Sorry Anthony Yarde, Artur Beterbiev vs. Dmitry Bivol for the 175-pound crown should be next

NEW YORK — Artur Beterbiev hasn’t met his match yet, and Saturday at Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden was no different.

Joe Smith Jr. entered the ring with a size advantage, strength and a tremendously powerful right hand, but none of it mattered. Beterbiev was too precise, his punches too damaging.

His underrated ring IQ allowed him to deliver some of the sport’s most-precise punches, leading to three knockdowns and a second-round TKO victory for Beterbiev. He picked up a third light heavyweight title to cement himself as one of the two 175-pounders in the world.

The other, of course, is fellow Russian Dmitry Bivol, who upset Canelo Alvarez, boxing’s former pound-for-pound king, in May to retain his light heavyweight title.

A summit meeting between Beterbiev and Bivol would not only crown an undisputed light heavyweight champion, but also represent one of the best matchups boxing can deliver.

Naturally, this being boxing, that fight isn’t on the immediate horizon. Instead, Beterbiev (18-0, 18 KOs) is lined up to defend his three titles against England’s Anthony Yarde, the WBO mandatory challenger. There’s no deal in place, but the fight is being planned for Oct. 29 in London, sources tell ESPN.

“I have two unification fights. Unification fights are more interesting, more motivating,” Beterbiev said. “I prefer unification fight. I want to be undisputed.”

That bout will have to wait, of course. Yarde, who was ringside, appears to be next up. And like Beterbiev, Yarde is a dangerous puncher who proved in his lone title shot that he belongs on this stage.

Yarde appeared a punch or two away from putting away Sergey Kovalev when they met for a light heavyweight title in 2019. Instead, Kovalev stopped Yarde the following round. Yarde had to travel to Russia for that bout, but this time, he’ll fight at home against another big-punching Russian in Beterbiev.

“That [Kovalev fight] prepared me a lot, especially going to Russia as well,” Yarde, who was ringside, told ESPN on Saturday. “You can’t get better preparation than that. I was younger then, mentally and physically. … I think I’ve come a long way with experience and I’m la lot more prepared mentally.”

While Beterbiev-Yarde is an appealing action fight — and a big event in the U.K. — it’s certainly not the fight we all want to see at 175 pounds. That matchup remains Beterbiev-Bivol for all the marbles at 175 pounds.

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Bivol and Beterbiev were in talks for a light heavyweight title unification this spring in St. Petersburg before the former snagged the Alvarez fight. Now, the undisputed championship matchup could have to wait until at least the first half of next year, and perhaps even longer.

Alvarez decided to head towards a third fight with Gennadiy Golovkin on Sept. 17 rather than exercise the rematch clause for a second bout with Bivol. However, it’s still possible Canelo will pursue the encore encounter on Cinco De Mayo weekend in 2023, which would push an undisputed title fight featuring Beterbiev until at least the fall of next year.

Beterbiev turns 38 next January and is still seeking a genuine major fight that fits his immense talent. He’s on the cusp of the pound-for-pound list and is boxing’s only champion with a 100% KO record.

He showed once again on Saturday that he is one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world. A fight with Yarde will present another opportunity for Beterbiev to deliver a scintillating performance in a slugfest, but that’s not the fight Beterbiev — or boxing fans — want. And Beterbiev deserves it before it’s too late.

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