Artur Beterbiev came in a fearsome titleholder for his Oct. 2018 IBF light heavyweight title defense against Callum Johnson. He’d mowed down everyone in his path to date, including dominating and finally stopping a brave but overmatched Enrico Koelling 11 months prior, winning his title belt.
Beterbiev, a former Olympian, had injury and promotional issues slowing his career at various points after turning pro in 2013, but he started getting on track in 2018, and it was the unbeaten Johnson, a former British and Commonwealth champion, who would meet the Russian on neutral ground in Chicago.
And if Beterbiev was fearsome, Johnson was fearless.
Beterbiev (12-0, 12 KO coming in) and Johnson (17-0, 12 KO coming in) were both 33 years old, undefeated, and known for their exciting styles. Beterbiev has some boxing skill — again, he was an Olympian and a good amateur — but his strength has always been his incredible pressure fighting and constant mauling of opponents, especially when he smelled blood. Johnson, meanwhile, had never backed down from a war, and pretty much always came out looking to do serious damage.
Halfway into the opening round of their title clash, it was clear that Johnson was going to fight like Johnson, and Beterbiev was going to have to deal with that.
Johnson was dropped late in the first round on a right hand, something of a controversial knockdown in that Johnson’s head had dipped under the bottom rope, and referee Celestino Ruiz was shouting, “No, no, no!” to allow for Johnson to safely come back in. But Beterbiev threw a punch when Johnson got his head back in, as Ruiz had not gotten in to break the fighters or anything — it was fair in terms of the rules and all, but Ruiz could’ve done better there. (Ruiz, frankly, has not worked a lot of world title fights, as Chicago just is not a major boxing hub anymore and hasn’t been for decades now.)
Johnson did get up, and Beterbiev didn’t have the time to finish it there. And Johnson not only didn’t back down, he clubbed Beterbiev with a short shot halfway into the second round, and put the defending champion on the canvas in return.
Beterbiev was legitimately hurt, but he, too, got up. On commentary, Sugar Ray Leonard was impressed with the ability of both men to recover from hard shots.
Beterbiev began to bust Johnson up in the third round, the blood flowing from a cut near the left eye. It was a hard-hitting, physical round, both landing some shots. Beterbiev kept going hard in the fourth, and Johnson was dropped late in the round on another right hand, and just couldn’t beat the count.
This was a terrific fight, not wild, reckless action, really, but two guys who came to do damage, came to get a knockout, and went for it. They felt the power from one another, and Johnson did himself proud though coming up short against a beast of a world champion.