In what amounts to a game of light heavyweight musical chairs, world titleholder Dmitry Bivol is likely to defend his belt against Joe Smith Jr. in late February or early March instead of titlist Artur Beterbiev defending against Smith, multiple sources told ESPN on Monday.
That is because Bivol is on the verge of signing a co-promotional deal with Matchroom Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn that would put his fights on sports streaming service DAZN. Beterbiev appears headed toward a deal on ESPN with Top Rank, which is deep in the light heavyweight division. Top Rank promotes world champion Oleksandr Gvozdyk and has co-promotional deals with titleholder Eleider "Storm" Alvarez and former titlist Sergey Kovalev, who meet in a rematch on Feb. 2.
For months, a fight between Beterbiev and Smith was in the works for late February or early March, but Beterbiev and his management have been shopping for a new promotional deal.
Beterbiev had sued career-long promoter Yvon Michel for breach of contract but lost the case, after which Michel made a three-fight co-promotional deal for Beterbiev with Hearn, who staged Beterbiev's mandatory defense against Callum Johnson -- a Hearn fighter -- on Oct. 6.
Beterbiev, who was coming off an 11-month layoff because of the legal issues with Michel, got knocked down but won by fourth-round knockout. Soon after that fight, the talks for the defense with Smith began for what would have been the second fight of the deal.
However, Michel's agreement with Beterbiev was tied to the fighter's deal with adviser Al Haymon, who recently released Beterbiev from the agreement rather than get into a legal battle over a potential contract breach for not providing him with enough fights, according to one of the sources with knowledge of the issues.
Once Haymon released Beterbiev (13-0, 13 KOs), 33 and a two-time Russian Olympian based in Montreal, the contract with Michel was also terminated, according to the source.
That made Beterbiev a free agent, and his team has talked to Hearn about a promotional deal but also had interest in going with Top Rank, with which they had a good experience when the company promoted Beterbiev's vacant world title victory over Enrico Koelling in November 2017. Top Rank promoted that fight because it won a purse bid while Beterbiev was in the midst of his legal tussle with Michel.
Had Beterbiev won his court case with Michel and become a free agent in early 2018, he was poised to sign a promotional deal with Top Rank. Now he again can do so, given that he is a free agent, according to sources.
With HBO exiting the boxing business at the end of 2018, that left Bivol (15-0, 11 KOs), 28, of Russia, looking for a new broadcast home. His manager, Vadim Kornilov, told ESPN last week that they were nearing a decision on which platform the coveted free agent would sign with.
Kornilov said they were "considering the direction of ESPN or DAZN at this time" and that "initial discussions" about a deal with Premier Boxing Champions, which has deals with Showtime and Fox, had been eliminated.
According a source, Bivol, has picked DAZN and plans to do a deal under which Hearn will slide him into the slot Beterbiev was lined up for -- a defense against Smith (24-2, 20 KOs), 29, of New York's Long Island. Smith's team preferred a fight with Beterbiev but is willing to fight anyone with a major world title.