FRESNO, Calif. — From the time Artur Beterbiev turned pro in 2013 the expectations were sky high that he would become a dominant fighter and win a world title.
He was a two-time Russian Olympian and won more than 300 amateur bouts with only around five losses. Along the way, he beat a collection of opponents who went on to become notable pros, including former unified light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev (twice) and reigning cruiserweight titlist Yunier Dorticos (by first-round knockout, no less).
When Beterbiev decided to turn pro, he relocated to Montreal and signed with top Canadian promoter Yvon Michel, who said early on that he was as special a fighter as any he had ever been involved with.
Beterbiev (11-0, 11 KOs) impressed fight in and fight out. He was a wrecking machine, knocking everyone out — including former titleholders Tavoris Cloud and Gabriel Campillo — often in spectacular fashion. Some believe Beterbiev is the best pure puncher in boxing pound-for-pound.
Now Beterbiev, 32, is on the verge of fulfilling the lofty expectations. He is the heavy favorite to defeat Germany’s Enrico Koelling when they square off for a vacant light heavyweight world title on Saturday night at the Save Mart Center on the campus of Fresno State. The card will be televised live on ESPN and ESPN Deportes beginning at 10:30 p.m. ET and also stream live on the ESPN App.
Beterbiev and Koelling are fighting for one of the three light heavyweight world title belts left vacant in late September when Andre Ward surprisingly gave them up and retired. When Ward called it a career, Beterbiev-Koelling, which was initially supposed to be a world title eliminator to earn a mandatory shot at Ward, was elevated to the vacant world title fight.
Beterbiev doesn’t show much emotion but it is clear by his body language alone that this fight means everything to him.
“This is the most important fight in my career,” Beterbiev said through a translator before the final pre-fight news conference on Thursday. “I worked very hard in this camp to make my dream come true. This is my dream, to become a world champion. I worked very hard in this camp to make my dream come true.”
Koelling (23-1, 6 KOs), 27, of Germany, has won seven fights in a row since a 2015 decision defeat, though he has not yet faced a top level opponent.
“I am focused on Enrico Koelling but in the future I would like to face big fighters, big caliber,” Beterbiev said. “I’m excited to be in this division. It’s a hot division and it’s interesting.”
Marc Ramsay, Beterbiev’s trainer, said he expects Koelling to make it a tough fight and said he doesn’t expect a quick knockout; Beterbiev has only been past four rounds once when he was pushed to the seventh round by Alexander Johnson in 2015.
“Koelling is probably the most complete fighter Artur has faced since he debuted as a professional,” Ramsay said. “He’s not the kind of challenge Cloud was offensively but he’s very good defensively, a little like Arthur Abraham with that tight defense. He’s not a guy who gets hit very clean. You have to work and find a good angle but we are also very confident. We prepared Artur for a very tough 12 rounds.”
“This is the most important fight in my career. I worked very hard in this camp to make my dream come true. This is my dream, to become a world champion. I worked very hard in this camp to make my dream come true.”
Beterbiev comes into the fight having faced some adversity. He was inactive for a year, from June 2015 to June 2016, after suffering a shoulder injury in training in October 2015 that required surgery.
Even though Beterbiev had to miss out on a title eliminator while he was recovering from surgery, he said he never got too down and that with the title fight at hand, things have worked out.
“Everything that’s done is done,” he said. “I feel good and everything is destiny. With the shoulder, I had no choice. I had to undergo an operation, but I am fully recovered. I am 100 percent now.”
He goes into the fight in a promotional dispute with Michel. Beterbiev believes their contract is up and Michel says it’s not. A Montreal judge will eventually decide the case.
“I am totally focused on this fight. I don’t focus on the lawsuit,” Beterbiev said.
Ramsay said he thought the lawsuit was on Beterbiev’s mind a bit but that it would not impact his performance.
“A little bit it’s on his mind,” Ramsay said. “But he’s veteran. He has over 300 amateur fights. He knows what he’s doing. He knows it’s time to focus on the fight and make sure we cross the line before we think about other stuff.”
Despite their issues, Michel is still effusive in his praise of Beterbiev.
“I believe Artur Beterbiev is and exceptional fighter, the kind of talent we only see few of in each generation,” he said. “Forget Kovalev, (titlist Dmitry) Bivol or (top contender Oleksandr) Gvozdyk. There are no Russians near his quality and they all going to fear him.”
“I believe Artur Beterbiev is and exceptional fighter, the kind of talent we only see few of in each generation. Forget Kovalev, (titlist Dmitry) Bivol or (top contender Oleksandr) Gvozdyk. There are no Russians near his quality and they all going to fear him.”
Promoter Yvon Michel
While his promotional situation is unclear, he is fighting on this Top Rank card because the company won a purse bid for $315,000 to gain promotional rights to the fight. Beterbiev is entitled to 75 percent of the winning bid ($236,250) and Koelling the remaining 25 percent ($78,750). Michel did not bid, but he still hopes Beterbiev wins.
“Beterbiev is pretending our contract is terminated and we have the conviction our contract is still valid. We are waiting for a court date in Montreal,” Michel said. “We are happy he is fighting for the IBF title. We have done all the ground work to get him there. We did not bid because of the litigation but we did not oppose at all. If we prevail in court, we will still be promoting him. If we don’t we will act as professional and wish him good luck.”
Beterbiev said he appreciated that Top Rank, which had interest in signing him out of the amateurs, bid on the fight and give him a chance to make his world title dreams come true.
“I am happy about that because Top Rank is No. 1. When I shifted to the professionals I had contact with Top Rank initially,” Beterbiev said. “I had some discussions with Top Rank but I didn’t join Top Rank at that time. But I am happy they organized this fight.”
Should Beterbiev win the lawsuit and the title, Top Rank would like to keep doing business with him.
“Obviously, if he wins the lawsuit and the fight then obviously we would try to make a deal to promote him,” Top Rank chairman Bob Arum said. “He and his people are amenable but we haven’t even discussed it. We have a match with Gvozdyk that could be a great fight.”
Beterbiev would have preferred to fight Ward for the title but Koelling is who it will be and he is fine with that.
“Ward’s a very smart fighter,” he said. “I respect his decision [to retire] and I wish him good luck. Whoever I fight I’m ready for a world title. I want to win this belt and then I want to fight whoever is the best in my division.”