PHILADELPHIA — Every boxing promoter will try to convince fans and media that the fight they’re about to put on is going to be great. A promoter’s job, of course, is to hype it up and get the audience pumped for the fight.
Often, though, it’s just a lot of hot air because the bout in question is perceived as either a mismatch or poor style clash. But there are times when the hoopla and expectations are absolutely justified. That is exactly the case for the light heavyweight world title unification fight between Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Artur Beterbiev (Friday, ESPN 10 p.m.), a fight that is extremely interesting, exciting and competitive.
Here’s why this is such a tremendous fight, even beyond it being world titleholders meeting to unify 175-pound belts.
The fight will be the first light heavyweight title unification bout between undefeated boxers — Gvozdyk (17-0, 14 KOs) is 32, Beterbiev (14-0, 14 KOs) is 34.
Gvozdyk is the better boxer, but also has good power. Beterbiev is one of boxing’s most devastating punchers, but is also a capable boxer. Also, each has shown vulnerability with Gvozdyk getting knocked down by Tommy Karpency in the first round of their 2016 bout and Beterbiev being floored by Callum Johnson in the second round of their 2018 title bout.
They both have deep amateur backgrounds. Beterbiev was a two-time Russian Olympian (2008 and 2012) and Gvozdyk was a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist for the Ukrainian squad that also included his good friends Vasiliy Lomachenko, the pound-for-pound king and unified lightweight champion, and Oleksandr Usyk, the undefeated former undisputed cruiserweight champion now fighting as a heavyweight.
This is your Ringside Seat for the fight:
The 50-50 fight
It’s nearly impossible to pick a winner in this fight. Gvozdyk is a slight betting favorite but few around the fight game have strong conviction either way because they are so evenly matched.
Top Rank chairman Bob Arum, who promotes both guys and who has been known to let the promotional bluster fly, seems genuinely excited about the match with no idea who will win.
“I’ve been in boxing for more than 50 years and a fight is a success going in if the odds are close. That means people are interested and can’t decide who’s gonna win and you live for those matches, and this is one of them. I have absolutely no idea who wins. That’s why the fight intrigues me. Other people have no idea. That’s why it’s such a great fight.”
A rematch of sorts
During their storied amateur careers, Gvozdyk and Beterbiev boxed at a tournament in 2009 and Beterbiev won by second-round stoppage.
Gvozdyk has a better recollection of the bout than Beterbiev, though neither dispute the outcome.
“We fought as amateurs, and he beat me. No excuse,” Gvozdyk said.
Beterbiev is hazy on the particulars.
“I know the fight was stopped in the second round. I don’t remember the details of how it happened but I know it was a second-round stoppage,” Beterbiev said through an interpreter. “I heard Gvozdyk say I broke his nose. I didn’t know that. He said that. It was only two rounds.”
While it makes for an interesting storyline, neither man believes it has anything to do with what will transpire Friday.
“I’m not paying attention to what happened 10 years ago,” Gvozdyk said. “I know he’s a strong guy and I know what I am facing. It was amateurs. It was a totally different situation. Right now we are different fighters. We are professionals now. We are more developed than we were. We are different fighters, so we’ll see what happens.”
Beterbiev agreed they are different fighters today than a decade ago, interjecting some humor to make his point.
“I changed. He changed. Everybody changed. His face changed, too — a little more hair,” Beterbiev joked.
The winner’s future
The winner will have two of the four major titles. The others belong to Sergey Kovalev, who is scheduled to defend against middleweight champion Canelo Alvarez on Nov. 2, and Dmitry Bivol, a broadcast free agent, who just retained his belt by near-shutout decision over Lenin Castillo this past Saturday.
Gvozdyk and Beterbiev are interested in further unifying the division, but likely won’t get a chance in the next fight because the winner will have one of his mandatory defenses due against China’s Meng Fanlong (16-0, 10 KOs), who won a final eliminator in June.
Arum and Fanlong promoter Dino Duva of Roc Nation Sports both told ESPN they are talking about the match.
“The winner has to fight Dino’s guy, who is the mandatory,” Arum said. “We got an exception to do this unification. We would look to do the fight maybe around Chinese New Year (which is Jan. 25), maybe in China.”
Training camp change-up
Following his amateur career, Beterbiev moved to Montreal to turn pro in 2013 and has lived and trained there since. But for this fight, he began his training camp in Russia.
“I went to Russia just for vacation, but I wanted to be, like, active. I went to altitude,” he said. “I used to (train) there when I was an amateur boxer. I had a good camp there. It was like preparation for our camp (in Canada) for eight weeks.”
Gvozdyk lives and trains in Oxnard, California, but also made a change for this camp. He did his entire camp in Philadelphia, where he also had his last fight, a third-round knockout of Doudou Ngumbu on March 30.
“First of all, we didn’t have to acclimate to the time difference because we’d be in the same time zone, and being that the weather would still be good, there was no problem with training here on the East Coast,” said Atlas, a proponent of the move. “Sometimes, you have to worry about bad weather with training on the East Coast. We didn’t have to worry about that. And not having to get on a plane and go across the country on the Sunday before the fight was a nice thing.”
Rafael’s prediction: I have no idea. It’s a true 50-50 fight. Forced to pick, I’ll go with Gvozdyk by knockout.