TThere have been times this week when Dmitry Bivol, the undefeated standout WBA light heavyweight world champion, has been reduced to a ghostly figure in Las Vegas. Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez, his challenger on Saturday night, dominates boxing and that is why Bivol’s complex and layered life has been ignored.
The 31-year-old Russian is considered by many to be simply the next opponent for the mighty Mexican. Canelo, the undisputed super middleweight world champion, is moving up to light heavyweight to presumably dispatch Bivol before returning to his regular weight class in September to face bitter rival Gennady Golovkin.
Bivol, meanwhile, waits quietly in the shadows. He is mainly asked on his thoughts on Canelo and, much less frequently, about the war in Ukraine and how it feels to be a Russian fighting in the United States at a time when his country’s onslaught has devastated millions of lives. But, in a long and occasionally tense conversation, Bivol’s true story unfolds.
“My mother and father were born in the great country, the USSR,” he says wryly. “But my father was actually born in Moldova and only spoke Moldovan until he was 10 years old. My mother [who is of Korean descent] was born in Kazakhstan. Then his family moved to Kyrgyzstan. One day, when they graduated, they met in Russia. They got married and moved to my mother’s house in Kyrgyzstan. I was born in Kyrgyzstan and lived there for 11 years.”
They spoke Russian at home, but Bivol felt more affinity with Kyrgyzstan. “It’s a big country. It is not a rich country but it has great people, nice people. It is my country. Much of my life after that was spent in Russia, but I love Kyrgyzstan. I love the culture and it is different from Russia. Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim country and I have many Muslim friends.”
Bivol fell in love with boxing in Kyrgyzstan after his interest in combat sports was sparked, he says with a laugh, “Jackie Chan movies. He has a big heart and good fighting skills. I remember that he never killed anyone in his movies. He was just funny.”
There is no room for fun when we head to Russia. I ask Bivol how he felt as a Russian citizen when, on February 24, Vladimir Putin launched the assault on him. “When I found out about the war, even if it’s in Vietnam or Iraq, he made me sad. We are people. We have to make a better world for all of us. Of course it’s sad.”
Bivol’s position is that politics and sport do not mix. But sport cannot escape this conflict. Russian teams have been excluded from tournaments and individual Russian athletes have been prevented from competing in their chosen sport. Boxing, however, has chosen not to address the issue beyond the fact that the Russian anthem will not be played in the ring on Saturday. Is Bivol relieved or disappointed?
“We all have to be proud of where we come from. It doesn’t matter if he is from Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Africa, England. I understand why I am flagless here. No problem. I am an athlete. I am focused on the fight”.
What are your views on the war? “I don’t know about politics,” says Bivol awkwardly. “I’m in sports so I don’t know about coronavirus or politics. Most boxing fans just want to see light heavyweight. [champion] against the king pound for pound.”
When it is pointed out that Wladimir Klitschko, the former world heavyweight champion, has called for his fight against Canelo to be cancelled, Bivol shrugs. “He is politician. He doesn’t have to look.”
Wladimir’s brother Vitali is the mayor of kyiv. It is a sign of the esteem in which boxers are still held in Eastern Europe. Have you met Putin? “I met him once when he invited the athletes to the world combat games in 2013.”
Did you talk to Putin? “No. No. There were a lot of us there.”
As much as he would prefer to avoid war, Bivol admits that his father would normally have flown from St. Petersburg to support him in Las Vegas. But he has been unable to obtain a visa from US authorities. “Every time they worry about me and this is a really dangerous fight,” he says of his parents and his wife. “But they understand that I love boxing. It helps my family and I am happy that boxing helps me realize my potential.”
But boxing is a terribly dangerous business and Bivol is moved when he remembers the death of maxim dadshevthe Russian light welterweight who lost his life in July 2019 after suffering brain injuries in his fight in America against Subriel Matías.
“Maxim was my friend,” says Bivol. “I have known him since 2003. We boxed and trained together and spent a lot of time in competitions because we were in the same team from St. Petersburg. He was a fun guy who always fought really hard. As a professional we see each other sometimes when he comes to Los Angeles. I knew that his family and his wife now live next to me. [in St Petersburg]. We invite his wife and his son to our house, like when my children have their birthdays”.
How does Elizaveta, Maxim’s wife, manage? Bivol shakes his head. “For a year after her tragedy, she cried every day. She is difficult.”
Did his death cause Bivol to consider his future in boxing? “Of course. In training I thought a lot about defense. It’s dangerous. All my coaches said, ‘It’s better if you take zero hits and [land] a hit'”.
If he’s not at home in St. Petersburg, Bivol is training in California. “When I have a weekend to rest I like to walk on the beach, eat some quesadillas, go to a museum. I’m not an art expert, but sometimes I like to spend time in art museums.”
Bivol smiles sheepishly. He knows that he is a true expert in the ring, even if some doubt that he will ever get a decision against Canelo in Las Vegas. “I look forward to Saturday night and I never think about the judges. I don’t say: ‘Oh, I’m in Las Vegas, against Canelo, everything against me.’ Do not.'”
The shadow of Canelo and Putin stretches throughout this contest, but Bivol is a decent man and a very good fighter. “I just need to be the best version of myself in order to win,” he says before, with a smile and a handshake, he disappears from sight again.
Bivol v Álvarez is on DAZN in the UK and on DAZN pay-per-view in the US.