Dmitry Bivol: 'I want to finish my career in good health, a fresh man, who achieved a lot'

WBA light-heavyweight champion talks to 'The National' about life-changing 'Canelo' win, this weekend's historic title defence in Abu Dhabi against 'Zurdo' Ramirez, and what comes next

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Five months on from the outstanding win of an already gilded career, and days from what he views the greatest threat thus far to his unblemished professional record, Dmitry Bivol's success against Saul "Canelo" Alvarez still occupies the mind of the boxing world.

The WBA light-heavyweight champion dominated and defeated Alvarez on Cinco de Mayo in Las Vegas, outboxing the sport’s lead light on his day and on what’s become his own turf to retain his crown. It represented the second loss in Alvarez’s incredible 62-bout pro career; his first in nine years.

Bivol is, then, to quote the promo video hyping Saturday’s historic title defence against the ominous Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez in Abu Dhabi, “The Man Who Beat The Man”.

Even in the UAE capital, where at Etihad Arena Bivol will help launch the emirate’s new “Champion Series”, Alvarez looms large. Questions turn back to May, or towards a possible rematch.

The Man Who Beat The Man? How does that sit?

“I don’t think about it to be honest, before you ask me,” Bivol tells The National from his Abu Dhabi base, where he has spent the past five weeks preparing for Ramirez. “But for me it doesn’t matter.

“I don’t like to see too much that fight against Canelo. For me it’s passed. But people see and see and post it. OK, ‘The Man Who Beat The Man’, no problem. If you like it, OK. It’s not ‘No Name Who Beat No Name’, ‘Bad Guy Who Beat Someone Else’. ‘Who Beat The Man’ is fine.”

Life, of course, has changed considerably since.

“The best thing about beating Canelo? Now people recognise me more. And not just recognise, they respect me,” Bivol says. “Because I don’t want to be famous just because I’m a guy who made something stupid.

"I want to be famous because I’m a good athlete, a good boxer, who has good skills, that I achieved something. I want to be known as a real boxer. If the fight against Canelo gave me respect, people know me better now.”

Not that the new-found level of fame is always welcome.

“The worst thing? It’s sometimes I can’t relax, because I know people recognise me.”

Bivol, 31, delivers the last line with a laugh, and throughout the course of a lengthy interview his sense of humour often peaks through. His humility, too.

Clearly, he is one of the most accomplished boxers in the world at present, evidenced by the Alvarez triumph, when he was too slick and too sleek for boxing's most bankable asset, who moved up yet another weight and arguably bit off more than he could chew.

The win, stretching Bivol’s pro record to 20-0 and the ninth defence of his WBA belt, lifted him for many inside the top-10 pound-for-pound rankings.

Yet “The Man Who Beat The Man” is not overly comfortable in bragging about achievements. Bivol doesn’t really do bravado.

“I am one of the best, I think,” he says. “I can’t say that I’m the best, but I feel I’m one of the best because I’m a world champion. I made the defence of my title 10 times – not many people make 10 title defences.

“I don’t know if I’m No 1 or not in my light-heavyweight division [currently, Artur Beterbiev is the unified champion at 175 lbs]. I’m one of the best, but I want to be the best. I want to prove myself and achieve something more – more belts.”

The desire to dream big has been there for as long as Bivol can remember. He grew up initially in Kyrgyzstan, his mother’s home country (she is of Korean descent) and at age six took up boxing when his Moldova-born father brought him to a local gym. At first, Bivol practised karate because of his love – believe it or not – for Jackie Chan movies.

Soon, his first boxing coach identified a natural talent and willingness to learn. At 11, Bivol relocated to St Petersburg, where his second coach helped him excel in the amateur scene, securing gold medals at various age-group levels in Russia and at European and World Championships. In all, Bivol fought 283 times at amateur, winning 268.

The third coach, Gennady Mashianov who remains as head trainer today, convinced Bivol to turn pro and move to the United States in 2014 – even though his 23-year-old pupil wasn’t so sure.

“But we tried, and everything is good,” Bivol says. “Now I’m here. It worked out.”

It certainly has. Less than two years after turning pro, Bivol won the interim WBA light-weight title. A year later, he was elevated to full champion. Since, he has kept hold of the belt for five years, expanding that unbeaten CV, taking down challenger after challenger.

He is well aware of his current status.

“When you have the belt, you should be every time focused because you’re a target for everyone in your division," Bivol says. “Every fight will be a title fight for someone. Someone wants to get the belt; someone will be more motivated than he would be if fighting another man. This is the main fight in his life.

