WBA light heavyweight titlist Dmitry Bivol is just one of three Russians to hold a light heavyweight belt, but, at least as of now, he could end up being the best of the bunch. After all, the IBF's Artur Beterbiev is 33 and has been beset by injuries and long layoffs while the WBO's Sergey Kovalev is 35 and won't last forever (the WBC's Adonis Stevenson -- the only non-Russian titlist at 175 -- will turn 41 in September and has no fights scheduled).
At 27, Bivol is in his physical prime, but if he is to rise to the top he must beat the likes of Isaac Chilemba, a hard-luck boxer from Malawi who troubled Kovalev in his first title shot before losing a decision in July 2016. Yes, Chilemba has lost three of his last four fights, but in his most recent outing he traveled to Australia and out-pointed Blake Caparello to earn this second crack at the brass ring.
Stepping Up His Game
Entering his most recent fight against Sullivan Barrera this past March, it was thought that the Cuban represented Bivol's sternest test as a pro. But while the fight got to the 12th, it didn't get through the 12th as a huge right to the temple dropped the 36-year-old challenger and inflicted enough damage that referee Harvey Dock stopped the bout at the 1:41 mark. Up until then Bivol had been dominant. Not only did he lead big on the scorecards (109-100 on all three score sheets), Bivol out-landed Barrera 247-75 overall and 146-65 power thanks to his magnificent jab (34.6 attempts/8.4 connects per round, 24% accuracy), which produced a 97-10 connect gap and helped him produce accuracy gaps of 31%-13% overall and 39%-24% power. Moreover, Barrera barely touched Bivol with his own jab as he landed just 10 of his 333 attempts (3%) and he failed to reach double-digit connects in terms of overall punches (his best was eight in rouhnds six and nine) while Bivol achieved 20 or more total connects eight times, including six rounds in a row (rounds 6-11).
Bivol's supremacy against Barrera is only a continuation of what he has done at the world-class level. Including the Barrera fight, Bivol has faced opponents with a combined .900 winning percentage (117-12-1), and in those bouts he threw more (60.3 vs. 40 per round), landed more 18.9 to 5.6 total connects per round, 6.8 vs. 1.3 landed jabs per round and 12.1 to 4.3 power connects per round) and did so more accurately (31%-14% overall, 22%-6% jabs, 42%-22% power).
The Perpetual Underdog
In virtually every fight of importance, Chilemba has been cast as the "opponent." Thanks to his fundamentally sound, jab-heavy style, he has upset the applecart as he surprised the 20-0 Doudou Ngumbu (W 12), drew with the 13-0 Thomas Oosthuizen in South Africa, beat the 19-0 Maksim Vlasov (W 10), drew with future cruiserweight titlist Tony Bellew in the first of their two fights, out-boxed the 17-0 Vasily Lepikhin and, in his most recent outing, decisioned Blake Caparello in Australia. But he has endured more than his share of heartbreaks as he lost a majority decision to Eleider Alvarez in Canada despite out-landing the home favorite 151-147 overall, lost the rematch against Bellew when his second-rally rally fell short and lost decisively to Kovalev (L 12) and Oleksandr Gvozdyk (KO by 8 due to a right elbow injury).
In assessing Chilemba's game, it begins and ends with his tremendous jab. In his five victories against Vlasov, Edison Miranda, Michael Gbenga, Denis Grachev and Lepikhin, he averaged 36.5 attempts and 8.8 connects per round, out-threw his foes 68.1 to 46.6 per round and produced excellent percentage gaps of 36%-22% overall, 24%-15% jabs and 49%-27% power). But in his four losses to Bellew (rematch), Alvarez, Kovalev and Gvozdyk, his opponents managed to keep Chilemba's jab in check (27.3 attempts/4.5 connects per round, 17% accuracy), which, in turn, limited his output (50.2 per round for Chilemba, 54.3 for the opponents) and accuracy (24% overall, 33% power to his opponents' 27% and 31% respectively). Chilemba also landed fewer total punches per round (11.9 to his foes' 14.4 overall and 7.5 to 8.7 in terms of power connects per round). So, if Bivol can disrupt Chilemba's jab -- especially with his own -- he will greatly enhance his chances of retaining his title and resuming his excellent run.
Inside The Numbers
Bivol (last 4 fights) is busier than the avg. light heavy (63 thrown per round) and landed 30.4% of his total punches, 7.3 jabs per round and 42.4% of his power shots. Opponents landed a measley 5.4 punches per round (13.6%) and just 4 power shots per round (22.2%). One blemish: only 16.8% of his landed punches are body shots (CompuBox avg.: 24.2%). Chilemba (last 8 fights) landed 6.9 jabs per round (threw 33.4) and landed 40.4% of his power shots. His defense is better than avg., as opponents landed just 28.3% of their power shots- (7.3 per round)
Bivol is younger by three-and-a-half years, but his deep amateur background makes up for Chilemba's longer tenure as a pro as well as his superior quality of opposition. Also, Bivol possesses an excellent jab that could neutralize Chilemba's, and once Chilemba loses the jab, he loses everything else because he lacks the shot-for-shot power to earn Bivol's respect. The early rounds should see plenty of thinking, but once Bivol finds his range he will assert his superiority. The gap could be wide enough for Bivol to score the first injury-free TKO against Chilemba, probably after the halfway mark.