In the 29 years that Artur Beterbiev has been a boxer, he has suffered only one notable cut: a snake-shaped gash, about 3 inches long, that curled up from his forehead to his hairline.
Since there is little fatty tissue on the forehead – actually I’m not sure if Beterbiev has fatty tissue – it was impossible to close the laceration during the fight. It dripped in a steady drip, the kind you might call a plumber for. It didn’t take long for everything to be shaded in crimson: Beterbiev; his opponent, the dangerous Marcus Browne, who seems to have a knack for opening such wounds; the referee Michael Griffin; and the ring itself, which resembled a crime scene of the most gruesome kind.
What happened that night – December 17, 2021 – in the fourth round provided the kind of test no fighter can prepare for. Usually a fighter goes to the referee first. (In Beterbiev’s case, it’s worth noting that the fight could have been declared a “no contest” if it had ended before four rounds were completed.) Then, after returning to his corner, he tries to hit the coach and read the cutman. Since it’s human nature to make sure, especially at times of bleeding, cornermen usually lie: It’s not bad at all. However, with Beterbiev already covered in blood, that wasn’t really an option.
“This was a cut you couldn’t control,” says Luc-Vincent Ouellet, who was brought on duty when Beterbiev’s regular cutman Russ Anber tested positive for COVID-19.
Artur Beterbiev’s face is covered in blood during a vicious fight against Marcus Browne in 2021. Bernard Brault/Groupe Yvon Michel
Not that it bothered Beterbiev. “Guys cut that bad are usually looking for someone to stop the fight,” says John Scully, an assistant at the Beterbiev camp. “They come back and say, ‘Is it bad?’ or ‘How’s it looking?’ But Artur said nothing, I mean nothing, not a face.
“I’ve never seen that before.”
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Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+: Artur Beterbiev vs. Anthony Yarde, 12 rounds, for Beterbiev’s WBC, WBO and IBF light heavyweight titles
He’ll probably never see it again. Beterbiev, who will defend his three light heavyweight belts against his mandatory challenger – the formidable Anthony Yarde of England – in London on Saturday, is not only unique for his strength and temperament. He is the most underrated champion in boxing. He has 18 knockouts in 18 pro fights. According to Compubox, he is boxing’s second-longest reigning world champion after Errol Spence Jr. and second-oldest after Gennadiy Golovkin. Nevertheless, these figures fall short as descriptors. By the time Golovkin was 38, like Beterbiev now, he was already in decline. No shame – it’s human nature – but Beterbiev seems to be reaching its peak.
In June, it was a second-round knockout of WBO champion Joe Smith Jr. Davor Browne. Beterbiev bled for five more rounds that night until Browne finally fell to one knee, from which he refused to get up until the referee had counted ten for sure. Aside from the blood, however, it was the typical Beterbiev win: a slow-tightening noose, a strangulation masquerading as destruction.
Beterbiev started late in the pro game. After representing Russia at two Olympics, he was recruited by Marc Ramsay, a Canadian coach who had devised an elaborate scouting system to find medalless players who would go on to win professional titles. They were all, as it turned out, light heavyweights. First Jean Pascal from Canada, then Eleider Alvarez from Colombia, now Beterbiev. Ramsay was a 16-year-old right winger looking to get in shape when he first set foot in a boxing arena. Now he was a kingmaker.
However, unlike many of boxing’s kingmakers, his ego remained of this earth. In 2016, Beterbiev asked for a former pro to be added as an assistant coach. Another coach would not have agreed. But Ramsay called “Iceman” John Scully, a former light heavyweight contender and a fixture on the US boxing scene since the 1980s. Ramsay recalled the sparring practice Scully had given Pascal and how Scully had coached Chad Dawson for his win over Bernard Hopkins.
They are an unlikely pair, Beterbiev and the Iceman. Scully lives and breathes boxing. Beterbiev, he says, “probably doesn’t know who Spence is.” Beterbiev is a circumspect, sphinx-like, a devout Muslim Chechen from Russia’s Republic of Dagestan. Scully is exuberant and American.
