Dmitry Bivol on Boxing's New Wave of Eastern Europeans

By James Kinneen Aug 1, 2018


With St. Petersburg, Russia’s Dmitry Bivol traveling to Atlantic City to face Isaac Chilemba on the undercard of HBO’s Sergey Kovalev-Eleider Alvarez telecast, the question of whether he would be doing any gambling at one of the city’s famous casinos came up. But, while Floyd Mayweather likes to flaunt his exorbitant wagers on social media, often punctuated with arrogant statements like “easy money” and “easy work,” Bivol’s philosophy is much different.

“I try to gamble, it’s fun, but I’m not one of those people that believe that winning comes easy” Bivol told Sherdog.com. “I don’t think that you can bet a dollar and win 100, I’m not a believer in that. I enjoy going to those places and I enjoy travelling, but I like to get the reward for the work that I put in. That’s my philosophy.”

Everything about Bivol’s stoic answer aligns perfectly with how we have come to see Eastern European fighters, since the days they were not allowed to compete as professionals. What does not align with expectations is his tremendous slickness and beautiful boxing ability.

For decades, Eastern European fighters were praised for their technique, work ethic and toughness, but derided for their stiffness and predictable nature. The plodding, robotic Russian who stood straight up and jab, jab, jab, right handed his way to victory may have been a boxing stereotype, but it was a stereotype rooted in reality. But now, with men like Vasyl Lomachenko, Oleksandr Usyk and Bivol himself, suddenly some of the slickest men in boxing hail from former the former Soviet Bloc, so much so that during Bivol’s eventual 12th round stoppage of Sullivan Barrera, Max Kellerman repeatedly compared Bivol’s style to things Roy Jones Jr. did in his prime, a once blasphemous idea that Dmitry didn’t especially agree with.

“It’s hard to say, everybody’s kind of different in a way,” Bivol said. “But I’ve watched some fights of Roy Jones, I’ve watched some fights of Sugar Ray Leonard. I really like him and enjoy watching his fights. I take a little bit here and there, so we have some things that look alike, but at the end of the day we’re all kind of unique.”

It's hard to explain how radical the idea of a Russian fighter trying to emulate Sugar Ray Leonard would sound to a fight fan from even the early 2000s, never mind any time before. What produced this sudden shift in styles? New training regimens, rules changes in the amateur ranks or a resurgent interest in strange folk dancing? Bivol believes the answer is much simpler: Eastern Europe just started sending its best fighters.

“I believe that the first wave of fighters that came to the United States was probably not the top amateur fighters in our amateur program,” Bivol said. “It was mostly probably fighters that were a little bit you know, down the line, and they were not so slick but they still showed a lot of success. And then the second wave kind of came along that were fighters who were the top of the amateur team, and they also realized that after achieving things in the amateur program they wanted to try themselves in the pros, so I think that’s probably the main reason.”

Whatever happened, there’s no question Dmitry Bivol is a star in the making. He was the second man to beat, and the first man to stop Barrera, a feat even Andre Ward couldn’t manage. On Saturday, he faces another litmus test in Issac Chilemba, a man who has yet to truly be stopped despite facing men like Sergey Kovalev, Tony Bellew and Eleider Alvarez (Chilemba retired with an elbow injury in the eighth round against Oleksandr Gvozdyk). Bivol claims his aim in the fight is not a stoppage nor a decision win, but to entertain the fans.

“My main goal is to make sure this is a great fight for my fans, that it is exciting to watch,” Bivol said. “My primary goal is not to try and knock him out. If it happens, it happens, but it’s not my main priority. We both move well on our feet, so I have to make sure I’m a bit quicker on my feet, that I’m balanced and landing the shots I need to land and not let him do that. Chilemba is not the type of fighter that it’s easy to make an exciting fight with. He does a lot of things to create difficulties and he showed that in his fights with Sergey Kovalev and Oleksandr Gvozdyk. He has a great jab, he does a lot of head movement and body movement to not let you land the punches that are effective. He’s a good slick boxer, he knows how to use his advantages in the ring and that’s definitely a challenge for me.”

Another Russian, Sergey Kovalev, has the other belt at light heavyweight, is the bigger name and has been the main attraction on two cards Bivol will have appeared on by the end of Saturday night. If both fighters win on Saturday, that fight seems inevitable, a fact that even a heavily Chilemba-focused Bivol was forced to concede.

“Yeah, definitely I see this fight happening in the future,” Bivol said. “There’s no question about it but for me the most important thing is to make sure the public, the fans really want to see that fight. I mean, this is a big fight between two of the top light heavyweights in the world, so I want to make sure the fans want to see it. When everybody wants to see it, the fight will definitely happen.”

If on Saturday night in Atlantic City, Dmitry Bivol dazzles fans again and stops Chilemba, and Kovalev “Krushes” the undefeated Eleider Alvarez, it seems likely the people will be calling for it.

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