DON’T LET the bloodcurdling look in his eyes fool you. Artur Beterbiev may stare down his opponents like a butcher surveys a carcass but the emotions flickering away at the back of his mind are familiar to us all. Few of us, however, are able to weaponise these feelings the way the Russian can.
“You have to feel fear but you have to control your fear. It’s normal. I’m a very simple guy. I’m just a boxer. I’m just very human. I’m not a robot,” he tells Boxing News, his untamed beard exposing a warm smile as he moves his arms mechanically, back and forth.
“I’m like everyone. But for control, it’s different. Some do control and some cannot do that.”
The world light-heavyweight champion returns to fight in the UK on January 28 for the first time since the London 2012 Olympic Games, where he lost in the quarter–finals to a certain Oleksandr Usyk up at heavyweight. As the challenge of Anthony Yarde approaches, Beterbiev has revealed a different side to his character, adding an air of devilment to the press conference as he referred to his opponent as a “bodybuilder” and dismissed his own remarkable 18 consecutive knockouts as “lucky”. For many other fighters such a rarefied accomplishment would be crowed about from the rooftops and used to intimidate potential foes, yet the Russian finds such thoughts to be a genuine distraction in his quest to constantly improve.
“Everything is in past, you know? I’m not thinking about it [his KO record]. I’m always looking forward, looking for the future, not for the past. And that’s why I’m not remembering a knockout in the past. It’s not helping me in the future.”
Regardless of Beterbiev’s intention to downplay his formidable run of stoppages (the only current champion or belt-holder with such a record) the boxing public have undoubtedly been swept up in the relentless spectacle of his fighting style. It isn’t merely the Russian’s withering attack to head and body and the sight of his bloodied visage being held aloft like a gladiator from a bygone era. Beterbiev channels something of his hero, Mike Tyson, in trying to make his opponents feel defeated before a punch has been thrown. Even for those of us watching from the safety of our television screens it feels perilous, yet the shift from genial athlete joking with media to the grisly barbarian eyeballing his next victim is stark. It’s clearly a transformation he makes consciously.
“You know, when you do different things, you are different. It’s the same. When I do really dangerous things I have to change!” he laughs.
“Mentally it’s always different. That’s why I like this. When you go [to] each fight it’s different feelings, different things, everything. I remember, in beginning of my professional career I don’t understand many things. Professional turning from amateur is a big change.”
There is, of course, another fighter whose name is never far away from any discussion of Beterbiev; that of Boxing News’ 2022 Fighter Of The Year, Dmitry Bivol. As the holder of the WBA’ s light-heavyweight belt, Bivol is the one man standing in the way of the champion claiming all of the major sanctioning body titles. Beterbiev, while focused upon his next challenge in Yarde, hasn’t shied away from questioning around this potential super-fight, making his intentions to become ‘undisputed’ clear.
“You know, it’s good if I want another belt, no? It’s good! I want another belt. That’s it. Three and I need one more. I don’t know why they don’t, why they won’t want to come to fight? I don’t know. It’s good. It’s, like, after this fight you’ll know who in light-heavyweight (is the) best one, you know? It’s good!”
Bob Arum, Beterbiev’s promoter at Top Rank, is certainly of the opinion that he has a special fighter on his hands. The 90-year-old king of hyperbole Arum had witnessed the likes of Bob Foster and Matthew Saad Muhammad in action but believes, today at least, he has the greatest ever at 175lbs on his hands in the shape of the Russian. For Beterbiev, building such a legacy in the sport is certainly appealing, yet his focus remains firmly on the challenges ahead, namely the challenge of Dmitry Bivol and the fascinating assignment of a move up to cruiserweight.
“It’s a really good thing [the praise he receives] but I’m not thinking about those things. You know when we have kids, when our kids want something, they want it and then you give him and that’s it. For me it’s not like this. Even if tomorrow I get a forth belt it not means, ‘I’m OK. I don’t want to continue.’ No, I want to continue I because I feel good. I want to do it, to face another challenge. You know, this weight or next weight class. I want (to) fight continuously, not stop. Not now.”
Beterbiev’s laser-focus on his professional development has led to a string of videos from various training camps going viral. Within this footage fans can see examples of the intensity of his efforts to improve power and explosivity: often unorthodox but evidently effective. Yet away from the physical demands of trainer Marc Ramsay’s gym in Montreal, Canada, the undefeated Russian has also introduced challenges to strengthen his mental focus and ability to strategise through fight night.
“I just start playing chess. Only for boxing because I think it’s helping for me in my boxing. I do some different things to make me better right now. It’s very good. It’s in your mind, you have different things you need to…” he pauses, trying to find the words in English and mimicking the placement of chess pieces across a board. A knot of concentration flashes across his brow.
“I play chess only for helping in my mind. I think it’s helping. I try. I have the twice per week English class and I try to improve my English. I have many things, English, boxing. You know there are many things I need to improve and I have a space to improve boxing, English and, after, French.”
This regime designed to reach his boxing zenith does not, however, involve any time spent actually watching the sport in which he dominates so ruthlessly. Beterbiev is, he says, not a fan of boxing. So how does a man with 300 amateur fights and a decade of dominance in the professional ranks remain motivated?
“I think it’s because of belts,” he replies. “And also because my dream is to be good boxer one day. I think those things help push me to continue.”
To be good boxer one day. Beterbiev’s eyes narrow to shatter any suggestion of false modesty and he shifts in his seat to accentuate the seriousness of the point. How close is he, then, to reaching his goal? The champion pauses, ponders the question, and takes a deep contemplative breath.
“I think not far. I hope. I hope it’s not far.”