“It’s hard. But I got used to being champion. I’m focused. I’m not relaxing.”

Through his contests at the sharp end of boxing, or in his dealing with the press or the public, Bivol’s disposition never appears to change. He is calm, composed. Promoter Eddie Hearn reckons ice runs through his veins.

“It’s my temperament,” Bivol says. “It’s because in my family growing up, my father, my mother, they were more calm. I never see them much too explosive, lose control.

“My father, every time, controls everything. Even my mother too – she’s a woman, you’d think she should listen to her emotions, but she’s calm. Maybe because she’s Korean.”

Surely, however, the pressure does gnaw sometimes.

“Of course, I feel it,” Bivol says. “But I feel emotions more in love. In my family, in my wife. This is place where I show my emotions. Sometimes it’s not enough for my wife.

“I love when people use their brain, when they think before they do something. We’re more advanced than animals because we have the ability to analyse. And we should use it.

"And I try to use it. I try to be above my emotions.”

Undoubtedly, family provides extra clarity. Bivol has other considerations now, with his wife and two young sons. It has prompted concessions in his professional life.

“I think it impacts my boxing,” he says. “Not how I’m boxing in the ring; it impacts my training. I’m more responsible for my family. I became a more responsible person. I try to be better because I know it’s not only me – I have my family.

“I have to worry about my health. I have to worry about my time. If I spend time on training, when I don’t see my family, the next time I must have more quality time with them, give more of myself.”

It reminds, also, that boxing can be a perilous pursuit.

“Of course. But at the same time, I feel adrenalin in the ring, I like it," Bivol says. "It’s part of my life. But I should be more responsible to think about my defence. Because I have a family, I have parents, I have kids.”

For that, Bivol says he will not follow too many before him and compete long beyond his peak.

“One hundred per cent I don’t want to fight after 40,” he jokes. “Maybe 37. Maybe a couple years. To be honest, I want to finish my career with good health, as a fresh man, a young man, who achieved a lot. I want many years to do something else.”

First, though, Ramirez in Abu Dhabi. The hulking Mexican represents a clear and present danger, unbeaten in all 44 pro bouts, with 30 wins by knockout. A former world champion at super-middleweight, Ramirez has registered five straight victories since moving to 175 lbs.

“He’s a good boxer,” Bivol says. “It makes me a better boxer, I think, in boxing fans’ eyes. They will want to see me against another better guy. When people want to see some fight, it’s easy for promoters to make it.”

Two undefeated boxers, both in their prime – Ramirez is also 31 – going head-to-head. Someone’s 'O' has got to go.

“I don’t think about how great it is to keep the zero,” Bivol says. “I think about how great to add one more victory and make him one loss.

“Getting one more victory is a more positive mindset than scared about your losses.”

For Bivol, Abu Dhabi adds another positive slant to Saturday. He is the A-side on the capital’s venture into big-time boxing following the recent partnership between the Department of Culture and Tourism and acclaimed promotion Matchroom Boxing.

“I love the UAE because I like the people here,” Bivol says. “I like how they think, their values. It’s good that my sport brought me to Abu Dhabi and thanks God that boxing has helped me see the world, see these places like Abu Dhabi.”

Nevertheless, it must feel a million miles from where he started out, in Tokmak, Kyrgyzstan.

“It’s a new place, but some things remind me of home. Because I’m born in a Muslim country. But Abu Dhabi is something new, like a city of the future. A lot of new buildings, big buildings.

“And I like how Abu Dhabi invites people from all over the world. It feels friendly to them.”

Bivol has felt support, from the locals, from the many Russians here, from the Filipinos who lionise Manny Pacquiao and thus recognise genuine boxing talent.

“It’s a pleasure for me to introduce boxing in Abu Dhabi,” Bivol says. “And I hope I can introduce it in a very special way, that sports fans here will love boxing, and there will be many more events in the future. That’s something that will mean a lot to me.”

Likewise, becoming undisputed. Give Bivol the choice, and victory on Saturday paves the way to Beterbiev, regardless of the endless queries about an Alvarez rematch.

“Like every soldier wants to be a general, I want to be the general in boxing," he says. "It means I want more belts.

“In every profession, you must have dreams to be better. Dream, or target, or goal, whatever you want to call it. But you have to do it and move to get it.

“My goal, it helps me to be better now. If I don’t have a big goal I can’t be better now, I can’t push myself. Saturday is another step to that.”

Updated: November 04, 2022, 11:00 AM