An opportunity to fight for a major world title would seem to be too good a scenario for any legitimate contender to pass up. A title opportunity with a financial windfall “well above six figures,” as Matchroom USA matchmaker Eric Bottjer put it, would only sweeten the pot.
But if you ask WBA light heavyweight world titleholder Dmitry Bivol’s team, finding an opponent is not as easy as it looks.
While fellow light heavyweight belt-holders Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Artur Beterbiev are fighting in a major title unification bout in mid-October, Bivol has been relegated to facing Lenin Castillo at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago on Saturday.
“It was hard to find somebody credible,” admitted Bottjer. “Castillo was the best choice.”
Some will call the Castillo bout a “stay busy” fight, others will label it a “tune-up” bout. The reality is that this pairing is simply underwhelming.
“I just think because there’s four champions and there’s four sets of ratings that these [other] guys seem to have more choices — which, by math, they do,” said Bottjer.
Bivol almost feels like the odd man out despite having a world title.
“Yeah, everything is happening with the light heavyweight division. I feel a little bit outside,” said Bivol. “But I know why, Top Rank has three fighters [who are belt holders], they want to make one the champion. And I understand that Canelo wants a big fight, a big name like Sergey Kovalev [they will meet in November].
“I understand that. I just need patience and just fight to be prepared to develop my career,” he continued.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Castillo (20-2-1, 15 KOs) wasn’t even in the WBA’s top 15, meaning he wasn’t technically eligible to fight for this belt. But as you peruse the WBA rankings that were released on Sept. 30, Castillo was suddenly listed as the 15th-ranked contender.
So how did they get to this point?
“We went through numerous options, and many of them didn’t want to fight Dmitry, or had other reasons, or they were injured or something like that,” said Vadim Kornilov, who is part of the management team for Bivol. “So there was absolutely nobody available.”
Kornilov says that they went up and down the WBA rankings during the summer, trying to entice a contender to face Bivol. Some weren’t available, while others weren’t realistic options.
To dig deeper into how fights with the boxers in the WBA’s top 15 didn’t pan out, here’s how each boxer was (or was not) approached, step by step, straight from Bivol’s team, Matchroom’s promoter Eddie Hearn (and Bottjer) and, in some cases, from the promoters on the other side of the equation.
(Rankings are taken from early September)
WBA No. 1 contender: Jean Pascal (34-6-1, 20 KOs)
When it comes to top-rated Pascal, who earned this spot by upsetting Marcus Browne over the summer, Kornilov explained, “They have a mandatory rematch with Browne, first of all. Second of all, Dmitry has beaten Pascal in a very one-sided fight.”
Kornilov said that Pascal was not even considered for this date.
WBA No. 2: Felix Valera (18-3, 15 KOs)
Rated second in the WBA was Valera — another boxer Bivol took care of handily in his seventh pro bout. “There’s no reason to do that, again,” stated the manager. Valera then went out and lost to Vyacheslav Shabranskyy via DQ in the eighth and final round of their walkout bout following the Tyson Fury-Otto Wallin main event in Las Vegas on Sept. 14, due to a series of low blow punches.
WBA No. 3: Joshua Buatsi (12-0, 10 KOs)
Buatsi, from the U.K., is a talented and undefeated fighter, and this matchup will be highly anticipated one day. “We’re ready to fight him at any time,” said Kornilov.
“That’s kind of like a [Sergey] Kovalev vs. [Anthony] Yarde situation, where you haven’t boxed the people in between yet,” said Hearn, who promotes Bivol and Buatsi. “So to make that jump with such a good prospect would be poor management, in my opinion.”
For now, Buatsi has a fight scheduled for Nov. 2 against WBA No. 9 Blake Caparello.
“That’s the fight Buatsi needs, the in-between fight, that he if he breezes through Caparello — and he’s a tough boy — then he might be ready for a Bivol,” Hearn added.
WBA No. 4: Dominic Boesel (29-1, 11 KOs)
Germany’s Boesel has turned down a fight with Bivol in the past. But Kornilov admitted, “I don’t really know if he’s a worthy opponent or a guy that makes sense.”
WBA No. 5: Marcus Browne (23-1, 16 KOs)
Prior to Browne’s loss to Pascal, Bivol and his representatives were hoping to fight Browne in the fall.
WBA No. 6: Sven Fornling (15-1, 7 KOs)
Then there’s Fornling, who Kornilov says, “I think he was discussed. I don’t know exactly what happened with him.”
WBA No. 7: Jesse Hart (26-2, 21 KOs)
Fornling is followed by Hart, who just recently moved up to 175.
“He wasn’t discussed, but I don’t know if he’s available,” stated Kornilov. “He’s with Top Rank, he fights on ESPN, so it may not be the easiest fight to make.”
