Opening Bell: Bivol's No. 1 fan impressed
VERONA, N.Y. -- As light heavyweight world titlist Dmitry Bivol continues to win and entertain while fighting quality opponents, his reputation is growing, and he has made at least one well-known fan.
He is Pernell Whitaker, the all-time great International Boxing Hall of Famer, former pound-for-pound king and four-division world champion. As it turns out, Whitaker has long been one of Bivol's favorite fighters, one of the guys he has spent hours watching on video.
Whitaker, perhaps the greatest defensive fighter in history -- he's at least in the conversation -- made the trip to the Turning Stone Resort Casino this past weekend to meet the fighter he has become a big fan of and to be ringside to watch as Bivol retained his title for the fifth time with a one-sided decision over Joe Smith Jr. on Saturday night.
Bivol took apart the hard-punching contender by scores of 119-109, 119-109 and 118-110 in a fight that Bivol dominated other than getting buzzed by a right hand in the fourth round and by another clean one right at the end of the 10th round. Otherwise, it was all Bivol (16-0, 11 KOs), 28, who nearly stopped Smith (24-3, 20 KOs), 29, from New York's Long Island, with an onslaught of blows in the final seconds of the fight.
Whitaker has remained close with Main Events, the company that promoted him for his entire 1984 to 2001 career. Main Events is also a co-promoter of Bivol, and CEO Kathy Duva invited Whitaker to come to the fight. He spent some time on Saturday at the casino doing a meet-and-greet with fight fans, but he was just as pleased to get a chance to meet Bivol while he was there and, as such a legendary defensive fighter, paid him the ultimate compliment.
"I think he's an excellent defensive fighter," Whitaker told ESPN at ringside after the bout. "I think he has great skills. His defense is excellent. He's got a wicked left hook and a good right hand. And he can still learn. He's learning from every fight he gets. I was happy with what I saw. I'm blessed to be here to be able to see it."
Whitaker won an Olympic gold medal for the United States in 1984, and while Bivol never boxed in the Olympics, he was 268-15 as a star amateur on the Russian national team. So far he's also been outstanding in the pros. But how far can Bivol go?
"He can go to the top," Whitaker said, referring to the pound-for-pound list. "I think he's the real deal."
Indeed, other than taking a few solid shots, Bivol befuddled Smith, a worthy challenger, round after round with his speed, movement and his own crisp punches. It was a defensive performance worthy of Whitaker. While Bivol landed 208 of 714 punches (29 percent), he limited Smith to landing a pathetic 39 of 395 shots (10 percent).
"I love his defense," Whitaker said. "It's a beautiful feeling when you can hit a man and they can't hit you back. I know a lot about that.
"Main Events brought me up here to see him because they said this kid loved Pernell Whitaker. So, I wanted to come and see what he was all about. I got a chance to meet him, and I see a whole lot of myself in this kid."
Bivol was thrilled to meet one of his idols and was especially humbled when informed at the postfight news conference of the compliments Whitaker had given him.
"First of all, Pernell Whitaker's defense is better than mine," Bivol said with a laugh. "I saw many of his fights. He is one of my favorite fighters because when I saw him fight, he had [so] much fun. I like fighters like him, and, of course, it's good for me. I have never thought that a fighter like Pernell Whitaker would say good things about me. I am happy."
Porter or Ugas?
Being a boxing judge is not for the faint of heart, mainly because of fights like the one that took place between welterweight world titlist Shawn Porter and mandatory challenger Yordenis Ugas in the main event of the Premier Boxing Champions on Fox card Saturday night in Carson, California.
It was an extremely difficult fight to score, with several close rounds that could have gone either way. Both fighters had their moments, but in the end Porter, making the first defense of his second title reign, got the split-decision verdict. Judges Steve Morrow (116-112) and Max DeLuca (115-113) scored it for him, and Zach Young had it 117-111 for Ugas.
It wasn't a particularly good fight, as their styles didn't mesh very well, and it lacked for action for long periods. Porter (30-2-1, 17 KOs), 31, of Las Vegas, usually a mauler, changed things up and boxed more than usual, but there wasn't much for the judges to go on as far as making a definitive decision on most of the rounds, although Porter was slightly more active.
