In 2015 Boxing News spoke to then rising light-heavyweight Artur Beterbiev
IT might just transpire that the world’s finest light-heavyweight goes by neither the name of Kovalev, or Stevenson, and instead is a man who to date has had only eight professional fights.
The power with which Russia’s newest wrecking ball punches, married with his natural boxing ability and indisputable, inherent spite, marks Artur Beterbiev’s threat out like almost no other, even in boxing’s most destructive division.
Greater challenges than Jeff Page Jnr and Gabriel Campillo are required, but if those performances, Beterbiev’s history of violence and the troubled environment that shaped him are to provide an indicator of his ability to challenge the 175lb world champions, it won’t be for aggression or hunger he is found wanting.
Born in 1985 in Dagestan, a mountainous Russian region infamous for its anarchy and corruption, in which organised crime is said to flourish amid kidnappings and violence, firearms and assassinations, Beterbiev may not have been brought up in a permanent war zone but a dark, sinister threat was always present as he grew.
Even if that violence didn’t directly affect he and his family, the two Chechan wars, for independence from Russia, which claimed the lives of thousands and bled into Dagestan, unquestionably did. They created so many refugees that at one point the Beterbiev household, in the small city of Khasavyurt, swelled to 30, and ensured both insurgence, further violence and a military presence in the region thereafter.
It has been claimed Dagestan produces more elite boxers, amateur wrestlers and MMA fighters per capita than any other region in the world. Given the nature of Beterbiev’s style – brutal; ruthless; clinical – it is difficult to think of a more appropriate grounding than the combination of domestic discontent and a culture in which street fighting was common; those in Dagestan remain among Russia’s poorest today.
A young Beterbiev, who from the age of “eight, nine or 10 years old” earned a negligible wage at a local petrol garage where he worked filling cars, had the same lust for street-fighting as many others of his generation. It was only his brothers’ intervention that took him to a boxing gym, beginning the honing of a strength and skillset that have made him among the most dangerous and feared fighters on the planet, the latest symbol of the growing power of the East.
“I don’t remember everything because I was a young kid, but the memories aren’t good,” Beterbiev told Boxing News. “We used to adopt refugees from Chechnya, sometimes 30 people were [living] in our house. It wasn’t a small house, but it wasn’t like a hotel.
“Of course I’m worried about [the region today]. I still have some family there. It’s just sad that it’s happening, but it’s not bad like it used to be before.
“I was a troubled kid. I always used to fight at school, in the streets. If there was a street tournament I’d fight outside there. I was an angry kid, and it was a tough childhood. I had my principles. If it didn’t work my way I would start to fight.
“It was normal. Everybody in that region used to fight between each other. We had lots of free time, it’s what we used to do.
“I started boxing at 10, 11 years old. Because I was always fighting in the streets my brothers decided to bring me to a boxing class, and a wrestling class. I used to do both. I was raised by my brothers. To me, they’re like fathers.
“I was kicked out from the wrestling school but I never came back. I was kicked out of the boxing school but I always came back, and asked if I could continue to train. [I was thrown out because] I always used to fight when I wasn’t supposed to.
“It’s like a school for us. We didn’t have many other sports, we’d maybe play soccer. We’d go to school for one half of the day, and go to the gym the other half of the day. Since the age of five, six, seven years old, parents send kids to boxing, wrestling or MMA classes. It’s just tradition there, like 80 per cent of the kids are going to either boxing or wrestling. I knew right away it was for me.”
It took Beterbiev only six months to win his first local junior championship and begin the largely-upward trajectory that took him from wild, youthful street fighter to an amateur of almost the very highest calibre. Winning silver at the 2007 World Championships and gold two years later and becoming the 2006 and 2010 European champion, the Russian also twice defeated outstanding compatriot Sergey Kovalev, today’s WBA Super, IBF and WBO light-heavyweight king.
Further fine victories over Michael Hunter Jnr, Abbos Atoev and Evgeny Makarenko, coupled with the stoppages of Ismayl Sillakh and Siju Shabazz, enhanced Beterbiev’s reputation as a fighter truly capable of earning parity with the era’s amateur greats, but his ultimate goal, of becoming an Olympic champion having reached Beijing 2008 and London 2012, eluded.
