Bivol retained his WBA world light‑heavyweight title as he proved he was too big, too strong and too composed for Álvarez, who had moved up from the super-middleweights where he had established himself as that division’s first undisputed champion in history.
It was unsettling to imagine how Putin, a combat sports fan, might try to distort Bivol’s impressive victory into a glorious Russian triumph amid the carnage of war in Ukraine. Yet, Bivol remained admirably restrained. When asked if he had replaced Canelo as the new world No 1 in the pound‑for‑pound rankings, he smiled: “No. In my mind I just beat the guy who wanted my belt. He was a super-middleweight. Yes, he had a belt before at light-heavyweight [when Canelo beat Sergey Kovalev, another Russian, in 2019] but I don’t feel like I am the king today. I’m just better than Canelo today. I don’t even feel I am the best in the light‑heavyweight division because I don’t have all the belts. I’m just one of the best.”
This sounded like the pleasing antithesis of Putin-speak. Bivol was just as modest when it was suggested it might have seemed disrespectful to him that, despite being the champion, he had to walk to the ring first. The fame of Canelo runs so deep that Bivol, in a mockery of boxing tradition, was introduced before him. The Russian anthem, thankfully, was not played alongside those of Mexico and the US.
Did Bivol use these apparent slights as additional motivation? He shook his head. “I understand. I walked [first] because Canelo is the biggest name and all the rules are for him. No problem. Just give me the fight. His name was first on the poster, too. No problem. Just give me the fight. I know how people love Canelo, and it’s normal. He’s really the biggest fighter in the world. He’s a champion in four weight classes. Of course all people are on his side.”
Bivol wanted to dedicate his win to “all people from a small, small city who want to achieve a lot – it’s possible”. It was a reminder of a conversation earlier in the week when he explained that his parents had given him a layered identity. His father is from Moldova while his mother, who is of Korean descent, was born in Kazakhstan. “Then her family moved to Kyrgyzstan,” Bivol said. “One day, when they graduated, my parents met in Russia. They married and moved to my mother’s home in Kyrgyzstan. I was born in Kyrgyzstan and lived there 11 years.”
While he spoke Russian to his parents Bivol regarded Kyrgyzstan as home. “It’s a great country, it’s not a rich country but it has great people, nice people. It’s my motherland. I love Kyrgyzstan. I love the culture and it’s different to Russia.”
Bivol conceded that war in Ukraine saddened him but he avoided criticising Putin by claiming that, as a sportsman, he was not qualified to comment on political issues. Such a circumspect attitude is understandable – especially as his parents, his wife and his children remain in St Petersburg. Bivol spends around 70% of the year with them.
“My family are in Russia now and I didn’t speak to them yet,” he said on Saturday. “My wife doesn’t watch my fights, my mother doesn’t watch my fights – ever. I don’t want them to see me fight. After the fight is over they can watch it.”
That attitude is rooted in the fact that Bivol’s close friend Maxim Dadashev, another Russian boxer, died four days after slipping into a coma following a brutal defeat in an American ring in July 2019. Those memories had framed our interview but Bivol looked a very different man after dazzling Canelo. “There were too many serious things in my head,” he said of his quiet intensity throughout fight week.
Bivol needed to be serious and concentrated in the ring because he praised Canelo as a great champion. “I felt his power. He has really good speed, good power,” he said before pointing out that Canelo is smaller than most light-heavyweights.
Canelo had accepted the verdict in the ring but later he claimed to have won the bout. It was a typical reaction from a proud Mexican fighter – as was his insistence that he will instigate the rematch clause. Bivol’s response was more endearing. Asked how he might approach the rematch he shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t have a rematch yet. I don’t even know what I will eat today or do tomorrow.”
Most observers at ringside had Bivol winning widely – either by 118-110 or 117-111. But all three judges returned the barely credible scorecard of 115-113. Did he feel the officials had been trying to rob him?
“I was a little bit shocked when I heard 115-113. I thought: ‘Maybe I lost today.’ I thought I won but everything was against me today. Then, at the end, even Eddie Hearn [the promoter] was congratulating me. He was smiling, he was happy for me – but not too much.”
Bivol cracked up again. Hearn had helped to drive the $160m deal which Canelo received for three fights meant to happen this year. Bivol was his first opponent – with the second bout slated for September against Canelo’s bitter rival Gennady Golovkin at super-middleweight. Hearn, who had Bivol winning by three rounds, stressed that the Golovkin fight will almost certainly not happen. “Canelo against Dmitri Bivol II is the biggest fight in boxing right now,” he said.
The champion smiled cheerfully. He will fly back to St Petersburg on Monday. Hopefully Bivol will retain his charming humility and shy away from any attempt by Putin, or the president’s fervent supporters, to turn his outstanding bravery and skill into a celebration of Russian aggression and expansion. Bivol, in his own diffident way, will be happier in the company of his family and a heritage rooted in Kazakhstan, Moldova, Korea and Kyrgyzstan.