Bivol has limited options at 175, but willing to take risks

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He’s established himself as one of the world’s best, but Dmitry Bivol faces political challenges going forward.

Dmitry Bivol did pretty much as expected on Saturday night, as he dominated power punching challenger Joe Smith Jr to retain the WBA light heavyweight title in a DAZN main event from Verona, New York.

It was the first DAZN fight for Bivol (16-0, 11 KO), who rose to prominence in the division over the last two years, beating Samuel Clarkson on ShoBox in 2017, before five straight wins in fights with the HBO banners hanging in the building, a run that ended with a dominant decision over former champion Jean Pascal last November.

When HBO decided to leave the boxing game, Bivol, like many fighters, was forced to look for a new broadcast home. Money has been flying around the sport as the people at DAZN, ESPN, and PBC look to make sure they have enough talent in-house to support a robust schedule.

Bivol went with DAZN. Right now, it’s easy to wonder if he made a mistake.

Not because there’s anything wrong with DAZN or anything wrong with Bivol. It’s just that the rest of the division’s class fighters are posted up elsewhere.

WBC titleholder Oleksandr Gvozdyk, WBO titleholder Sergey Kovalev, and IBF titleholder Artur Beterbiev are all with the ESPN/Top Rank crew, as is super middleweight titleholder Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez, who will test the waters at 175 in his next fight on April 12, with the expectation that he’ll likely move up officially if successful and comfortable. Former titleholder Eleider Alvarez is also with ESPN.

Undefeated American Marcus Browne won the (totally pointless) interim WBA title by beating Badou Jack in January, and he would make great sense as an opponent for Bivol, except that Browne is with PBC.

Listen, maybe one of those matchups could happen — it’s not impossible. If the right deal were there, someone might cave and let their fighter fight on another platform. Of those potential matchups, Bivol-Browne is probably the most likely right now, but that doesn’t make it likely.

After that, you’re getting away from the true top fighters in the weight class. There’s Sullivan Barrera, still a solid contender, but Bivol already convincingly defeated him in March 2018. Matchroom, run by DAZN man Eddie Hearn, has top prospect Joshua Buatsi, but Buatsi is rightly focused on continuing to improve at the domestic level in the United Kingdom. It would be ridiculous to put him in with Bivol any time soon.

Damien Hooper, Umar Salamov, Sven Fornling, Dominic Boesel — nothing against these fighters, but not exactly marquee matchups. Do you think DAZN could sell Notre Dame Subway as a Bivol opponent, if he’d agree to fight?

Right now, the best and most likely option for a light heavyweight fight looks to be Callum Johnson (18-1, 13 KO), a Matchroom fighter who featured on the Bivol-Smith card, predictably blowing out veteran New York club fighter Seanie Monaghan.

The 33-year-old Johnson certainly isn’t the worst option, but if that happens next, it’s a Band-Aid on a real wound. Bivol would be expected to beat Johnson handily, and if he did, everyone would be right back to wondering who he can fight next that makes sense.

Bivol is aware of all this, and he’s looking to be proactive, and he’s willing to take a risk to get bigger and better fights. To the point, he says he’s confident he can move down to 168 pounds if need be.

“I’m not a big guy for light heavyweight, and I can make super middleweight, and I said many times that I want the big fights,” said Bivol. “By that I mean that I want to fight for belts. If someone has a belt in the super middleweight or light heavyweight division, I would be glad to fight them.”

A move to super middleweight is risky. Bivol is 28, he’s a full-grown man, and he’s never weighed in under 173½ for a single pro fight. Another five-and-a-half pounds may not seem huge, but there’s no guarantee he can do it as successfully as he believes.

The name he’s mostly mentioned is Callum Smith, the true champion in the division, holder of the WBA title and winner of the World Boxing Super Series tournament, where he knocked out and retired George Groves in the final last September.

Bivol, listed at 6’0” even, is not a big light heavyweight. But Smith, at 6’3”, is a huge super middleweight. It’s potentially a very intriguing matchup between a pair of unbeaten, in-prime fighters. And like Bivol, Smith isn’t exactly swimming in particularly attractive options for fights at the moment — his most notable in-house option apart from Bivol might be John Ryder. The most recent news on Smith (25-0, 18 KO) is that he’ll likely fight on May 18 or June 1.

There’s also no more depth at 168 than there is at 175 — in a way, Smith-Bivol would be another Band-Aid sort of matchup, though much more interesting on paper than Smith-Ryder or Bivol-Johnson.

The bigger hope for those guys, if they move to or stay at 168, is that eventually some of the DAZN-inked middleweights might move up. At 160, DAZN has the biggest star in the sport, Canelo Alvarez, and his May 4 opponent, Daniel Jacobs. They also just signed Gennady Golovkin, and they’ve got titleholder Demetrius Andrade. The problem in getting those guys to move up is pretty simple: they have good fights available with each other at 160.

This exact problem exists all over the sport, through various weight classes and various promoters. There are really only so many true top-shelf fighters, and only so many true top-shelf fights to make, especially given the political issues in getting promoters to work together, something that isn’t going to get better any time soon with the way these massive broadcast deals are going. Everyone has to fill X amount of dates with as many decent fights as they can.

But at least Dmitry Bivol seems willing to actually do what he can about the situation he’s in, willing to take a risk if that’s what he needs to do to get the sort of fights he wants. There’s a lot to admire about that in today’s boxing world.

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