Dmitry Bivol was last seen brutalizing an Australian fighter, Trent Broadhurst, who was recovering from a lacerated liver.
As you might imagine, a boxer may feel extremely tentative and ineffective after having such a vulnerable and vital organ shredded. Bivol, to my recollection, didn’t land a big liver shot in the fight, but he did land a comically easy going straight right hand that ripped the conscious thought from poor Broadhurst’s body.
Many of us were annoyed with his decision to fight Broadhurst. No disrespect to the man, but he’s hardly a threat to anyone at the upper levels of the sport. An ordinary fighter in his twelfth pro fight should be fighting someone of that level, but Bivol seems anything but ordinary. Elevated to regular champion by the WBA, this counted as his first optional defense. Sullivan Barrera was available and eager to fight Bivol, but would be denied this time.
Instead, after his near shut out decision win of the weird, beautiful Felix Valera, Barrera was named the mandatory for Bivol’s WBA strap. The fight will take place March 3rd, as the co-feature to Sergey Kovalev vs. Igor Mikhalkin. I love this fight because if there is one guy out there to prove whether or not Bivol is ready for the elites of the 175-pound division it is Sullivan Barrera. Though it must be said that this is an obvious attempt to create hype for a potential Kovalev vs. Bivol showdown, I still want very much to see this fight.
The slick, hard punching Cuban has only lost once in his pro career, to Andre Ward. Given that Ward is perhaps the best fighter of the last 20 years, we can let him slide on that. In Cuba, Barrera compiled an impressive 285-27 record as an amateur, unsurprising to any who follow the exploits of Cuban amateurs. After defecting at age 27 (supposedly age 27, we all know the track record with Cuban athletes) Barrera went on a tear, winning his first seventeen fights before he would fight Andre Ward. Of those seventeen, all but five wins came inside the distance.
For Bivol, Barrera represents a challenge he has never seen as a professional. While we’re all quite impressed with Bivol’s obvious punching power, it’s hard to say how his blatantly straightforward style will play against a great boxer like Barrera. If he truly has the jaw-snapping power he appears to, then a little straightforwardness won’t hurt him. However, if Bivol has been racking up these knockouts against wet paper bags, it will be exposed on March 3rd.
Let’s review Bivol’s biggest step-up fight thus far as a means to analyze his skill level. That came against Cedric Agnew, a tricky southpaw who has challenged for world titles, but cannot be viewed as more than a fringe contender at this point in his career. Bivol started the fight showing good patience, waiting for an opening to attack Agnew. One thing you’ll note watching that fight is the way Bivol keeps his lethal right hand stapled to his face. He doesn’t drop his hands to expose himself to counters, and the way he attacks lends itself to responsible defense. He throws short lead left hooks followed by slicing right hands, all from range.
The first two rounds were a wash as Bivol punished Agnew for every false move he made, backing him up and hammering him, knocking him down in the first. As the third round began, and Agnew felt the need to come forward and try to land his own shots, Bivol showed off some impressive if limited counter punching skills. He’s fast and technically sound enough to take his opponents unwise aggression and turn it back on them, highlighted by a shocking counter right hand late in the round. The fight was stopped in the fourth, Agnew looking as though he was about to break down sobbing from sheer frustration.
I would have pulled him back after the third were I in the corner, but it’s academic now.
The best indication that a fighter has a complete skillset is his opponent’s output. As a fight wears on, the complete fighter will start to dominate and shut down any thought of firing back from the other boxer. I’m not sure we saw that in the Agnew fight, rather thinking we saw a mentally defeated man taste the power of young Bivol and immediately go into survival mode. This says nothing bad about Bivol but it’s hard to say if he put on a performance that would hold up against anyone in the division, or if he simply painted a portrait of violence on a blank canvas. I lean toward the latter, but Bivol’s talent certainly looked real.
Against Barrera, Bivol is going to need to do a lot more boxing than we’re used to seeing from the slugger. Sully is no joke, and has the requisite power and skill to beat nearly anyone. That said, Bivol is no slouch as a technician. Despite some mediocre opposition, you can see the amateur background in him. The problem he presents is this; the best way to defeat a puncher is to box him and the way to beat a boxer is to hurt him. Bivol it seems, can do both. While you stand there, trying to figure out how to beat this technically sound puncher, you get your head knocked off.
This quandary will trouble anyone who does not have the requisite experience or talent level to deal with it. Barrera has both, which is why this fight is so interesting. HBO must really believe in Bivol to be exposing him to a guy like this, but I call it a nearly 50/50 fight. Bivol will have to figure out how to penetrate Barrera’s defense while not getting popped himself, and Barrera will likely have to hurt Bivol to slow him down a little. The one thing we have no answers on at this point is Bivol’s chin, and we all know how a soft chin can derail an otherwise great boxer.
The upside is great for this fight. If Bivol can wipe out Barrera, or at least beat him convincingly, he will be making a real case for himself as the player at 175. If Barrera pulls off a win in the face of all the promotional momentum behind Bivol, he’ll finally have a shot at Kovalev. If Bivol loses, well that’s okay too. He’s a young guy, fighting a genuine top five light heavyweight. There is no shame in losing. For Barrera, it would leave him in the exact spot he is now: not considered an elite fighter, but still considered amongst the best at 175.
Whatever happens, this promises to be an interesting fight and an entertaining card.