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Road To Undisputed #15: Light Heavyweights

Welcome to “Road To Undisputed,” a series where I look at every weight class in boxing, look at the champions and contenders and map out a road to crowning an undisputed champion and the chances of it happening anytime soon.

This week, we’ll take a look at the light heavyweights, a group with a number of great champions, but with no real path towards an undisputed champion.

Here are the divisions covered so far:

Minimumweights
Light flyweights
Flyweights
Super flyweights
Bantamweights
Super Bantamweights
Featherweights
Super Featherweights
Lightweights
Junior Welterweights
Welterweights
Junior Middleweights
Middleweights
Super Middleweights

Titleholders:

  • WBA “Super:” Dmitry Bivol
  • WBC and IBF: Artur Beterbiev
  • WBO: Joe Smith Jr.

Contenders:

  • Gilberto Ramirez
  • Joshua Buatsi
  • Lyndon Arthur
  • Robin Krasniqi
  • Callum Smith
  • Marcus Browne
  • Maxim Vlasov
  • Umar Salamov
  • Mathieur Bauderlique
  • Sullivan Barrera
  • Eleider Alvarez
  • Lionell Thompson

Current Outlook:

By this time four years ago, Andre Ward ruled the light heavyweight division coming off a second consecutive win against Sergey Kovalev in mid-June of 2017. As it presently stands, the division looks entirely different than it was back then. There’s a lot more parity and a lot more debate as to who is the best fighter today.

That debate today mainly starts and ends with Artur Beterbiev and Dmitry Bivol, who hold three of the four top titles in the division. Those on the side of Beterbiev will note his devastating power (he is the only world champion today with a 100 percent KO rate) and overwhelming pressure as the difference maker. Beterbiev is coming off a somewhat sluggish performance in a 10th round stoppage win against Adam Deines in March after dealing with injuries and a bout with COVID-19.

Those on the side of Bivol would argue his superior boxing skills, footwork and technical prowess as the reason he should be looked at as the top boxer. Bivol possesses one of the best resumes in the division, having beaten the likes of Jean Pascal, Isaac Chilemba, Sullivan Barrera and most recently, Craig Richards in May.

Regardless, both Beterbiev and Bivol are among the light heavyweight division’s elite, but they are not the only ones sitting atop the mountain. Joe Smith Jr. is the most recent fighter to join the list of titleholders with a dramatic and exciting win against Maxim Vlasov in April to capture the WBO title. Smith is on the best run of his career, winning three straight since a loss to Bivol in 2019. Much like his blue collar upbringing and work ethic, Smith is a grinder and wears down opponents with a seemingly never-ending motor combined with power in both of his hands.

Once you get past the champions and dive deep into the list of contenders, there is an interesting group of fighters to watch out for. Arguably at the top of the list of contenders is Gilberto Ramirez, who held the WBO super middleweight title for a number of years. After a somewhat dysfunctional end to his time with Top Rank, Ramirez signed with Golden Boy Promotions with the idea that Ramirez would challenge for a light heavyweight title down the road, possibly against Bivol. Ramirez is a skilled boxer with a ton of heart, but has not looked spectacular in recent outings. His Golden Boy debut against Barrera on July 9 answered a lot of questions over his viability as a light heavyweight title challenger.

Speaking of former super middleweight champions moving up to the 175-pound division, Callum Smith dazzled in his return to the light heavyweights back on September 25. Smith, who suffered a loss to Canelo Alvarez last year, scored a devastating second-round stoppage win over Lenin Castillo and firmly planted himself as a title contender.

Still, there are younger fighters ready to take charge for the division’s future. Joshua Buatsi, who won a bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics, is one such fighter, possessing a nice blend of power and improving boxing ability. At 14-0, Buatsi is knocking on the door of a big fight against a world-ranked contender on his path to eventually secure a world title fight.

What will it take to get an undisputed champion?

The path to an undisputed champion looks somewhat simple on paper. Both Beterbiev and Smith have expressed interest in fighting each other and they both fight under the Top Rank banner. The winner of that fight could then fight Bivol and just like that, an undisputed champion is crowned.

As mentioned, it looks simple on paper. Executing it is a little tougher. First off, Beterbiev has an upcoming title defense against Marcus Browne in the near future with that fight shaping up to be a slugfest on paper. Smith Jr. was supposed to have a title defense against Umar Salamov coming up, but that fight got called off when Smith was hospitalized due to COVID-19.

If a three-belt unification between Top Rank’s two champions takes long to make, it makes lining up a follow-up unification with Bivol (promoted by Matchroom Boxing) that much tougher to pull off. Bivol also does not have a fight lined up for him, but those in certain boxing circles are under the impression that he could fight Ramirez, or at the very least, those in Ramirez’s camp are convinced the Mexican fighter will have his title shot.

There’s also another potential variable to account for if there’s no title unifications in 2021 or even 2022 and that’s Canelo Alvarez. The four-division champion is focused on his mission to unify the super middleweight division and could do that in November against Caleb Plant. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. Alvarez could very much stay at super middleweight and fight other boxers such as David Benavidez, Jermall Charlo and Gennadiy Golovkin. However, Alvarez could move back up to light heavyweight and become a two-time world champion. Bivol would be an obvious choice of opponent for him given Bivol’s promoter Eddie Hearn and Alvarez’s budding working relationship with him.

There is a path to crowning an undisputed champion by the end of 2022, but to get to that point, that journey has to begin now with all parties focused on that goal. That does not appear to be the case. It’s hard to envision a single champion any time soon; perhaps a three-belt titleholder or multiple unified champions, but not an undisputed champion.

Chances of there being an undisputed champion in the next 18 months: 10%

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