In the final seconds of the 11th round, Porter had his best moment when he wobbled Ugas with a stiff left jab. But Ugas (23-4, 11 KOs), 32, a 2008 Cuban Olympic bronze medalist fighting out of Las Vegas, should have gotten credit for a knockdown in the 12th round. He hit Porter with a right hand, and Porter went down, but referee Jack Reiss, one of the best in the business, ruled Porter had slipped.
DeLuca surprisingly gave the 12th round to Porter, which gave him the win. Ugas felt he was robbed.
Prospect of the weekend I: Efe Ajagba
Heavyweight Efe Ajagba (9-0, 8 KOs), 24, was a 2016 Nigerian Olympian and has quickly become one of boxing's top prospects. At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, he sure looks the part and has displayed destructive power, including his bout on the Porter-Ugas undercard.
Ajagba, who fights out of Houston, where he is trained by Ronnie Shields, faced easily the best opponent of his brief career so far in Amir Mansour (23-4-1, 16 KOs), 46, of Wilmington, Delaware, and destroyed him. Adding to the impressive fashion of the victory was that Mansour was the first southpaw Ajagba has faced in the pros. He dropped Mansour twice in the first round, first with a right hand and then with a left hand. Mansour had taken such a beating by the end of the second round that he referee Thomas Taylor stopped the fight with Mansour on his stool and unable to continue. It was hard not to be impressed by Ajagba's performance.
The next step: Richard Schaefer of Ringstar Sports, Ajagba's promoter, told ESPN that Ajagba will be back in the ring on May 18 on the undercard of heavyweight world titleholder Deontay Wilder's probable defense against Dominic Breazeale. Ajagba and his team are willing to step him up against better opposition, but it's going to be very hard finding opponents willing to face him.
Prospect of the weekend II: Israil Madrimov
Junior middleweight Israil Madrimov (2-0, 2 KOs), 24, a former amateur standout from Uzbekistan, was extremely impressive in a hellacious second-round knockout of Frank Rojas (24-3, 23 KOs), 31, of Venezuela. Rojas is no contender, but as an opponent for a kid in his second pro fight, he was a huge step up.
But Madrimov, who fights out of Indio, California, where he is trained by Joel Diaz, shredded Rojas before finishing him with an absolutely brutal left-hook knockout that rendered him out cold and sent him to the hospital as a precaution. The immediate comparison made by some at ringside was that Madrimov, who also showed swagger with a post-knockout cartwheel and backflip, reminded us of a young Gennady Golovkin.
Madrimov is already being moved quickly by co-promoters Matchroom Boxing and World of Boxing. His first two fights have been scheduled for 10 rounds and he won a regional title against Rojas. He looks like the real deal.
The next step: Manager Vadim Kornilov knows he has a fighter who does not need much pro seasoning. He and the rest of the team believe he's ready to face top opposition now. "Israil wanted to fight for a world title in his professional debut, and his performances continue to validate that he's ready," Kornilov said. "We'd love to fight [junior middleweight world titlist] Jaime Munguia this year. Both fight on DAZN, so there's no network or promotional obstacles, and this would be a very big fight in Southern California."
Fights you might have missed
Friday at London
Light heavyweight Anthony Yarde (18-0, 17 KOs) TKO5 Travis Reeves (17-4-2, 7 KOs).
In boxing's return to the famed Royal Albert Hall for a card that streamed on ESPN+ in the United States, Yarde, 27, of England, pounded on Reeves, 38, of Baltimore, in a one-sided fight. Yarde, couldn't drop Reeves, but he landed numerous hard punches on Reeves, who showed heart and determination before referee Marcus McDonnell had seen enough and stopped the fight 48 seconds into the fifth round. Yarde is close to becoming the mandatory challenger for world titlist Sergey Kovalev, a fight that Yarde hopes to have later this year.
Heavyweight Daniel Dubois (10-0, 9 KOs) KO2 Razvan Cojanu (16-6, 9 KOs).
Dubois, 21, of England, continued to impress as he violently took out former world title challenger Cojanu, 32, a Romania native based in Los Angeles, with ease. Dubois was taking a bit of a step up in competition but had no problems before trapping Cojanu on the ropes in the second round and unloading. He finished the onslaught with a left hook to the jaw and a right hand behind it that dropped Cojanu in a heap, and referee Steve Gray counted him out at 2 minutes, 48 seconds. Cojanu lost his fourth fight in a row, all against good competition.