This Saturday night, Canelo Alvarez faces Daniel Jacobs. That’s the fight that is dominating the news cycle this week, the biggest fight of 2019 to date, a meeting of top middleweights at the tops of their games. Oh, and ESPN has a show counter-programming the DAZN effort, featuring a pair of world title fights.
If you’re wondering why Top Rank and ESPN are going head-to-head with what will be one of the biggest fight nights of the year, it’s not what you might expect, no desire to hurt or affect the numbers on DAZN or anything like that. They simply promised Artur Beterbiev that they’d get him into the ring before Ramadan, which begins May 5, and May 4 was the only open date they had.
So in the main event on ESPN’s Saturday show, Beterbiev faces Radivoje Kalajdzic. Let’s talk about it!
What’s at stake?
Beterbiev (13-0, 13 KO) will be defending the IBF title against Kalajdzic (24-1, 17 KO) in the 12-round fight. Beterbiev is also looking to protect his unbeaten pro record, of course, and the winner is potentially in the mix for a big unification fight at some point with either WBO titleholder Sergey Kovalev or WBC titleholder Oleksandr Gvozdyk, who are also Top Rank/ESPN fighters, or with WBA titleholder Dmitry Bivol, who is a broadcast free agent.
How did Artur Beterbiev get here?
The 34-year-old Beterbiev was an accomplished amateur in Russia, scoring wins over the likes of the aforementioned Sergey Kovalev and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Egor Mekhontsev. Beterbiev himself competed at the 2008 Olympics, controversially losing in the second round to China’s Zhang Xiaoping in Beijing.
Still competing as a light heavyweight, he won gold at the 2009 World Championships in Milan, and moved to heavyweight for the 2011 World Championships, where he lost to Oleksandr Usyk in the quarterfinals. He stayed at heavyweight for the 2012 Olympics in London, where he beat Michael Hunter on countback but lost again to Usyk in the quarterfinals. (Usyk went on to win gold at both events.)
Beterbiev, now based in Montreal, turned pro in June 2013 as a more or less finished product at age 28. In his sixth pro fight in Sept. 2014, he blasted out former titleholder Tavoris Cloud in the second round, announcing his arrival on the world scene as a pro.
Things kind of stagnated from there, though. He ran through Jeff Page Jr and Gabriel Campillo and Alexander Johnson, and was in line to fight an eliminator to face Kovalev in 2015. Then he hurt his shoulder, requiring surgery. Beterbiev didn’t fight again for a full year, returning in June 2016 to stop Ezequiel Maderna in four. Isidro Prieto followed six months later, two days before Christmas.
Then he was on the sideline another 11 months before getting a world title chance, facing Germany’s Enrico Koelling, himself a former Olympian. Beterbiev dominated for 11 rounds and dropping Koelling twice in the 12th for the stoppage victory, picking up a belt at least.
And then, another long break. 11 more months without a fight, as he was in a drawn-out battle with his promoters, Groupe Yvon Michel. But he got back in the ring in October of last year, defending his title on a Matchroom card against Callum Johnson in Chicago. In a firefight where both men hit the canvas, Beterbiev outgunned Johnson and knocked him out in the fourth round.
In March, Beterbiev and GYM finally settled their issues, parting ways, and Beterbiev signed with Top Rank, which had been rumored about a year before.
How did Radivoje Kalajdzic get here?
27-year-old Radivoje “Hot Rod” Kalajdzic was born in what was then Yugoslavia, and his family fled the country during the Bosnian War in 1992, when Radivoje was an infant, eventually making their way to Florida in 1998. His father was a boxing trainer, and Kalajdzic took up the sport in his teen years.
He turned pro just before his 20th birthday i 2011, and fought his early days exclusively in Florida — Tampa, Miami, Hollywood. In 2013 he went to North Carolina for a fight with veteran club fighter Dennis Sharpe, and knocked Sharpe out in 76 seconds. A few months later, he stopped another vet, Otis Griffin, in 1:49 at a DoubleTree Hotel in Tampa.
After a win over Lionell Thompson in 2014, Kalajdzic started to get just a little bit of buzz. After three more wins, he signed with DiBella Entertainment in 2015, winning another pair of fights before landing a matchup with former U.S. Olympian and well-pushed PBC prospect Marcus Browne in April 2016.
