THE damage done to Dillian Whyte by Alexander Povetkin’s left hand last August turned out to be so devastating that Whyte’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, somehow convinced himself his stricken fighter was up at the count of eight before then rushing to book the pair’s rematch for November. In fairness, the shock was seismic. Nobody saw it coming, nobody wanted it, and nobody understood how it could have happened. But it happened, all right, and no sooner had it happened than an empty venue became even emptier and a hushed crowd became even quieter. If seeing is believing, most knew Whyte was out cold long past the count of eight and most who saw it also knew the idea of a rematch three months later was perhaps not the best idea in the world.
That proposed November 21 rematch, which seemed fanciful at best, reckless at worst, was mercifully postponed when Povetkin contracted coronavirus. However, the pair now try again on March 27 (after another postponement from March 6) in Gibraltar of all places and this time all involved will be better prepared for every eventuality and better prepared, full stop. This time their roles will also have changed, with Whyte, 27-2 (18), no longer the champion-in-waiting at loggerheads with sanctioning bodies and Povetkin, 36-2-1 (25), no longer the faded fall guy expected to crumble the moment Whyte lets his hands go. It is now more of an even contest than it seemed first time around. More interesting. More dangerous. More relevant. It is now a defining fight for Whyte as well, not merely a semi-final, or a stepping stone, or one last hurdle to overcome before fighting for a world title. It is, in fact, the defining fight of his career.
Like it or not, Whyte, a perennial contender, now finds himself stuck in a rivalry with a man he could once have been guilty of overlooking, in much the same way Anthony Joshua got lumbered with Andy Ruiz Jnr in 2019. Painful though it may be, Whyte is 0-1 against Alexander Povetkin and must first avenge this defeat, the second of Whyte’s pro career, before he can even think about again demanding fights with the likes of Joshua, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder, the consensus best three heavyweights in the world.
Some will say Whyte, 32, dithered too long and deserved a title shot sooner, yet the truth is that much of the momentum the Londoner built in 2018, when beating the likes of Dereck Chisora, Joseph Parker and Lucas Browne, was derailed the following year when he became embroiled in a performance-enhancing drug controversy (after an otherwise good win against Oscar Rivas). This not only momentarily tarnished his name but also slowed his progress to such a degree his only other fight that year was a lacklustre decision win over Mariusz Wach in Saudi Arabia, a fight for which Whyte turned up out of shape and disinterested.
In reality, too, although Whyte has impressive victories to his name and is exciting to watch, his right to a world title shot always seemed a campaign built on loud voices rather than any cast-iron evidence. There were, after all, still contenders he had not beaten, one of which was Povetkin, and there were still fights happening at the top end – like Deontay Wilder vs. Tyson Fury II and Anthony Joshua vs. Andy Ruiz Jnr II – which rightly took precedence over Whyte’s supposedly long overdue chance.
Had he beaten Povetkin last year, no doubt he would then have been ready to take what he has forever believed is rightfully his. But he didn’t beat Povetkin and, moreover, given the controversy that surrounded Whyte in 2019, it would be naïve to pretend there aren’t myriad other reasons why his career has stalled and he has been left waiting his turn.
The good news for Whyte, though, is that he was cleared of any wrongdoing in 2019 and maintains, despite the loss to Povetkin, healthy world rankings with various sanctioning bodies. Not only that, Whyte, as proven against the likes of Chisora and Parker, remains an entertaining fighter with no small amount of ability and, should he gain revenge this weekend, will have every right to claim he is the fourth best heavyweight in the world.
To return to this spot, that of fourth place, Whyte will need to be better than he was first time around against Povetkin and will need to be wary of both the quality Povetkin possesses and his ability to recuperate. Because it was this, Povetkin’s powers of recovery married with his technical proficiency, that proved Whyte’s undoing in August and, in turn, knocked him down the pecking order.
Dropped twice in round four, Povetkin, a 41-year-old Russian whose best days were supposedly behind him, appeared in that round to be everything everybody said he was: old, over-the-hill, halfway to retirement. He looked more fragile than ever and Whyte, boxing well, seemed on his way to stopping Povetkin earlier than anyone, including Joshua, had managed previously. But then, of course, Povetkin got up, not once but twice, and in round five had the audacity to dip left, roll under a Whyte right hand, and deliver arguably the finest single shot witnessed in a boxing ring during what was a barren 2020.
