A while back I did a quick article where I watched several of Anthony Joshua's fights and tried to pick out his strengths and weaknesses at that point in his career. I've been meaning to do the same for another favourite prospect of mine, Russian Light Heavyweight Dmitry Bivol... and this week I finally got around to it.
Bivol is young (he just turned 25) and he is a former 2-time 'Under-17' World Champion, former European Champion for both 'Under-17' and 'Under-21' age groups, and multiple-time Russian National champion for all age groups. He participated in AIBA's World Series of Boxing and went undefeated but I can't find his exact record. He turned pro about one year ago (end of 2014) and so far he is 5-0 (5 KOs). Especially in Russian circles, Bivol is regarded as the most promising Russian prospect regardless of weight class, so I thought I'd actually watch and see what they were on about. I watched his 4 most recent bouts:
In chronological order:
Here is his second fight, against Russian veteran Konstantin Piternov
His 3rd fight against African journeyman Joey Vegas
Here is his 4th fight and his biggest test to date, going 8 rounds against Mexican gatekeeper Felipe Romero
And here is his most recent bout, where he looked his most spectacular, toying with and dismantling Brazilian puncher Jackson Junior
When I wrote the similar scouting report on Anthony Joshua, I divided what I saw into 6 categories of observations, from the best habits on display to the worst.
The Very Best
1) Combination Punching. Bivol throws any and all possible combinations, spectacularly fluid and natural in switching between jabs, hooks, uppercuts. Very few of his punches are single shots. What's more impressive - he counters opponents with combinations on very different incoming punches. He seems a natural at transforming every opponent lunge into a full-fledged attack of his own. To my eyes, Juan Manuel Marquez has always been a master of this art and I see a bit of what Marquez does in Bivol, although their styles are nothing alike in other areas.
2) Timing. Against his opposition thus far, Bivol has displayed stunning ability to time his opponents' punches and movements. At least two of his KOs (Piternov and Jackson Junior) came when he met an opponent move with a perfectly placed bomb just as they were moving into position to strike. And so far it has never taken him more than two or three rounds to get his timing down.
3) Feints. For such a young fighter, Bivol is just a natural at feinting the lead shot in his combinations. Because he punches so effortlessly in combinations with both hands and because he is very creative in his combinations (sometimes starting with a jab, sometimes starting with a lead left hook, sometimes starting with a lead straight right hand and even the 'rara avis' - lead right hook to the body), you never know what to expect of him and he plays this up all the time squaring his shoulders up for one shot but then unexpectedly throwing another one.
4) Overall technique. Bivol is at the same time very natural and very disciplined in everything he does. His movement, his punching technique, his footwork are all textbook.
4) Guard. For the adepts of the much beloved European 'hands up at all times' adage (which I know Connor dislikes), Bivol is a real treat. His discipline and stamina to keep his right hand UP by his chin at all times is just picture perfect. And I freakin' mean up at all times. He also effortlessly moves between a very efficient two-handed high guard in-and-out to a position of jabbing with the left while keeping his right firmly attached in defense. I think his coach must really love him for this.
5) Jab. Bivol jabs so fluently and effortlessly, with just perfect technique, fluidity and variation in power.
6) Work rate. Bivol simply punches a lot for a Light Heavyweight and most of his stoppages have come as a consequence of gradually beating his opponents into exhaustion/submission.
7) Body work. Bivol goes to the body with conviction, power and with both hands.
8) Footwork and balance. Bivol has solid, balanced footwork that helps him get good leverage on his shots while at the same time allowing him to step back unexpectedly to avoid looping opponent shots.
9) Upper body movement. Leans back effortlessly and uses his body movement to dodge opponent counters without having to step out of his prefered range and interrupt the exchange.
10) Caution and pacing. Does not overcommit to his punches, even when he has the opponent in trouble and is always leery of return fire. Seems to fight in control and be calm and aware at all times
11) Stamina. Bivol went 8 pretty intensive rounds with Felipe Romero and his workrate and concentration did not seem to go down with passing rounds. I did notice that he did take a few rounds of respite here and there in all 4 fights that I watched, slightly decreasing his offense, but interestingly enough in all cases, those were the rounds where he hurt his opponents worst, as said opponents took it as a sign of weakness, tried to attack and got punished.
12) Hand speed. Bivol has decent, but not overwhelmingly fast hands.
The Not So Great But Improving
13) Head Movement. As relaxed as his arms and torso are, his neck looks stiff at most times and prefers rotate his whole torso or lean back entirely rather than dodge punches with subtle movements of the head. Still, movement is definitely part of his defensive arsenal.
14) Power. Despite the deceptive 100% KO ration, Bivol does not seem to have the sort of sick punch power that some other fighters from the former Eastern Block seem to enjoy. All of his opponents withstood many flush shots without seeming too bothered. Although to be fair, all 4 bouts ended after one sudden out-of-nowhere power-punch that sent the opponents directly back home. So it is not inconceivable that he saves his best power shots for the correct timing and the correct moment.
15) Face tissue. Maybe a bit like Ruslan Provodnikov, another fighter from the deep Asian steppes / taiga, Bivol's face has a tendency to puff up rather easily. I haven't yet seen him cut up, but his cheeckbones do seem to quickly start inflating after just a few punches.
16) Size/athleticism. At least at this point in his career, Bivol does not look as impressive physically as many other boxers. He is neither large nor long for the weight and does not have beautifully chiseled muscles.
17) Inside fighting. Seems to have a preferred range and almost never punches if he is outside that range. Meaning that if he is tied up or engaged inside, he doesn't fire back and doesn't try to wrestle into a position of control.
18) Lack of flair. Bivol is not a flashy fighter. He doesn't dance, doesn't shoulder roll, doesn't punch from weird angles, he is not a slippery, twerky mover. In that sense his style is perhaps easier to cuantify and plan against than, say, many American boxers.
The Downright Horrible
There is absolutely nothing that Bivol does that is downright wrong. Unless his chin or his toughness are eventually found out when he steps up in competition, Bivol has no glaring weaknesses that I could spot, which is awesome for him.
It is too early to tell how good Bivol will really be.
Right now, if nothing else, Bivol is a joy to watch. Especially in his most recent bout against Jackson Junior, he just looked like Lomachenko's boxer-painter in there. Granted, the Brazilian covered up and let him go to work. At the European level, Bivol has already proven that he can dissect and open up a turtle-shell high-guard defense, which is pretty popular this side of the Atlantic. I have yet to see him in against a mover or a slickster, not that there are many such fighters at 175 pounds currently. But his phenomenal timing makes me think there's every chance of him doing well against more mobile targets. His apparent lack of weaknesses is also encouraging, as are his deep amateur background and obvious talent.
As detailed in Scott's article on the state of the Light Heavyweight division, there is a lot of up-and-coming talent so Bivol doesn't have an easy way to the top in a division just waiting for him to take over (like Felix Verdejo or Anthony Joshua arguably do). So as a Bivol fan, I have reason to hope for the best but I do realize he has his work cut out for him.
If I were his matchmaker I would be curious to see him in with fellow Russian prospect Vasily Lepikhin, veteran gatekeeper Denis Grachev or South African fringe contender Ryno Liebenberg.