They started perfecting Beterbiev’s jab and then the body shots, a much-neglected part of the amateur game. For a man who wasn’t a huge boxing nerd, however, Beterbiev was totally devoted to the task. He showed an unnatural ability to concentrate. Even more unnatural, at least in Scully’s experience, were the sparring partners.
“We had people literally counting the days to go home,” says Scully. “They wanted the money, but they didn’t want to absorb that power. You ask them to describe it, they just shake their heads. And we tell them all beforehand, ‘Hey, don’t be a hero.’”
Still, it wasn’t necessarily power that she achieved; it was the pressure, the strength, combined with a frightening patience. “Sparring partners would say he makes you feel like you’re suffocating,” Scully continues. “It’s like he’s sucking all the air out of the room, but you’re still in there without oxygen.”
Beterbiev stops Browne to retain Montreal titles
Artur Beterbiev knocks out Marcus Browne, ending the fight for his WBC and IBF light heavyweight titles.
It’s just sparring, of course. But that’s how Browne went down. Blood or no blood, Browne endured until he couldn’t anymore. The same goes for Oleksandr Gvozdyk, an Olympic silver medalist for the vaunted Ukraine national team, a fighter who defeated the much-feared Adonis Stevenson to win his title. Although Gvozdyk was ahead in points at the time of the stoppage, the result somehow felt unstoppable. During the ninth round, Scully noticed Gvozdyk coming out of a clinch: “He sagged. I could see him melting. Artur came back into the corner, I told him, ‘He’s ready. It’s time.'”
Gvozdyk, a good and brave fighter, knelt three times in this tenth round.
Smith’s knockout was obviously more atypical. “Smith knocked out a lot of good guys,” says Scully, “but he was perfect for Artur. People don’t understand that. This fight was not a demolition.
“You can’t match Artur’s strength so people think he’s just a cracker. But he really is a technician. He really took his time with this fight. He had Smith come to him. grabbing his right elbow and leading him into right uppercuts. It’s the nifty stuff that people don’t see.
However, a perfect record doesn’t make you a perfect fighter. Beterbiev, who can make himself a square target, is beatable. He was knocked down twice, in 2014 and 2018, each time early in the fight. This appears to be Yarde’s best bet: catching him hard and early. Then again, how did that work out for Smith?
“Artur cuts the ring better than any boxer today,” says Scully. “Do you remember ‘Pac-Man’ the video game? He is like that. He follows you everywhere. Then he suddenly stops and turns, say, left, because he knows where you’re going.
“Remember Pac-Man the video game? He is like that. He follows you everywhere. Then he suddenly stops and turns, say, left, because he knows where you’re going. Then you stop.” John Scully
Then he eats you.
Scully doesn’t think Yarde, who tired out in a 2019 11th-round KO loss to Sergey Kovalev, will be up for the pace. Yarde being a WBO compulsory makes perfect sense to Scully: “No one in the world wants to fight Artur.
In fact, there may be a single exception and he just so happens to be the 2022 Fighter of the Year. Dmitry Bivol, who beat Canelo Alvarez and Gilberto Ramirez, was Russia’s rising star when Beterbiev last fought for the national team. When Beterbiev beats Yarde, it’s a fight both men say they want.
“Dmitry asked for the fight,” says his manager Vadim Kornilov. “We’re just waiting to see what happens. Money is very important. But this is a big, big fight for the legacy.”
Bivol, unbeaten in 21 pro fights, isn’t the tallest or the strongest at 175 pounds. But he is by far the best boxer with a sleek, confident style. His last eight wins against some of the division’s biggest punchers have been unanimous. So that’s something to get excited about: Beterbiev and Bivol for the undisputed light heavyweight championship. It might not be the splatter film some fans secretly want. But it’s just as good a straight fight as it is in sport, with two very different types of technicians: one that typically goes the distance and one that doesn’t, each possessing a daunting patience.