Despite all its flaws, boxing is still on the rise for the second consecutive calendar year. Much of that success was fueled by an increase in undisputed champion bouts.
Six of the eight male boxers who have unified all four world titles in one division in the last two-plus decades have done so since 2017, with four more in the past thirteen months. In the three years since 2017, four of the five undisputed champions from the four-belt era have been crowned on the women's side.
Many of the discussions surrounding the idea of one champion ruling over all boxing's top divisions have focused on the possibility that heavyweight and welterweight, which are the sport's two most lucrative divisions, will soon follow suit. It's evident that we're getting closer to the Errol Spence Jr.-Terence Crawford fight and the rumors that Tyson Fury wants the winner of the planned match between Oleksandr Uzyk and Anthony Joshua.
One division that is often overlooked is 175 pounds. The unified WBC/IBF light heavyweight champion Artur Betterbiev (17-0), 17 KOs, takes on WBO champion Joe Smith Jr. (228-3, 22KOs) at the Madison Square Garden Theater, New York. The winner could face Dmitry Bivol, WBA champion (20-0), 11 KOs, who was most recently defeated by Canelo Alvarez.
Alvarez's inclusion in one-off light-heavyweight fights hasn’t been enough to draw the same attention to the division as former champions Sergey Kovalev, Adonis Stevenson and others hoped for 10 years ago. They circling each other amid anticipation for a four belt clash that never happened. Kovalev was the headliner for a pair pay-per-view fights against Andre Ward, who were competing for three world titles as well as the crown of P4P's best.
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Bivol's upset of Alvarez has done one thing: it raised the stakes about how big an undisputed fight could become. Alvarez is determined to rematch Bivol after his fall trilogy at super-middleweight against Gennadiy Gorlovkin. However, Bivol's victory did great for his reputation and P4P ranking.
If Bivol is drawn against Beterbiev, it would be a great matchup. Alvarez could fight the winner to ensure that everyone in the division has exposure and big-time money.
However, Saturday's victory for Beterbiev is not certain. Beterbiev is listed as a 7-1 favorite in betting, but the 37-year old Russian native has fought only twice in the last three years. He has also looked humane enough despite his knockout streak that one can wonder if the competition has caught up to him.
Smith, 32, has been steady since his 2019 loss to Bivol. After a difficult-punching start as a slugger, Bernard Hopkins, a Hall of Famer, was once unable to keep up with Smith, he has now won four consecutive matches, including 2-0 against Maxim Vlasov in 2021 to win the vacant WBO title.
There is one potential problem with making an undisputed bout for Beterbiev. That is, if the promoters and networks representing the champions are willing to cooperate in a way that Stevenson and Kovalev were not. Plus, will the four-belt title fight be big enough for two networks to offer a joint PPV?
These issues would not be a problem in a perfect world. Alvarez's inclusion back in the mix could prove to be crucial. Unfortunately, boxing is not a reality in this world. Alvarez currently works with DAZN promoter Eddie Hearn. This is the same pair that backs Bivol. However, the Mexican star has used his star power and leverage to make his own decisions in recent years, crossing the political divide.
Bivol, or even Alvarez, cannot entertain the hope of undisputed glory. There must first be a winner between Smith and Beterbiev. Given the power and potential of each fighter, it is possible to expect another exciting match within a division that has been able to grab casual fans' attention.