“They never did [reach out],” confirmed Carl Moretti, VP of Boxing Ops for Top Rank.
WBA No. 8: Charles Foster (19-0, 9 KOs)
For a spell it looked like Foster would be the dance partner for Bivol, until Mother Nature intervened, or so Kornilov says.
“He was offered a very big payday for the fight, we were in negotiations with him for probably two weeks and after a while, I was told that he had some issues because of the hurricane over there in Florida and his gym was flooded. But at the end of the day, he didn’t want the fight, after all.”
Foster’s team offers a different explanation.
“Yes, he got the offer,” said Foster’s promoter, Ken Casey of Murphys Boxing. “But it was a short notice and Foster’s coach had gone on vacation. And [Foster] wouldn’t have been able to spar for the fight, because he wasn’t cleared to box until a week before the fight because of a cut from a headbutt in his August fight [against Denis Grachev]. … He’d love that fight, if given the chance when healthy.”
Finally, Hearn checked in with his own perspective on the process.
“Foster asked for an amount of money that was ridiculous, we gave it to him,” Hearn said. “The manager went back and said, ‘OK, great,’ and he came back a day later and said, ‘I’m really sorry, but he’s not taking it.'”
WBA No. 9: Blake Caparello (30-3-1, 13 KOs)
“He was offered the fight, and he was an option,” Kornilov said, “but he’s fighting Buatsi in an eliminator.”
WBA No. 10: Umar Salamov (25-1, 19 KOs)
When it came to Salamov, Kornilov was pretty blunt.
“As far as I know he wasn’t the most enticing option for them to put two Russians with a Ukrainian [Oleksandr Usyk] being the main event,” said Kornilov. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to have multi Soviet guys on the same card.”
WBA No. 11: Badou Jack (22-2-3, 13 KOs)
“I did inquire about him,” Kornilov said of Jack, ”but I was told he might be fighting at cruiserweight, now.”
“No one has ever contacted me [about a Bivol fight],” countered Leonard Ellerbe, CEO of Mayweather Promotions, which represents Jack. “Badou’s fighting by the end of the year, so that [Bivol] fight wouldn’t make sense right now. After 2020, we’re open to anybody.”
WBA No. 12: Callum Johnson (18-1, 13 KOs)
Johnson was deemed unavailable to Bivol’s brain trust, and Hearn confirmed it. “We offered him the [Bivol] fight, [but] he had a shoulder operation, so he wasn’t ready,” Hearn said.
WBA No. 13: Craig Richards (15-1, 8 KOs)
Kornilov admitted that when it came to Richards, “I don’t know who that is, to be honest with you.”
WBA No. 14: Mathieu Bauderlique (18-1, 9 KOs)
As for Bauderlique, he was never discussed.
WBA No. 15: Igor Mikhalkin (23-2, 10 KOs)
Rounding things out was Igor Mikhalkin, who was 15th in the late summer before Castillo supplanted him.
“It didn’t make sense fighting each other on a card like this,” said Kornilov. “Mikhalkin didn’t look that good with Kovalev, and Bivol and him know each other, they’re friendly. It wasn’t the best option.”
“We explored that, and they wanted way too much money,” said Bottjer. “They priced themselves out of the fight.”
And so, that left Bivol to fight Lenin Castillo. To be fair, Castillo isn’t hapless; he represented the Dominican Republic in the 2008 Summer Olympics in China, and in his defeat against Browne (who was undefeated at that point), he scored a knockdown before losing a 10-round decision. He comes into this contest versus Bivol on a two-fight win streak.
As Castillo got the call to face Bivol, he was in the midst of preparing for the MTK light heavyweight tournament.
“It’s not like he was getting off the couch,” Bottjer pointed out.
But to prove how much of a guessing game it was for Bivol, until the very end, Bivol sparred with both orthodox and left-handed boxers as he waited to see who his next opponent would be.
He’s not bitter at his current plight, by any means; Bivol has a good grasp on the dynamics of the boxing business and he’s still just 28, making him the youngest of the belt-holders at 175. In a situation like this, Bivol is perhaps competing against himself. This ordeal is a test of his professionalism and patience in the sport.
“The main thing is I have to be in good shape and practice, practice and more practice,” said Bivol, after his days training at the Combinations Boxing Academy in Lakewood, California. “Oct. 12, it doesn’t matter which fight, because I understand that people are busy in our division. Then just get a much better fight [in 2020], which they can give me. So win this fight and go straight there.”
It’s clear which fights he wants: any of the other belt-holders at light heavyweight or super middleweight, or a Canelo Alvarez-level of star. Bivol just wants to fight, and eventually face the best. But he understands the business of boxing oftentimes gets in the way of the actual sport.