There have been times this week when Dmitry Bivol, the unbeaten and outstanding WBA world light-heavyweight champion, has been reduced to a ghostly figure in Las Vegas. Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez, his challenger on Saturday night, dominates boxing and so the layered and complex life of Bivol has been ignored.
The 31-year-old Russian is regarded by many as simply the next opponent for the imperious Mexican. Canelo, the undisputed world super-middleweight champion, is jumping up to light-heavy to presumably dispatch Bivol before returning to his regular weight class in September to face his bitter rival Gennady Golovkin.
Bivol, meanwhile, waits quietly in the shadows. He is asked mainly about his thoughts on Canelo and, far less often, about the war in Ukraine and how it feels to be a Russian fighting in America at a time when his country onslaught has devastated millions of lives. But, in a long and occasionally fraught conversation, the real story of Bivol unfolds.
“My mother and father were born in the big country, the USSR,” he says wryly. “But my father was really born in Moldova and he spoke only Moldovan until he was 10. My mother [who is of Korean descent] was born in Kazakhstan. Then her family moved to Kyrgyzstan. One day, when they graduated, they met each other in Russia. They got married and moved to my mother’s home in Kyrgyzstan. I was born in Kyrgyzstan and lived there for 11 years. ”
They spoke Russian at home but Bivol felt most affinity with Kyrgyzstan. “It’s a great country. It’s not a rich country but it has great people, nice people. It’s my motherland. A lot of my life afterwards was in Russia but I love Kyrgyzstan. I love the culture and it’s different to Russia. Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim country and I have many Muslim friends. ”
Bivol fell for boxing in Kyrgyzstan – after his interest in combat sports had been sparked by, he says with a grin, “Jackie Chan movies. He has a big heart and good fighting skills. I remember he never killed anyone in his movies. He was just funny. ”
There is no room for fun when we turn to Russia. I ask Bivol what he felt as a Russian citizen when, on February 24, Vladimir Putin launched his assault. “When I heard about the war, and even if it is in Vietnam or Iraq, it’s sad for me. We are people. We have to make a better world for all of us. Of course it’s sad. ”
Bivol’s stance is that politics and sport don’t mix. And yet even sport cannot evade this conflict. Russian teams have been banned from tournaments and individual Russian athletes have been prevented from competing in their chosen sport. Boxing, however, has chosen not to address the issue beyond the fact that the Russian anthem won’t be played in the ring on Saturday night. Is Bivol relieved or disappointed?
“We all have to be proud of where we’re from. It doesn’t matter if it’s from Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Africa, England. I understand why I am without a flag here. No problem. I’m a sportsman. I am focused on the fight. ”
What are his views on the war? “I don’t know about politics,” Bivol says awkwardly. “I am into sports so I don’t know about coronavirus or politics. Most boxing fans just want to see the light heavyweight [champion] against the pound-for-pound king. ”
When it is pointed out that Wladimir Klitschko, the former world heavyweight champion, has called for his fight against Canelo to be canceled, Bivol shrugs. “He’s political. He doesn’t have to watch. ”
Wladimir’s brother, Vitali, is the mayor of Kyiv. It is a sign of the esteem in which boxers are still held in Eastern Europe. Has he met Putin? “I met him once when he invited athletes to the world combat games in 2013.”
Did he talk to Putin? “No. No. There were a lot of us there. ”
As much as he would prefer to avoid the war, Bivol admits his father would normally have flown from St Petersburg to support him in Vegas. But he has been unable to gain a visa from the US authorities. “Every time they worry about me and this is a real dangerous fight,” he says of his parents and his wife. “But they understand I love boxing. It helps my family and I am happy boxing helps me realize my potential. ”
Yet boxing is a grimly dangerous business and Bivol is moving when he remembers the death of Maxim Dadashev, the Russian light-welterweight who lost his life in July 2019 after suffering brain injuries in his fight in America against Subriel Matías.
“Maxim was my friend,” Bivol says. “I’ve known him since 2003. We boxed and trained together and spent a lot of time at competitions because we were on the same St Petersburg team. He was a funny guy who always fought so hard. As a professional we see each other sometimes when I came to Los Angeles. I knew his family and his wife is now living next to me [in St Petersburg]. We invite his wife and son to our house – like when my kids have a birthday. ”
How is Elizaveta, Maxim’s wife, coping? Bivol shakes his head. “For one year after his tragedy she was crying every day. It’s hard. ”
Did his death make Bivol consider his future in boxing? “Of course. In training I thought so much about defense. It’s dangerous. All my coaches said: ‘It’s better if you take zero punches and [land] one punch. ”
When he is not at home in St Petersburg, Bivol is training in California. “When I have a weekend to rest I like to walk on the beach, get some quesadillas, go to a museum. I’m not an expert on art but sometimes I like to spend time in art museums. ”
Buffalo smiles shyly. He knows he is a real expert in the ring – even if some doubt he will ever get a decision against Canelo in Las Vegas. “I am looking forward to Saturday night and I never think about judges. I don’t say: ‘Oh, I’m in Vegas, against Canelo, everything against me. No. ‘”
The shadow of Canelo, and Putin, stretch across this contest but Bivol is a decent man and a very good fighter. “I just need to be my best version to be able to win,” he says before, with a smile and a handshake, he slips out of sight again.
Bivol v Álvarez is on DAZN in the UK and on DAZN pay-per-view in the US