Will Canelo Alvarez fight for title against Bivol? Uncertainty lingers for Russian foe
SAN DIEGO — Just as he’s reached the pinnacle bout of his career, Russian light-heavyweight boxing champion Dmitry Bivol finds his pursuit complicated by politics.
By first expressing a wish for peace between his country and Ukraine, the unbeaten Bivol maintained hope his upcoming title defense against the sport’s pound-for-pound king, Canelo Alvarez, is not diminished as a result of outrage aimed at Vladimir Putin.
“I have a lot of friends in Ukraine; my family live in Russia. I wish them only peace, and I wish them only the best,” Bivol said Wednesday as he and Alvarez officially announced their May 7 World Boxing Association bout that’ll be streamed by DAZN. “It’s really sad for me. Every day, I wake up and read the news. I can only hope it stops.”
Uncertainty for Russian athletes
The 31-year-old Bivol (19-0, 11 KOs) landed his most lucrative, most important fight — a Cinco de Mayo special staged at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas — just as the sporting world is retaliating against Russia for its bloody invasion that has left at least 14,000 dead in Ukraine.
Former heavyweight champions Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko are in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, where Vitali is mayor, while current three-belt heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk and former three-division champion Vasily Lomachenko also are taking up arms to defend their nation.
FIFA barred Russia from the World Cup and other athletes are no longer allowed to participate in ice skating, basketball, track, skiing and hockey events.
Meanwhile, boxing’s four sanctioning bodies have united to not sanction any bouts in Russia while the groups’ leaders mull what to do with fighters like Bivol on a case-by-case basis.
Alvarez-Bivol fight promoter Eddie Hearn said Wednesday he was trying to maintain optimism amid the unknowns of whether the WBA will recognize the match as a championship fight, or if the intensifying political heat against all things Russian will compromise that standing.
Russian fighters will not be allowed to wear their flag on their fight clothing, the WBA decided earlier this week. The Russian national anthem also cannot be played before fights and contenders — but not champions — will be temporarily excluded from this month’s rankings.
“We’ll follow the guidelines from the governing body and the WBA. The fight will take place in the U.S. Dmitry Bivol is training here,” Hearn said.
Money on the table
Many in the boxing industry can’t imagine the WBA not pursuing the standard 3% sanctioning fee it gets for all title fights, knowing Alvarez generates the highest revenue in the sport.
Gilberto Mendoza, head of the Panama-based WBA, did not immediately return messages from USA Today Sports+ regarding his body’s interest in sanctioning the fight.
The Nevada Athletic Commission, the sport's governing body in the state, also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
For years, the WBA has been heavily criticized for double-dipping by creating primary and secondary belts in most weight classes, essentially doubling the number of title fights they can cash in on with sanctioning fees. The other three sanctioning bodies declare one champion in each category.
Alvarez flatly told a small group of reporters before the news conference, “It’s going to be for the title,” but later admitted he couldn’t guarantee he’d fight for the 175-pound belt with so much uncertainty surrounding Bivol's standing.
Alvarez (57-1-2, 39 KOs) previously won the World Boxing Organization's 175-pound belt by knocking out Russia’s Sergey Kovalev in 2019. He's since won four fights to stand as boxing’s first-ever undisputed four-belt champion at 168 pounds.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I just want to prepare myself for the title and that’s it,” Alvarez said. “Don’t ask me about politics and things I don’t know anything about. I just want to prepare myself, and we’ll see.”
'Sports, not politics'
Bivol was born in Kyrgyzstan and relocated with his Korean mother and Moldovan father to St. Petersburg, Russia, 20 years ago. His wife, Yekaterina, and two sons are also in Russia.
His assistant trainer is Alic Frolov, a Ukrainian who has worked for years with a slew of talented Eastern European fighters, including Bivol, in Indio, California.
Vadim Kornilov, Bivol’s Russian manager, said he’s not expecting Bivol to plead for mercy from the WBA.
“From what I understand, under the regulations that have been made right now, fights that have been scheduled and announced will go on, which I think is the right thing to do,” Kornilov said. “To take it a step further than they’ve taken it already and start breaking up fights would probably be a little destructive, in a way, because there’s been a lot of planning, a lot of negotiations.
"To rewind that would not be acceptable.”
Kornilov said organizations, such as FIFA, “are justified to do what they are doing,” by penalizing Russians, “because they are trying to make peace as soon as possible, not to prevent Russian athletes an opportunity. They’re not trying to be destructive."
Bivol landed the match with Alvarez as part of the latter's two-fight reunion with Hearn and DAZN, a deal that also includes a 168-pound trilogy match against bitter rival Gennadiy Golovkin in September should both men win their upcoming bouts.
Golovkin, who will turn 40 next month, fought Alvarez to a 2017 draw and a 2018 majority decision loss. He ventures to Japan for an April 9 middleweight title fight against Ryoto Murata.
“With this deal, they wanted a fight with Golovkin," Alvarez said. "So I said, ‘Why not? Everyone wants (me to) fight Golovkin, right?’ Maybe a little late, maybe not, but everybody wants the fight."
First, Alvarez needs to defeat Bivol, who is younger, swifter and perhaps stronger than his countryman, Kovalez.
Alvarez expressed full respect for Bivol, saying of all the fighters he’s been considering – Golovkin, unbeaten middleweight champion Jermall Charlo and unbeaten former super-middleweight champion David Benavidez — Bivol is “the best, the toughest.”
Bivol hasn’t knocked out his past six opponents, dating to a March 2018 TKO of Sullivan Barrera.
“But I won,” he clarified. “If you (obsess) on a knockout, you forget about your combinations, your defense, your plan.”
His victories have come over former light-heavyweight champion Jean Pascal and current WBO 175-pound champion Joe Smith Jr.
Knowing world events have influenced many sporting events over time, Bivol said he’s been "worried" over what becomes of his landmark fight against Alvarez.
Bivol said through a translator that his pursuit of athletic greatness while not endorsing Russia’s military actions should free him of being “punished” by having the belt removed.
“I’m in the sports game, I’m not in politics,” Bivol said. “This is a sporting competition between two fighters, and I don’t think it’s related to the other things that are happening in any other way.
“And I think a lot of people will support that.”