It took a little while for Artur Beterbiev to get going on Saturday night. Even before he stepped foot in the ring.
The event he headlined against Adam Deines in his first defense of unified light heavyweight titles at the Megasport Sport Palace in Moscow, Russia had sixteen fights in total, most of which ended rather quickly. Broadcasters expected the main event to be off the air by 5:00 PM ET, and with the brevity of the majority of featured bouts and swing fights, it looked like everything would go according to plan. But Beterbiev needed a little extra time to get going. Only after a nudge from event organizers did he start his ring walk.
That need for an added push was also the theme in the ring. Beterbiev ultimately stopped the unheralded Deines in the 10th round, but not before some strongly-worded encouragement from his trainer Marc Ramsay.
After a relatively slow start, in the sixth round, it looked like Beterbiev had Deines on the brink, mauling him on the inside and peppering him with hard hooks and uppercuts along the ropes. Deines managed to make it out of the round, and in the seventh, found himself in the center of the ring landing combinations on the champion with encouraging frequency. When Beterbiev returned to his corner after the frame, Ramsay told him that he “almost had him” in round six, and that he “let him (off the hook).” The next two rounds looked quite similar to the previous two—not necessarily Deines rounds, but not overly dominant Beterbiev rounds either.
After round nine, Ramsay told Beterbiev to “wake up.” Minutes later, the monster did wake up, and a sharp left hook disoriented Deines to the point that Deines’ trainer Dirk Dzemski hopped up on the apron, turquoise towel in hand.
“The fight dragged on a bit, of course,” said Beterbiev after the fight. “My coach in the eighth or ninth round told me to wake up. I slept a bit (in the ring) today. Of course, this does not detract from the work of my opponent. He is a fine fellow, he worked well, he acquitted himself well.”
Beterbiev was in some ways placed in a no-win situation with regards to the evaluation of his performance in this fight. Had he smashed Deines in the opening round, the subsequent chatter would have been about the fight being a farcical mismatch. But every second the fight lasted beyond the first round was always going to be an indictment on Beterbiev for not getting the 33-1 underdog out of there sooner.
In general, Deines, who was one of the biggest betting underdogs in a lineal title fight in recent memory, performed much better than expected. The cache alone of being a world title challenger will get him phone calls for bouts against notable opponents, and his surprising performance in defeat will create some interest in whichever bout he has next.
As was thoroughly documented by Keith Idec on BoxingScene last week, the circumstances that allowed Deines to challenge for the lineal light heavyweight title were bizarre at best and farcical at worst. On March 28 of last year, Beterbiev was scheduled to face IBF mandatory Meng Fanlong. Then two things happened—COVID-19 shut down the ability of Canadian promoters, such as Beterbiev’s co-promoter Yvon Michel, to stage events, forcing the event to move to Russia. And once that happened, Fanlong could not secure a visa to travel there. As a result, Deines, who lost to Fanlong in an eliminator bout for the mandatory position, was elevated to that position himself.
The Deines bout was rescheduled five times. Beterbiev suffered a rib injury that caused the first cancellation, but the most serious issue he encountered which delayed the matchup was contracting COVID-19, which he told Dan Rafael at Ring Magazine had him “very sick” and “asleep for 10 days.” Despite the recurring cancellations, Deines was kept on as Beterbiev’s opponent.
When evaluating Beterbiev’s performance, those factors should be considered—in addition to the 519 day layoff he endured leading up to the bout. Any one of those afflictions – lengthy amounts of time away from the ring, a rib injury, or worst of all, COVID-19 – would be a reasonable explanation for an underwhelming performance. Combine the three, and there’s a near certainty that the best version of Beterbiev was not in the ring on Saturday.
The question observers are now asking is what does the best version of Beterbiev look like at this point in his career? Does the fighter who clobbered Oleksandr Gvozdyk still exist within him at 36 years of age?
In some ways, a little bit of vulnerability showing in Beterbiev is useful to Top Rank promotionally, as a bout between Beterbiev and the winner of the forthcoming Joe Smith Jr.-Maxim Vlasov matchup feels even more interesting than it did a week ago. Beterbiev has been touted as one of the only true, realistic threats to pound-for-pound king Canelo Alvarez at this point in his career, but his performance on Saturday suggests that he may have some threats to deal with at 175 before we can be certain he is the light heavyweight to challenge Canelo.
Which isn’t a bad thing—or even an indictment on Beterbiev, necessarily. Going ten rounds with Adam Deines may mean something, or it may mean nothing at all in the grand scheme of things.
Only a real test will provide the answers to the questions posed in Moscow.