Dmitry Bivol isn’t in Las Vegas to make up the numbers.
That should be obvious, but as we start becoming numb to ticking off Canelo Alvarez’s victims one-by-one over the past few years, it’s easy to see how easily a fighter can slip into the role of underdog.
“I’m here to defend my title,” Bivol tells me from deep inside the maze of the MGM Grand. “I don’t feel like a guest here like many opponents may have.”
It’s something I touched on in the aftermath to Canelo’s Dec. 2020 win over Callum Smith, where the world-class Briton was made to feel like a competition winner amongst the pomp and ceremony inside the Alamodome in San Antonio.
But the steely eyes of Bivol (19-0, 11 KO) tell a different story to the glazed and overawed pupils of Smith, and it’s easy to argue that the Russian is well-positioned to hand Canelo his hardest fight since his first of two against Gennadiy Golovkin.
The 31-year-old convinces me that the Mexican has a “number of weaknesses” he can exploit — without directly specifying, of course — and as Canelo makes his second jump up into light heavyweight waters, Bivol’s technical schooling may provide the path to an unlikely victory, as opposed to the natural size and weight disparity.
Bivol’s path to victory is unlikely to come via a trade-off on the inside with Canelo. The Mexican’s habit of starting relatively slowly and then springing into life off of something of a standing start is one that Bivol will need to be wary of, and attempting to control the fight from the back foot, quelling Canelo’s razor-sharp advances, will surely be a tactic in the opening rounds.
Bivol’s feet, timing, and distance control are criminally underrated — perhaps due to the lack of world-class opposition he has been able to showcase these skills against — and if he is able to pump out an effective and precise jab, then Canelo (57-1-2, 39 KO) could well find himself losing a fair chunk of the opening stanzas.
Smith’s jab wasn’t effective enough in that aforementioned fight at super middleweight, but Bivol’s is, arguably, one of the most consistent in the upper weight divisions, despite the Russian unwilling to commit to this punch being a potential game-changer on the night.
“We can all jab,” he quips. “This isn’t the only way I can win this fight, but sure it’s a good weapon of mine.”
The trap that Canelo is able to set against most of his opponents is luring them into head-hunting. His reflexes and defence can sometimes feel otherworldly, with Eddy Reynoso and the four-weight world champion becoming renowned for their ability to counter danger in style.
If Bivol is able to target the body, chest, and upper body of Canelo in the first half of the fight, then he is less likely to be made to miss, look silly, and be countered by the Mexican’s viper-like attacks.
My access to Bivol is, of course, limited on fight week, but either way he doesn’t strike me as a man that is reveling in the media attention that accompanies a Canelo fight week. His manager, Vadim Kornilov, is also keen to downplay the magnitude of this event to me, at fear of being cast as a member of a grateful B-side.
“This is very exciting, of course, but we have had many big nights as a team before.” he explained. “Ruslan Provodnikov when he fought Lucas Matthysse and Chris Algieri. Viktor Postol when he fought Terence Crawford. But sure, this is a huge event that we are very excited for as a team.”
This piece didn’t start out as an argument for a Dmitry Bivol win on Saturday night, but it certainly feels like there are enough question marks hovering over the T-Mobile Arena ring to make this fight unmissable.
I’m not convinced that Canelo can be stopped by the champion, but if Bivol can lean on his strengths across enough patches in the fight, adding to some of the early success that Sergey Kovalev enjoyed in his 2019 loss to Canelo, then we may find ourselves holding our breath as the three judges reveal their scorecards.
“What will happen? Only God knows,” he concludes. “But we believe.”
And against Canelo, belief is more than half the battle.
Lewis Watson is a sports writer from London, UK, and a member of the BWAA. Follow or contact him on Twitter @lewroyscribbles
Bad Left Hook will have full live coverage and round-by-round updates for Canelo vs Bivol on Saturday, May 7, starting at 3:15 pm ET for the prelim undercard bouts and 8 pm ET for the main card.