Beterbiev vs Bivol, 5 vs 5 card ushers in boxing’s new world

Mark Butcher attends the Beterbiev vs Bivol and Matchroom vs Queensberry 5 vs 5 press launch and witnesses boxing finally marketing itself as an elite sport.

Boxing’s greatest opponent has always been boxing. The sport has a tendency to self-harm rather than sell itself.

You know the drill well enough by now, the best swerving the best and blaming each other like that Spiderman pointing at Spiderman meme. The [insert name] fight would have happened, but for the other guy, his promoter, TV network, demands.

Ours is the only major sport where world champions often reach the pinnacle and stay there by choosing the path of least resistance, a finely plotted career of avoidance.

Rival promoters have habitually been on worse talking terms than recent divorcees. Boxing’s best fights were flights of fantasy with no roots in reality, talked about in shadowy chat rooms by men and women who should know better.

But a dollar bill (or should we say many millions of them) tends to open the most bolted of doors. Saudi Arabian interest and investment in boxing has meant that, after years of posturing, pontificating, pointing, the best fights can now finally happen. Thanks to Turki Alalshikh, the man feted as ‘His Excellency’, the groundbreaking concept of the best fighting the best, without years of tiresome negotiation and blame-gaming, has finally hit boxing.

A fortnight after heavyweight royalty Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk lock horns at the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh on May 18, the sport will showcase probably the best boxing card of recent times at the same venue. No, this isn’t an advertorial, reckless hyperbole or even wishful thinking, you won’t wake up in a sweat at Oldham Leisure Centre and find it was all a dream. Boxing is now drawing winning cards after numerous folds.

There is arguably no better bout in boxing than the knockout monster Artur Beterbiev fighting master craftsman Dmitry Bivol and that marquee match-up was formalised at a lavish event at the HERE venue in Tottenham Court Road, central London, as Monday afternoon merrily rolled into Monday evening (trying asking for directions to ‘here’, next time you are in the nation’s capital, I dare you).

Yet that undisputed clash of 175lbs titans, with a new garish belt in tow, came with boxing’s ‘unicorn’ attached – a bona fide ‘stacked’ undercard, not a few 75-25 match-ups dressed up as such. After years of meh undercards packaged as mega events, the Matchroom vs Queensberry 5 vs 5 event brings a fascinating team format to pro boxing with a quintet of genuine 50-50ish clashes laced with intrigue.

A jaw-dropping video promo, a bit randomly filmed in Bulgaria, saw the 5 vs 5 protagonists portrayed as larger-than-life playing cards with gangster nicknames, befitting an early Guy Ritchie movie (I was naturally drawn to ‘The Butcher’ Nick Ball in against ‘The Jeweller’ Raymond Ford).

In-form middleweight Hamzah Sheeraz was Frank Warren’s inevitable pick as the Queensberry captain, scoring double points on the evening should he disarm Matchroom’s Austin ‘Ammo’ Williams. Deontay Wilder, moonlighting as a Matchroom fighter for one night, was Eddie Hearn’s more surprising choice as captain in a tough-looking task against Chinese goliath Zhilei Zhang. Had Zhang fought Matchroom’s Johnny Fisher you could imagine the Brit’s fast food loving father being told, “This is one Big Chinese you can’t finish.” That was a rare missed promotional trick, perhaps.

Other bouts see the rejuvenated Daniel Dubois (Queensberry) in a pick ’em heavyweight encounter with unbeaten Croatian ‘Animal’ Filip Hrgovic (Matchroom); newly minted WBA 126lbs king Ford (Matchroom) in with relentless, recent WBC title combatant Ball (Queensberry) and ex-WBA 175lbs title challenger Craig Richards (Matchroom) pitted against former World Amateur (Youth) champion Willy Hutchinson (Queensberry). Not a certainty among them in a sport that traditionally dishes up lopsided favourites in two-horse races and glances the other way after a knowing wink.

An impromptu poll of fight figures attending the event was pleasingly and revealingly split, but this observer leans towards Frank Warren’s Queensberry Promotions with that Sheeraz captaincy pick maybe proving crucial in the final analysis.

This is no longer boxing as we know it. A new world has been ushered in. Embrace it while it lasts.

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