Today, Dmitry Bivol is tasked with the biggest matchup of his career when he faces superstar Canelo Alvarez. As the naturally bigger man and in his physical prime, there is a minority but vocal contingent in the boxing community backing Bivol to upset Canelo’s applecart plans for a lucrative, long-awaited trilogy against Gennady Golovkin in September. The upset pick has its merits with Bivol’s high boxing IQ and reliance on the jab, a weapon seen troubling Canelo to varying degrees against Floyd Mayweather and Golovkin. However, the key to Bivol’s success may ironically be his mental Achilles heel stemming from his biggest career scare in 2019.
On the night of March 3, 2019, Bivol was making the fourth defense of his WBA strap against Joe Smith Jr. Headed into the championship rounds, Bivol had been largely outclassing the feared slugger. According to CompuBox, Smith landed in single digits in every previous round and would not have a percentage higher than 20% in any round. In contrast, Bivol offered a varied attack predicated on footwork and counter-punching, even exceeding the punch output shown in his previous dominant win against Jean Pascal (714 total thrown punches to 678 against Pascal). It wasn’t just the fact Bivol wasn’t a stationary target for Smith to generate his fearsome power — it was the movement combined with the punch output and pace that wasn’t giving Smith time to think.
Until the literal final second of the 10th round.
Bivol had dominated the round much like the previous ones and looked to close the stanza with a wide-arching left hook. Typically, Bivol prefers to throw this punch after offsetting his foes with a left jab. This time he didn’t, allowing for Smith to counter it perfectly with a crashing overhand right alongside Bivol’s left ear. The punch connected simultaneously with the bell and Smith, a bit surprised to see Bivol still standing, gave him a face mush as if expecting Bivol to topple over. Instead, the champion lowered his gaze to the floor and walked slowly back to the corner as if monitoring to make sure his feet were still attached.
Bivol was severely hurt and had one minute to recover and six more fighting minutes against one of the sport’s biggest punchers.
Bivol ended up surviving the scare, fighting more of the 11th and 12th in retreat before closing strong with an overhand right out the clinch and a flurry of blows at the final bell. Scorecards were wide and most observers saw it as a brief scare that a young champion weathered well. Recently, we’ve seen another champion in Devin Haney have a similar late fight scare against Jorge Linares.
In Bivol’s case, the following fights after that 10th round scare outlined a lasting change to his fighting approach. Prior to Smith, Bivol routinely threw 3-4 punch combinations and vastly outpaced his jabs by power punches thrown and landed. Per CompuBox, Bivol landed over 40% of his power punches in 7 of 12 rounds against Sullivan Barrera in his 2018 HBO coming out party. In the 10th, he connected over 50%. Even against a spoiler like Isaac Chilemba, Bivol began hooking off his left jab to generate consistent offense. He landed his power punches at a better percentage than his jabs (50% to 24%) in route to a wide unanimous decision.
Against Jean Pascal, Bivol’s landed punches were only lead by jabs in 2 of the 12 rounds. He scored on 44% of his power punches (127/287), a wide margin compared to his 23% jab percentage (90/391).
Following Smith’s concussive right hand, the numbers flip. In Bivol’s very next fight versus Lenin Castillo on October 12, 2019, it was the first time were he landed more jabs than power punches, an indicator of a concerted effort to minimize risk. Of Bivol’s 652 thrown shots, a staggering 513 of them were jabs. Despite this, Bivol did score a knockdown in the 6th and of his 139 power shots thrown, he did maintain a high 50% connect percentage.
The pattern continued in Bivol’s fights following the pandemic. In his May 2021 UD win over Craig Richards, Bivol again relied on his jab for consistent offense, landed 164 of them compared to 70 power punches. The champion had double digit jab connects in 10 of the 12 rounds. When it comes to double digit power punch connects, Bivol achieved that just once in the 12th. And in his last defense in December against Umar Salamov, Bivol achieved double digit power punch connects in just three rounds. His 69 total power punches landed is the fighter’s lowest connect amount over 12 rounds since CompuBox began covering his fights in 2015.
So what does this mean for Bivol’s chances against Canelo Alvarez? No doubt, Canelo is susceptible to a strong jab as shown in the Gennady Golovkin fights. However, GGG’s jab acts more like a power shot and was the most dominant punch in the latter half of their 2018 rematch. Also, Golovkin didn’t go into a shell once hit with Canelo’s best shots.
Does Canelo hit as hard Joe Smith Jr.? Absolutely not on individual shots, but Smith doesn’t possess Alvarez’s skill as a combination puncher, particularly to the body. Among Bivol supporters, the argument is the recent fights display him in first gear and bored against overmatched opponents. The train of thought argues the dynamic Bivol of years past against Barrera and Pascal will reemerge in the biggest fight of his career.
The counter-argument is what happens to Bivol’s mindstate if Alvarez hurts him? Do we see a replay of Bivol post-round 10 against Smith, a fighter content to jab his way to victory? And knowing Canelo’s track record in close fights (and even a fight that wasn’t close against Floyd Mayweather where he received a criminal draw from one judge), is a jab-heavy offense enough to get a decision in Las Vegas with a lucrative Golovkin rubbermatch looming for September?
The odds are heavily stacked against Dmitry Bivol. According to this writer, the mix of Bivol’s recent performances, Canelo’s big fight experience edge and previous “plot armor” with at least one Vegas judge on close scorecards leads to a Canelo decision as the inevitable outcome.