Dmitry Bivol shocked Saúl ‘Canelo’ Álvarez, his devastated army of fans, all of Mexico and boxing itself when he retained his WBA light heavyweight title with a consummate victory on points in Las Vegas on Saturday night. Bivol, the 31-year-old Russian, improves his record to a perfect 20-0 but none of his previous victories for him come close to the magnitude of this utterly dominant win over the feted Álvarez. Bivol was awarded the decision on all three scorecards by a scandalously narrow margin of 115-113.
Álvarez’s bruised, cut and swollen face, and dejected demeanor through much of the fight, told the real story. Bivol’s significant advantages in size, power and speed made the difference. He was simply too big, too fast, too skilful and too concentrated for Álvarez, who won his first world title at 154bs – which is 21 pounds lighter than the division where he suffered such a painful defeat at the T-Mobile Arena.
Bivol, the champion, was made to walk first to the ring as the first echoing chants of ‘Can-el-o…Can-el-o…Can-el-o’ reverberated. It was an insult to Bivol but Álvarez, at least until Saturday night, was the king of boxing. Even when boos rained down on him the closer he came to the ring, Bivol remained relaxed. A smile played across his hooded features of him and, even when the arena was lit up by fireworks and rocked with noise as Álvarez was lifted on a plinth before his ringwalk began, Bivol seemed unfazed. He simply banged his brown gloves together with obvious relish.
As if he suddenly realized the enormity of the task facing him, Álvarez said a little prayer in his corner just before the first bell. Álvarez came out with intent and his first punches were aimed at Bivol’s arms, replicating a tactic he used against Callum Smith in 2020. In that fight, at super middleweight, Smith arms had been so badly bruised and hurt that it became easy for Álvarez to punish him round by round. Bivol, however, is a great light heavyweight. He snaked out his fast jab and uncorked slick combinations which set the pattern of the fight.
It was notable as early as the second round that Bivol used his strength to push Álvarez back so that enough distance would emerge for him to clip the smaller challenger with his crisp punching. As Bivol’s authority was immediately obvious, Álvarez tried to break up the champion’s rhythm in the fourth round by attempting to turn the bout into a dog-fight. Bivol remained relentless, letting his punches flow in sharp salvos which discouraged Álvarez. At the bell, the vast Mexican contingent in a packed arena roared as Álvarez landed his signature punch – a vicious uppercut. Bivol looked unmoved whereas, in contrast, ordinary super middleweights are usually rocked by such a blow.
Álvarez cut loose in round five and a swelling emerged under Bivol’s left eye. But his vision of him was clearly unimpaired for the blinding combinations came from the champion. Álvarez did land a big right hand with 30 seconds left in the round and after the break, as they came out for the sixth, the crowd summarized its ‘Can-el-o…Can-el-o…Can-el-o’ chant with more urgency. Bivol responded by nailing Álvarez with combinations which were so much more effective than the thudding single shots thrown by the Mexican.
Bivol opened up a cut under Álvarez’s left eye in the seventh. It was clear that Álvarez was in trouble and fatigue began to spread across his reddened face. Bivol was cruising but, finally, in round nine Álvarez began to gain some impetus. For the first time in the fight he seemed capable of bullying Bivol. It was the best round of the night for Álvarez but, in the 10th, it looked as if his huge effort had taken its toll. Álvarez was unable to sustain that surge of momentum. He barely threw a punch as Bivol settled back into his stylish domination of the contest.
Álvarez looked so desperate and frustrated in the penultimate round that, rather than searching for the knockout blow he appeared to need, he lifted Bivol off his feet and carried him briefly on his back. It was unifying and futile. Bivol tattooed him with the jab to win yet another round.
Although the judges still had the official scores ridiculously close, it looked as if Álvarez knew that he had little left. The fight ended with Bivol again on the offensive. Álvarez backed away towards the certainty of defeat which, on the scorecard of the Guardian and others at ringside, was as wide as 118-110.
There had been doubts all week that Bivol would be awarded a decision over Álvarez in Las Vegas. It was thought rightly that Álvarez, who generates so much money for the casinos of Vegas, and the often corrupt business of boxing, would be favored by the judges. In 2017, when most reasonable and fair-minded observers believed that Gennady Golovkin had beaten him at this very same arena, Álvarez was saved by a dubious draw. There was further controversy at the T-Mobile Arena exactly a year later, in September 2018, when many people thought that Álvarez was again lucky to win the rematch on points. That decision was less murky but it was another salutary reminder of how difficult it is to win a decision against Álvarez here.
When I asked Bivol a few days ago if he was concerned about the odds being stacked against him, he simply smiled. “I am looking forward to Saturday night and I never think about judges. I don’t say: ‘Oh, I’m in Vegas, against Canelo, everything against me. Do not.'”
Bivol remained true to his word and, in a composed and deeply impressive display, he made it impossible for the judges to rescue Álvarez.
The champion had remained in the shadows for much of the week. He was happy for most of the attention to swamp Álvarez and, stoically and patiently, Bivol answered the few questions that were put to him. Most queries concerned the apparent greatness of Álvarez and Bivol only became uncomfortable when he was asked to comment on his status of him as a Russian against the backdrop of Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine with unfettered brutality. Bivol admitted that war in Ukraine saddened him but he avoided criticizing Putin by trying to claim that sport and politics don’t mix. Putin will doubtless try to claim Bivol’s victory as a Russian triumph – but the fighter made a subtle yet pointed distinction. He described Kyrgyzstan, where he was born and lived the first 11 years of his life, as his “motherland” of him.
It can only be hoped that Bivol’s remarkable victory over Álvarez will be attributed to his own courage and skill – rather than the fact that he lives in St Petersburg and carries a Russian passport.
Álvarez will rue the fact that, despite his protests that his focus was fixed on Bivol, he allowed himself to look ahead to a proposed fight this September against his arch rival, Gennady Golovkin, at super middleweight. Apart from stressing his disdain for Golovkin, Álvarez had even dared consider challenging Oleksandr Usyk, who currently holds three versions of the world heavyweight title, in the future.
All the grand talk came tumbling down against Bivol. “I proved myself today,” he said straight after the fight. “I’m sorry I broke your plans with Gennady Golovkin. Thank you Canelo and his team from him. He’s a great champion and I respect him.”
Bivol said that he felt Canelo’s punches from the first round, pointing to his arms which blocked so many of the Mexican’s power shots. “He beat my arm up, but not my head, which is better. He has good speed, good power.”
“You have to accept it, it’s boxing,” Álvarez said through a translator. “He’s a great champion. Sometimes in boxing, you win. Sometimes you lose. Not making excuses. I lost today and he won.”
Before leaving the ring, Álvarez promised that he will exercise his rematch clause. “Of course I [want a rematch],” he said. “This doesn’t end like this.”
Bivol responded coolly. “No problem,” he said. “I’m ready for the rematch, I just want to make sure that I can be treated like the champion now.”
Álvarez is a remarkable fighter but his hubris was exposed by an exemplary champion in Dmtiry Bivol whose life has been transformed by this stunning victory.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.