“It’s the peak of an amateur boxing career, to win at the Olympic Games, so it was my dream, I was always chasing to be the best in the world,” said Beterbiev, who spoke toBN via interpreter Dokk Dudayev. “It was very hard for me, mentally [not to win at the Olympics]. It took a lot of time to recover mentally and to decide what to do next.
“I wanted to become a professional boxer a long time ago, but me and my family all wanted for me to participate and win the Olympic Games so I had to postpone my professional career. But if it wasn’t for that I would have become a pro boxer after the first Olympics [at Beijing, in 2008].
“It wasn’t really a rivalry with Kovalev. Actually, the rivalry was with [Russian captain] Evgeny Makarenko. I had a plan to beat him. I was following my plan, and Kovalev – we fought, yes – but he wasn’t something important, just another fight. Makarenko was number one back then.”
Complementing his aggression, other signs of Beterbiev’s difficult former environment remain – “the most important thing I got from my amateur career was the discipline, I’m disciplined by myself; I never missed training, even if I’m sick, and I’m still doing that” – and, though the collapse of his amateur ambitions can be a burden, through it his urgency for professional progress became a strength.
Despite just 15 months and 11 rounds over five successful paid fights, Beterbiev’s promoter Yvon Michel matched the Russian with Tavoris Cloud, the seasoned former IBF champion who had contested a world title in his previous seven. Only Bernard Hopkins and WBC champion Adonis Stevenson had previously beaten the American also known as “Thunder”, yet Beterbiev dismantled him in less than two rounds, effectively forcing him to quit after four knockdowns as merciless as they were swift.
“I used to fight the same style when I was amateur,” says Beterbiev, who left Dagestan to study physical education in Moscow for eight years from the age of 17 and similarly has relocated to Montreal, where he is trained by Marc Ramsay, to pursue his professional potential.
“I like to show a nice fight to the fans, and I’m just adjusting some little stuff when I came pro from an amateur, but this was always my style. I was always the aggressor, but only in the ring.
“When I’m in the ring I’m quite nasty. Until I get my hand raised and know that I’ve won, I’m savage. In Russia, we call it ‘sports madness, sports aggression’. But it’s nothing personal, it’s just the way to win.”
Regardless of his intentions, the boxing world unquestionably took notice. The previously undefeated Page Jnr, also in less than two rounds, and Spain’s former WBA champion Campillo, in less than four, similarly followed; France’s Doudou Ngumbu is next on June 12 and can provide another sign of Beterbiev’s rapid progress if a victory can surpass the unanimous decision won by Andrzej Fonfara, against Ngumbu in November, over 10 rounds.
Given the expectation that Beterbiev’s development will continue – and the punishment that is becoming routine for his opponents may yet take worthwhile learning fights out of his 73-inch reach – the 30 year old’s matchmaking may soon be accelerated further beyond its present fast-track pace, specifically to the third fight of a trilogy with Kovalev, or to Stevenson.
“[Stevenson’s] a good boxer, he deserves some respect,” said Beterbiev, like many from Dagestan a devout Muslim, who also told BN he was praying when it appeared he was talking to himself immediately after the stoppage of Campillo.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I’m good at. For me, it’s not personal. Either it’s gonna be Stevenson, or Kovalev. I’m not chasing after anyone, I’m chasing after the belts. I’ll deserve my title shot, whoever it is I don’t care. It’s not for me to judge, I haven’t even seen [Stevenson’s] last fight.
“I haven’t really followed Kovalev’s career. The last fight, with [Jean] Pascal, I was there, and he’s good, he’s improved, he’s winning. By his winning record, and his belts, you can say that he’s improved [since we fought as amateurs].
“I think Kovalev’s a good fighter. Me and him have a history. I don’t want to say now, or tomorrow, or this year, or next year, but we’re definitely going to meet each other in the ring. Just a matter of time.
“I’m pretty sure definitely, one day, we’ll meet each other.”