Knockout artist Artur Beterbiev attempts to add Joe Smith Jr’s WBO light-heavyweight title to his WBC and IBF straps this weekend at the Hulu Theater, Madison Square Garden in a fight that will surely deliver thrills. Luke G. Williams previews the action.
Perfection may be an illusory concept when it comes to physical performance or artistic expression, but in statistical terms Artur Beterbiev currently possesses a unique slice of perfection with all 17 of his professional boxing victories having come by way of knockout – a ratio and record unmatched by any other current world title holder.
The Khasavyurt born, Montreal-based Russian puts this record – as well as his WBC and IBF light-heavyweight titles – on the line on Saturday night when he does battle with WBO champion Joe Smith Jr – a powerful puncher in his own right, with 22 stoppages in 28 victories as a pro. With two pairs of dynamite-fisted pugilists on display, this has the look of a contest that will inevitably descend into a thrilling firefight.
Promoter Bob Arum is certainly confident that it is a fight that will produce fireworks, arguing that it is a bout that would not have been out of place in the great light-heavyweight days of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
While doing the media rounds this week the the 90-year-old Hall of Fame promoter said:
“This fight brings me back so many decades to when Top Rank promoted the leading light heavyweights in the world, like Bob Foster, Matthew Saad Muhammad, John Conteh, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, and Marvin Johnson.”
“The light-heavyweight division has given people who follow boxing great thrills for as long as I’ve been promoting fights. Now we have this fight, which will go into the annals like all the great light heavyweight fights of the past and may even be the one that is the greatest. Joe Smith is a tremendous fighter. He has a big heart. He has a lot of skills and a lot of punching power.”
“And what can I say about Artur Beterbiev? He really epitomises the ferocity that light heavyweights have been known for. Tremendous puncher. Big heart. A guy who refuses to lose. Nothing can be better than this. I predict that this fight will be considered the Fight of the Year for 2022.”
Arum’s praise is understandable, for Beterbiev is arguably one of the best fighters in the world pound-for-pound right now. The problem is that his pro career has been stymied by bouts of frustrating inactivity, featuring a mere 17 contests spread over nine years since turning pro.
A two-time Olympian for his native Russia, Beterbiev won his first world title in November 2017, stopping Enrico Koelling in the final round, but there has often been a sense that his career has lacked direction and it has certainly come up short in terms of defining moments and fights – the highlight thus far still being his October 2019 victory against Oleksandr Gvozdyk in a WBC and IBF title unification match.
On that night in Philadelphia, Beterbiev trailed on two of the three judges’ scorecards prior to stopping his Ukrainian rival in the tenth round to establish himself – with near unanimity of opinion – as the best light heavyweight in the world.
However, that hard earned status as the world’s premier 175lb-er has been cast into some doubt since Beterbiev’s compatriot Dmitriy Bivol clearly outpointed Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez in a WBA title fight. Bivol’s win – to a certain extent – heaps pressure on Beterbiev.
If he beats Smith and looks good doing so, then a four-belt unification against Bivol becomes one of the best fights that can be made in boxing; in contrast, a defeat or poor performance against Smith may result in a Beterbiev-Bivol showdown becoming unviable or commercially undesirable.
Beterbiev (17-0, 17 KOs) is certainly a strong favourite to prevail against Smith. The educated pressure he brings to bear in the ring and the frightening consistency of his power – he seems able to blast an opponent out at any stage of a fight from first round to last – makes him a fearsome proposition.
Beterbiev also possesses underrated technique and fundamentals. Last time out against Marcus Browne, a fight he won via a bloody ninth-round stoppage, he also displayed a brilliant temperament and ability to increase the tempo of his performance, upping his work-rate after suffering a terrible cut which almost resulted in a referee-enforced stoppage loss, and taking Browne out in clinical fashion.
Having said that, Beterbiev is not indestructible – Callum Johnson floored and hurt him in their 2018 showdown. Furthermore, now that Beterbiev is 37 it is reasonable to ask whether he may have entered a period of decline.
The Russian, naturally, maintains this is not the case:
“I always ask my boxing coach and my conditioning coach about how I’m doing.”
“I ask them if it’s less than I was doing two years ago. They tell me that I’m doing better than two years ago. [If] we compare it to the last one, this camp went very well. This camp was better. I want to thank my team, my conditioning coach, my boxing coach, all my team and all my sparring partners who helped me. We had a good camp.”
However, it anyone can spring an upset against the Russian it is surely Smith (28-3, 22 KOs), who has made a habit of confounding the many doubters who have written him off as a willing but limited trier. A blue collar ‘real life Rocky’ type of character, Smith possesses rock solid working-class credentials; he used to work in a sewage plant and is often sighted around his beloved Long Island helping his dad out with his tree servicing business.
The 32-year-old was the underdog when he faced Andrzej Fonfara and Bernard Hopkins in 2016, and was once again pegged as the outsider four years later against Jesse Hart and Eleider Alvarez – one each of these occasions Smith secured unanticipated victories.
“People can relate to a guy who’s an underdog,” Smith’s promoter Joe DeGuardia said this week. “He’s been in how many fights where he’s been the underdog and pulled through? Certainly, he knows what it’s like to go in as the underdog, what it’s like to go in with people saying, you know, they don’t believe he’s going to win.
“In this particular fight [against Beterbiev], he’s yet again fighting another guy people look at it as being King Kong, you know, Godzilla, or whatever you wanna call him. It’s a motivating factor as well for Joe. There’s something to be said for going into that ring when you’re the underdog and turning the tables on people.”
Smith himself has also sounded a positive note in the build-up to the fight, albeit in his own rather low key and humble way:
“Home is not too far from here.”
“All my fans are going to be here to support me or, if not, watch at home. I’m just glad to be here defending my WBO title and unifying two other belts. I believe this guy is in his prime right now. I don’t think age has anything to do with it. I know he’s here at 100 per cent and ready to go. I know I’m here fighting one of the best, so I trained at 110 percent.”
Although DeGuardia and Smith have faith that they can upset Beterbiev I have my doubts. Unless the Russian has slipped substantially since his victory against Browne last year, he will surely possess too much power, pressure and nous for Smith American.
I see Smith fighting with spirit and endeavour, and maybe even banking some early rounds if he succeeds in jabbing, boxing and moving early on, but in the end Beterbiev will take control and probably stop him late. Having said that, Smith has considerable heart and good punch resistance so I would give him a decent chance of being the first man to extend Beterbiev the full 12-round distance. Spoiling that perfect knockout streak would – truth be told – be a moral victory of sorts for Smith.
Read Boxing Social’s article for full details about Beterbiev Vs Smith US and UK start times, how to watch and undercard.