It was a thing of beauty, this shot, and the perfect way to finish a fight. It suggested Povetkin, while past his best, was still technically superior to anybody Whyte had ever before boxed and, when inspired, still capable of producing single moments of genius to match anyone in the heavyweight division. It made us wonder, too, if, on reflection, we were all guilty of overlooking him. Povetkin, after all, did enjoy cameos – flashes of brilliance – against Anthony Joshua before eventually coming unstuck in 2018. That night he offered Joshua looks and angles he had never before encountered and for a short period won exchanges with quicker hands and more compact combinations. He seemed well in the fight until caught and stopped in the seventh round.
Then again, if the Joshua fight signalled Povetkin’s danger, his subsequent bouts against Hughie Fury and Michael Hunter were more indicative of an old man running on fumes. In both those fights Povetkin laboured, beating Fury on points and drawing with Hunter, and this presumably provided all the incentive Whyte and his team required to book him as an opponent in 2020. They thought his time was up. They thought they had him sussed. But maybe, in the end, they didn’t know what they were looking at.
Sadly, where Povetkin is concerned, you are not only dealing with a mercurial talent capable of beating any heavyweight on his day but someone whose chequered history with performance-enhancing drugs leaves us clueless as to what version of him will turn up or indeed what version of him we have seen in the past. With two failed tests to his name, he is a man for whom uncertainty and suspicion stand beside him whenever he enters a boxing ring and is someone for whom the age 41 may mean something different than it means to others who find their physical capabilities dwindling at that advanced stage in their career. Put mildly, he is an enigma. One look at his highlight reel will have you thinking he is the most destructive and entertaining fighter currently in the heavyweight division, yet a skim-read of the small print will have you questioning every punch he has ever thrown and every victory he has ever produced. Alas, calling Alexander Povetkin hard to judge is an understatement. To report on one of his fights is to review a Transformers movie as a kitchen-sink drama.
Regardless, for as long as boxing continues to allow fighters who have failed multiple performance-enhancing drug tests to continue, make money and prosper, we work with what we have. We must also ignore any suspicions we have concerning the lack of stringent drug-testing in the sport, particularly during the COVID-19-crippled last 12 months, and hope that everything we see in Gibraltar with Povetkin and Whyte is as clean and as pure as the left hand Povetkin used to conclude the pair’s first fight.
Should that be the case, this is a rematch with a great deal of potential and a great deal of significance on the world stage. It is a fight that brings together two aggressive, explosive men, both with fight-ending power, and a fight that now boasts an air of mystery their first encounter lacked. Now very much a 50-50 affair, it is hard to know for sure whether Whyte’s momentary lapse in concentration led to his downfall last August or whether Povetkin’s tighter, crisper and more intelligent punching, especially in exchanges, was always something likely to find its way through Whyte’s sometimes porous defence. This weekend we will find out.
“This is the fight of my career – the fight of my life,” said Whyte. “I can quickly accept defeat and a setback. I’m very adaptable. For me it was a loss, but I did a lot of good things.
“It was a good fight [in August]. If I think back on it, I should have jumped on him earlier. I let him back into the fight.”
As if grieving the loss of his title shot, after denial came anger. Whyte was first angry about the defeat – chiefly, its emphatic nature – and then grew angrier still when learning of several postponements to the proposed rematch (November 21, January 30 and March 6). “I’m just glad that there is nowhere for him to try and hide and run,” he said. “He wasted time, letting me get ready for two fights (November 21 and January 30), and then cancelled them at the last minute.
“He pretends to be this nice, humble guy, but he is talking s**t. Of course I’m going to be annoyed. I’m not going to be sitting there laughing. I had a great camp. I’m going to be p***ed off and annoyed.”
Whether this fury travels with him into the fight remains to be seen but, from Povetkin’s point of view, there can be no greater sight than that of Dillian Whyte angry and coiled and ready to explode. Whyte has, it could be argued, been this way for years, a man both denied and in denial, yet remains someone whose best performances come when he is not so much enraged as engaged. Povetkin knows this as well as anybody and, nice guy or not, will go into Saturday’s fight believing the cleanest and clearest way to victory requires using Whyte’s aggression and indignation against him. He will, in search of a reaction, lie to him and, yes, likely come across as placid and pleasant and once again exhibit the slump and slow walk of a man of 41. But what Whyte must remember is that Povetkin has made a career of shapeshifting and shocking and bending the truth and by now Whyte should, rather than getting “p***ed off and annoyed”, be experienced enough to treat knowledge as power. More than that, he should see it coming.