The week of his fight against Joe Smith Jr., a short video circulated of one of Artur Beterbiev’s training sessions. This time, it wasn’t one of the torturous sessions he’s become known for, the ones with circus strongman-type feats. No push-ups on his wrists, no juggling an Olympic lifting bar or using the ab wheel with his feet. This time it was a simple video, shared by No Nonsense Boxing, just Beterbiev in front of the wall-mounted uppercut bag throwing one punch over and over. One after another, Beterbiev would slip his head to the right and throw a jab with the tiniest bit of arc to it, as if it were coming over top of a right hand coming at him, or perhaps to disguise it as a hook. Every punch that landed sounded like an explosion in the empty gym, as the ambidextrous light heavyweight champion showed off the perks of having destructive power in both hands, of being able to harm a top-level opponent with just a jab.
The Beterbiev puzzle can seem quite easy to solve on its surface, especially if you’re a fighter like Joe Smith Jr., one who himself has seldom met a man who could handle his power. Beterbiev doesn’t shy away from contact, and has been dropped early in fights in the past. The conceit is that Beterbiev is an A+ pressure fighter, so why not make him fight backing up? Beterbiev starts slow and grinds you down, so why not jump on him early before he has a chance to get started?
These seemed like wise decisions, and it appeared that Smith approached his fight with Beterbiev within this framework. The problem, as Smith found out on Saturday night, is that Beterbiev is much more nuanced, and somehow even stronger than he might appear.
When the bell rang at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden and the two light heavyweight titleholders officially put their belts on the line, Smith went right after Beterbiev. The urgency with which Smith approached was noticeable even in Beterbiev’s gait in retreat, shuffling backwards a little faster than perhaps he would like to when boxing off of his back foot. This likely seemed like a great sign to Smith, and surely to his supporters. Beterbiev was ceding ground rapidly, and seemingly at some point would have to park along the ropes for a moment, a position in which Smith has a chance to knock out any man.
“That's something we repeated again and again for more than ten weeks in the gym. Everyone was expecting an explosion, two trains going against eachother, but Artur has a little more sophisticated boxing,” Beterbiev’s trainer Marc Ramsay told Boxing Scene.
That hope only lasted for maybe a minute and a half, however. Beterbiev did find his back on the ropes, but he also found one of the jabs he’d thrown over and over against the wall, and a cuffing right hand to bring behind it. Smith backed up for the first time in the fight, and covered up as Beterbiev swatted downwards with right hands as Smith took refuge behind his guard.
It was perhaps in that moment that Smith decided that he wouldn’t bother trying Plan B on this night. He could try to box Beterbiev and be persistence hunted to his demise, or he could just roll the dice and plough forward.
And so he did. With moments left in the first round, he charged at Beterbiev, backing him against the ropes as he did in those early confidence-boosting moments, but this time the same right hand that hit him the first time knocked him off-balance for a knockdown. The very same sequence repeated itself for the second knockdown in Round 2, and again for the third knockdown.
Suddenly, Smith no longer had a choice when it came to his game plan, he was merely surviving. Now, Beterbiev was in the center of the ring, his momentum moving forward, and able to show off his full offensive arsenal. After jabs and right hands probed around and through the guard of Smith, Beterbiev unleashed a left uppercut. Not the kind of punch one would expect from an alleged brutish power puncher, but a clever, quick, picturesque shot a slickster might throw that sent Smith into disarray, stumbling and turning towards the ropes in a fashion that made the referee realize the fight shouldn’t continue.
“He sends you a fax before he throws the right hand, his best punch. He contracts his body very strongly, he sends you the message that he's going to throw the right hand, and we were able to move to the right side and make sure that he was not in good position to throw that right hand (but) Artur was in a good position to counter him,” said Ramsay.
“I put it in the mind of Artur that it was going to be a tough fight. But the thing is, with the style of Joe Smith and especially the way he started the first round very aggressive, with Beterbiev you're going to pay the price. That was a possibility, if you asked me which direction (the fight was going to go), but I was more of a believer in a long fight.”
Beterbiev’s destruction of Smith was the kind of eye-opening performance that somehow boosted the Q-rating of a man already generally regarded as the division’s best. Two fights ago, Beterbiev defeated the unheralded Adam Deines in a fight that took longer than one might have expected it to go, a tenth-round TKO over a mandatory challenger. It wasn’t the best Beterbiev had ever looked, albeit a lengthy layoff, injury and bout with COVID might have had something to do with it. But following that fight, it wasn’t uncommon to hear observers suggest that Beterbiev could lose to Canelo Alvarez. Even after his bloody win over Marcus Browne, one in which he fought through a grotesque gash to grind down his opponent, there were still questions about Beterbiev’s longevity and vulnerability as champion.
Those types of questions and doubts weren’t prevalent on the timeline in the wee hours of Sunday morning and subsequently.
The degree of skepticism about Beterbiev has no doubt been influenced by his advanced age (37), and relatively low number of fights against top-level opposition. Some of it has been influenced by the brevity and ease of many of his fights, and the natural curiosity about what would happen if he were in a longer, tougher bout—though more and more it’s becoming clear that the issue isn’t his capability of winning those types of bouts but his skill level preventing them from ever getting to that point.
But Beterbiev himself speaks like a doubter as well. In late-2021 he told Herb Zurkowsky of the Montreal Gazette, in earnest, that he was “not so good” but that he was “working on it.” He echoed similar sentiments following his win over Smith.
“I want to be a good boxer one day, maybe. My coach tells me it’s not far to become a good boxer,” he said, while distilling his victory into merely “getting to (Smith) first,” as if it were a matter of luck.
“It's a half-joke,” explained Ramsay. “It's a joke, but at the same time it's not a joke, because for him, he's trying to get better every single day. You need a (whole) life to be a good boxer. This is how he goes about going to the gym every day.”
Beterbiev is certainly not void of confidence, he’s simply an unquenchable learner. In his spare time, he plays chess and listens to audiobooks, he has both a law degree and one in physical education. He moved from Russia to Canada and learned to speak English in less than twelve months. As a boxer however, the one thing that would seemingly give Beterbiev some degree of satisfaction with his level of achievement would be a victory over fellow light heavyweight titleholder Dmitry Bivol, the holder of the one belt at 175 pounds Beterbiev would need for a complete collection.
“People were starting to talk about (Anthony) Yarde, but we had never heard about that situation before,” said Ramsay while forecasting his fighter’s desired next steps. “Of course, it's Bivol. Even if you offered Artur today to fight Canelo or Bivol, even if Canelo can bring more money to the table, he will choose Bivol because what he wants is to completely unify the division.”
Corey Erdman is a boxing commentator and writer based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman