If ever a sport was attuned to weird times, it is boxing. And, in Eddie Hearn’s back garden on Saturday night, Dillian Whyte and Alexander Povetkin, two of the game’s miscreants, will do their best to bring legitimacy to the heavyweight division.
The prize is the WBC’s diamond belt, supposedly a guarantee of a shot at the real thing. Neither will be holding their breath, given the maddening inconsistency of that organisation. But there is no moral high ground in the hills of Brentwood, either.
Povetkin has twice tested positive for banned substances: for the Russian speciality, meldonium, in 2016, when he was about to challenge Deontay Wilder for the title in Moscow; and only a few months later, when he failed another drug test and was banished indefinitely – only to be welcomed back the following year.
For ever in boxing is a negotiable commodity.
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So, a former world champion and Olympic gold medallist – who might expect to work only two or three times a year as a pro, anyway – was barely inconvenienced for cheating. Soon enough, he was back in the top 10, which allowed him to challenge Anthony Joshua in 2018, leaving the argument horizontally.
This is all farcical and wrong, of course. But this is boxing.
As for his opponent, Whyte brings a familiar tale of struggle, poverty, neglect and misdemeanours to the promotion: collecting pop bottles to feed himself as a child in Jamaica, a father at 14, knifed in street fights around south London – and was also knocked out by Joshua.
Whyte, too, has failed two drug tests, although the only one that stuck was the first one, in 2012 when he was thrown out of the sport for two years for using an over-the-counter product he says he did not realise was on the banned list. Officials told him he was naive. When he returned a positive sample again in 2019, Ukad withdrew its case after a prolonged and messy inquiry.
Naive, he might have been, but Whyte is street savvy now at 32, normally a heavyweight’s peak, and wary of promises. Denied his shot at Wilder, he has been at the head of the queue to challenge Tyson Fury for an agonisingly long time, considered surplus to money-making requirements while Joshua and others jostled for supremacy.
Yet Whyte is as dangerous as any of them. He admits he has had to work hard to develop his boxing skills, but he is immensely strong, fearless and owner of maybe the best left hook in the division, as Dereck Chisora discovered to his cost in 2018. Whyte is a minor version of Sonny Liston, another great left-hander that nobody wanted until the time arrived when he could no longer be ignored. That time is not far away for Whyte.
Povetkin, none the less, has pedigree. He won gold twice at the European championships at the start of the millennium, was super-heavyweight champion at the 2003 world championships and won gold again at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Those who have seen him in the biosecure bubble at the fight site say he looks in great shape for a 40-year-old.
He drew with the American Michael Hunter in his last fight, but there is life in his fists yet, as Whyte conceded when talking to Radio 5 Live this week. “I think there’s still a lot left. He’s been there for 15 years. Still got punch-power, good-timing – and the ability to come back.”
That said, Whyte will be devastated to lose to Povetkin when Hearn is promising him the world title shot that has been within his reach for at least two years.
It is a strong bill, with Katie Taylor’s rematch against the formidable Belgian Delfine Persoon good enough to head any show from Las Vegas to the other Garden – which is where they fought only a year ago in one of the outstanding world championship contests of 2019.
Taylor, the finest ambassador her sport has had, the most decorated amateur in the history of women’s boxing, held her world professional lightweight belt by the slimmest of margins that night, and more than a few ringside thought she had lost.
That gives the return real edge, even in the sanitised silence of the Matchroom Fight Camp in Brentwood.
As surreal as the surroundings are, these fights are genuine top-of-the-card attractions that, in normal times, would have fans in packed arenas stamping their feet well into the night.
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