as he stepped up to heavyweight – but, Beterbiev holds two wins over Sergey Kovalev, a blunt reminder of the company he kept.
Montreal and the comfortable surroundings of the French-Canadian province hadn’t softened Beterbiev, however. I’d been fascinated to hear of his signing with Matchroom USA, seemingly the exposure he’d long craved.
“Well, the Matchroom USA promotion offered me a contract for this fight and I accepted it. And we will see what happens. About my Matchroom USA promotional agreement, I signed a contract just for one fight but for the future I’m open and interested in continuing further [if terms were suitable].”
Court battles with his Canadian promoter GYM ongoing, I could sense Artur’s relief at fighting.
The fight with Callum Johnson was an intriguing one, the British and Commonwealth champion apparently being the highest-ranked opponent willing to take the fight. With Johnson, Beterbiev had found someone of a similar stature. Solid amateur pedigree, entering their early-thirties and hungry to test himself.
Artur shared his thoughts on his opponent, “He’s strong and he is a good boxer, he has good experience in [both] amateur and professional boxing.
I can’t say that I know much about him yet, but me and my coach, we are studying him and watching different videos of his fights.”
The Russian’s power had prevailed in all of his previous contests, stepping up to knock out former world title holder, Tavoris Cloud, in only his sixth outing.
The division was had been shaken up in recent weeks with Eleider Alvarez brutally stopping former champion Sergey Kovalev. Life at 175lbs was fascinating, with young countryman Dmitry Bivol improving with every fight, and fellow Canadian resident Adonis Stevenson struggling to retain his relevance. With rumours of a World Boxing Super Series, Artur’s message for the division was succinct.
“At the moment, I am preparing to fight against Callum Johnson and I’m fully focused on this opponent, but in the future I’m always ready to take a fight with any champion in my division!”
With appetising bouts on the horizon, it was nice to see Beterbiev treating Johnson as a live threat, determined to avoid a slip-up. He’d worked too hard and come too far, for that.
Laser-focused, we discussed his approach to camp and any changes in his preparation, now that he had something to defend. The hunter had become the hunted in a division blown wide-open and boasting four champions at-time-of-writing.
“Nothing has changed, except that I’m the champion now.” Artur told me.
“It’s been a long time since my last fight. I’m really looking forward to new fights, new opponents, new titles. Maybe the only thing that has changed is my training, because now I train much more and I stay in the gym much longer than before.
The fact that I have a belt means that there are always fighters who want to take it from me.”
Sadly, it seemed the list of willing challengers was slim. The amateur world champion had become the professional version, fulfilling his potential. He had repaid the faith shown in him by his brothers, who reportedly sold the family car to fund his entry into a competition as a teenager. That sense of family had rubbed off on the champion, a proud husband and a father of strong Muslim faith.
On October 6th, Artur Beterbiev boxes on DAZN and Sky Sports, by far his biggest platform, fighting a British opponent infront of global, prying eyes. These fights are the reward for a youth dedicated to the sport and years of financial hardships. It seemed the uncertainty surrounding his future was forgotten, yet not entirely resolved.
Boxing was all he knew.
“I think in any sport you need to be patient, work hard and put in a lot of effort. You have to live as a fighter, sleep as a fighter, eat as a fighter and think as a fighter. I can’t say what’s the hardest part of being a professional fighter, but I can assure you that there is nothing easy. In my case I enjoy all of this [hard] process!”
Article by: Craig Scott
Follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209