This is where Kalajdzic’s pro story gets unfortunate. That night in Brooklyn, Browne beat Kalajdzic via split decision over eight rounds. Despite him being a local fighter and the A-side of the fight, Browne’s win was booed by the crowd, and it should have been.
Kalajdzic, first of all, had a knockdown ruled against him in the first round when he slipped to a knee and was then hit while down. If anything, it was a foul. Kalajdzic evened things up with a clean knockdown in the sixth round, and he really out-boxed Browne that night. It was just hard to really find enough rounds to give Browne in order for him to win, but judges Waleska Roldan and Alan Rubenstein managed it.
From that point on, Kalajdzic became something of a hardcore fan favorite. He’d been jobbed, many felt, in a fight that really should have served as his breakthrough. Instead, he’d shown the world he could really fight if given the chance. And that made him someone to avoid.
Kalajdzic returned five months later to stop Travis Peerkin in five, and then he had some hand issues which put him on the shelf for almost two years. He fought twice in 2018, both first round stoppages. Now he’s got what could be the one and only shot he’ll ever get at a world title.
How do the fighters match up?
Kalajdzic has some physical advantages here. He’s 6’2” with a 78-inch reach, compared to the more compact Beterbiev at 5’11½” with a 73-inch reach. It’s obvious that Kalajdzic would want to use his length and try to keep the powerful Beterbiev at bay; Kalajdzic can punch, too, but he probably doesn’t want to get into the phone booth with Beterbiev. But then I doubt anyone really wants to do that.
This has potential to be a really interesting fight in many ways. Beterbiev is in his mid-30s now, he’s not getting any younger, and he found himself in a real shootout with Callum Johnson last time out. We’re also dealing with two fighters who have both had just two fights since 2016, for various reasons.
Kalajdzic’s last serious fight — arguably the only thing we can judge him on — is a fight with a young Marcus Browne three years ago. Beterbiev’s a wrecker, but is he slowing down? It’s got some legitimately compelling elements, enough to wish this wasn’t going up against Canelo-Jacobs and being totally overshadowed on Saturday night.
Who’s the favorite?
This is an odd matchup in these terms. By the books, Beterbiev is a heavy favorite, listed between -1000 and -2500, which leads you to think it’s a total mismatch. But it really, truly might not be.
You can see how the odds got there, though. Kalajdzic (around +700 generally), as we said, has just the one fight from three years ago to really judge him off of, while Beterbiev has the much better résumé. Maybe it will be a blowout, Beterbiev certainly has the skills and power to make it one. Or maybe Kalajdzic is really as good as some people believe him to be, a quiet contender whose proven record is that of an also-ran.
Who will win?
Check back on Friday at 5 pm ET for our staff predictions!
In the night’s co-feature, IBF super flyweight titleholder Jerwin Ancajas (30-1-2, 20 KO) will defend his title against Ryuichi Funai (31-7, 22 KO).
Ancajas, 27, was looking like he just might be the next breakout star from the Philippines. He knocked off the unbeaten McJoe Arroyo to win the title back in Sept. 2016, then made four straight defenses that ended in stoppages over Jose Alfredo Rodriguez, Teiru Kinoshita, Jamie Conlan, and Israel Gonzalez.
But in his last two outings, Ancajas has looked a little less impressive. He widely outpointed countryman Jonas Sultan in May 2018, outclassing his cruder foe over 12 rounds, but his performance never sparked. He then returned in September and went to a disappointing draw with Alejandro Santiago.
In a sense, it feels like Ancajas is itching to be upset by someone, but Funai’s record is that of a domestic-level fighter in Japan. But for whatever stupid ass sanctioning body reason, the IBF have Funai rated as their No. 1 contender at 115 pounds, so here we are. Maybe Funai will shock the world and the IBF will laugh in my face come Saturday night, but I doubt it, even given the fact Ancajas has been a little underwhelming in his last two.
Bad Left Hook will have coverage on Saturday night for Beterbiev-Kalajdzic, with prelims starting at 6:30 pm ET on ESPN+ and the main card beginning on ESPN at 10 pm ET. It won’t be our best coverage, but we’ll be here with the fights on and post-fight results and all that.