A Page Turn Light Heavyweight

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By Cliff Rold

This Saturday, in one of the final HBO boxing broadcasts (10 PM EST), 27-year old WBA light heavyweight titlist Dmitry Bivol (14-0, 11 KO) will defend his title against 36-year old former WBC and lineal champion Jean Pascal (33-5-1, 20 KO). Most expect Bivol to win. Pascal is over eight years removed from a career best win over Chad Dawson. Despite a modest two fight win streak, his last three significant fights were all defeats at the hands of Eleider Alvarez and twice by stoppage to Sergey Kovalev.

For Bivol, it will be a chance to add the most recognizable name to his resume to date. In a broader sense, it can be seen as a potential piece of a sea change at 175 lbs. Stranger upsets have happened, but assuming conventional wisdom holds it would be the second of three significant matches between men who represent where the division was and where it’s going.

Pascal has been a fixture in the division for a decade. Since losing an opportunity at a vacant super middleweight title in a fantastic battle with Carl Froch, he’s faced a who’s who at light heavyweight. He didn’t win them all, but win, lose, or draw, fans who saw his fights with Adrian Diaconu, Dawson, Bernard Hopkins, and Kovalev can recall Pascal’s years at light heavyweight as a net plus for the class.

If Bivol is his last flirtation with the title scene, it would be one more plus, part of the ritual passage of time in boxing that usually requires the old to physically be supplanted by the new.

What’s going on though is not so much a youth movement as it is a talent replacement, a turning of the page. Bivol is the only current titlist in the class in his 20s. But it’s worth asking if a new page will fill in some of the blanks the last one did not?

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The first piece of the turn came in came in August. The 34-year old Colombian Alvarez (24-0, 12 KO) waited years for a crack at WBC titlist Adonis Stevenson that never came. Instead, he got his title try against Kovalev. Kovalev had regained the WBO belt after the retirement of the man who defeated him twice, once to much debate and once by stoppage, Andre Ward. Alvarez knocked Kovalev out in seven rounds.

A rematch is coming between Alvarez and Kovalev. Maybe Kovalev can move the dial back in his direction. The Russian can still crack. It doesn’t feel like the most likely outcome and would cement a hard break from his part of an era at light heavyweight.

The last piece will be played out on the first day of December. Showtime will air, prior to the Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury pay-per-view, a showdown between 41-year old lineal and WBC kingpin Adonis Stevenson (29-1-1, 24 KO) and 31-year old Oleksandr Gvozdyk (15-0, 12 KO). Stevenson survived a stiff challenge from Badou Jack earlier this year and, in his mandatory Gvozdyk, finds himself with the toughest pair of consecutive matches he’s had since the remarkable 2013 campaign that saw him win and defend his crown twice.

It’s been often disappointing since. Fan friendly wins over Andrzej Fonfara (the first time) and Thomas Williams stood out in a sea of less scintillating fare and bouts of inactivity. There was a feeling at times that Stevenson was coasting, collecting checks with the smallest risk he could find. Jack and Gvozdyk are quite the opposite of that. Gvozdyk is a dangerous challenger and few would be surprised to see him lift the crown.

If Gvozdyk and Bivol both win, it completes the resetting of the stage with a hard shove to some of the names that carried the class for most of this decade. Unmentioned so far, 33-year old IBF light heavyweight titlist Artur Beterbiev (13-0, 13 KO) hasn’t had a chance to tackle an established name and may not get one.

He will fold organically into whatever the picture of the division will be in 2019. Let’s assume Gvozdyk wins next month (and that’s a very tentative assumption). We could be staring at a class where the combined record of the four major titlists in the class is by then 68-0. That creates a world of new possibilities and a chance to fix some of what went wrong in the last few years.

It is more myth than reality that the best don’t fight the best in boxing. We see top contenders face off all the time across the fistic landscape. It is not a myth that a lot has been left on the table in recent years at light heavyweight. Stevenson-Kovalev never happened; Ward retired before anyone could seriously wonder about a fight with Stevenson. A Stevenson-Pascal fight always seemed like it could be a big draw in Canada but never came to pass.

The era was left without completion. If Stevenson wins in December, it could recast his reign and increase wonder about how he would have done against Kovalev or Ward. Those answers aren’t retrievable now in their most relevant form and that’s too bad.

Maybe a new crew can do better.

The last era at light heavyweight gave us plenty of good fights but not all of the right fights when it should have. A clean page would wait to be filled with new answers.

Bivol and Gvozdyk have to determine if a new page has been fully reached first. Then they have to join with Beterbiev and Alvarez to ask the right questions. 

Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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