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The best way to judge a boxer isn’t when he’s at his best, on cruise control, and has all of his weapons firing. Rather, you get a more accurate measure of the man when he faces hard times, when things aren’t going the way he planned.
And that’s where IBF-WBC light heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev found himself early in his fight in Montreal in December against Marcus Browne.
Beterbiev was a heavy favorite, though it wasn’t because Browne is a poor opponent. Browne was a 2012 U.S. Olympian and is a big, skilled fighter. The odds were stacked in Beterbiev’s favor because he was fighting in his adopted hometown of Montreal and, mostly, because he entered the fight 16-0 with 16 KOs and pretty much looking like a one-man wrecking crew.
Beterbiev got off to a slow start, and Browne got off to a quick one. After three rounds, Browne was ahead on the scorecards and looking very much like he was capable of pulling an upset. The fight changed in the fourth in what was perhaps the lowest point of his career.
About 40 seconds into the fourth, Beterbiev was backing up as Browne moved forward toward the center. Browne had his arms on Beterbiev and his head was on Beterbiev’s chest. As he threw a punch, Browne moved his head left and there was an inadvertent clash of heads. It opened a massive cut on Beterbiev’s forehead between his eyes.
It was the kind of deep, wide cut that will cause many doctors to stop the bout on the spot. Beterbiev was given one more round.
And at that point, we saw the real Artur Beterbiev emerge.
The focus, the ferocity and the intensity ramped up and Beterbiev looked like a different man after the cut. His pace increased. The power on his shots increased. So, too, did the accuracy. Browne was no longer able to use his length and keep Beterbiev on the end of his punches. Beterbiev looked like a superstar from the moment the fight resumed after the cut until a battered, beaten wearied Browne could no longer go on in the ninth.
“Pretty impressive,” said WBO light heavyweight champion Joe Smith, who on Saturday (10 p.m. ET/ESPN) will meet Beterbiev for three of the four light heavyweight belts in the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York.
It’s easy when you’re more talented and more powerful than nearly everyone you face, and things are going your way all the time. It’s at moments like this which often provide the best insight into a fighter.
Top Rank president Todd duBoef said Beterbiev showed the trait that defines so many of the game’s legends.
“When you look at the elite fighters, when they have to hit that next gear and step on it, it overwhelms you, and you see it and say, ‘Oh my God! Where did that come from?’” he said. “That gash was so severe and the referee told him he’d give him one more round. It created a sense of urgency and what you saw was the fighter recognize the situation, change gears and do what he had to do. That’s elite.
“He’s kind of this stoic, quiet guy, but he has an aura about him. He’s a terminator and that silence is deadly.”
Beterbiev bristles at suggestions he’s a knockout artist, even though he’s the only current world champion who has a perfect record with all of his wins by KO. He’s one of the hardest workers in the sport and now, even at 37, he’s still striving to add elements to his game.
So to Beterbiev, it wasn’t a matter of getting angry at the cut and going into beast mode. He was angry and he did go into beast mode, but there was a method to his madness. He didn’t go out there like it was a home run derby and swing for the fences every time.
But even when Beterbiev uses his boxing skills to break down an opponent, it can’t be forgotten the amount of power he packs with every punch, even the jab. The punch stat numbers call power punches everything but a jab, but anyone who was been hit in the nose by Beterbiev’s jab will very much attest that it is, indeed, a power punch and a significant one at that.
“I’m always trying to get better and improve my skills,” Beterbiev said. “I was better [against Browne] than I was in the fight before that [against Adam Deines] and I’ll be better in this one than I was in the last one.”
That’s got to be a worrisome proposition for Smith, who has never met a fight he didn’t like. But though Smith packs plenty of punch of his own, whether he’ll choose to get into a shootout with one of the pound-for-pound best punchers in the sport is debatable.
Beterbiev isn’t giving any clues.
“I don’t talk about the strategy before the fight, ever,” he said. “We can talk about it after.”
If he’s able to get to that level against Smith that he did from the fourth round on against Browne, it’s going to take a spectacular effort from Smith to compete against that.