Bertebiev's first IBF light heavyweight title defense, against Callum Johnson, whom he knocked out in the fourth round at Chicago's Wintrust Arena, in 2018

Without the media importance of neighboring places like Azerbaijan or Chechnya, where cruelty gained publicity a few years ago due to the bloody conflict with Russia based on its separatist intention, Dagestan it is one of those republics that after the implosion of the Soviet Union has lived immersed in terrible violence. But in addition to the separatist leanings, Dagestan, a mountainous area overlooking the Caspian Sea, has been a propitious territory for ethnic tensions and also for settlements of radical organizations. There, a veritable conglomerate of languages ​​and beliefs intertwine that, to a greater or lesser extent, tend to collide.

Artur Asilbekovich Beterbiev grew up in this context of constant political and religious conflict. The son of a nurse, he was born on January 21, 1985 in Khasavyurt, where religious tension was the order of the day, in a population made up of Avars, Chechens, Cumucos, Dargins, Laks and Lezgins. It is not strange that Beterbiev has dedicated himself to fighting. Because many years before he became world boxing champion – he won all his fights by knockout, an achievement that none of the current monarchs possesses -, the only thing he had to do in the mountainous landscape in which he lived was fight. He would fight other kids when he got out of school and fight in the gym where his brothers took him to stop punching each other in the street.

Bertebiev’s first IBF light heavyweight title defense, against Callum Johnson, whom he knocked out in the fourth round at Chicago’s Wintrust Arena, in 2018Jonathan Daniel – Getty Images North America

“I don’t remember everything, because I was a little boy, but the memories are not good,” he told the Boxing News site a few years ago. Perhaps he was referring to him when at the age of 10 he attended a service station or to the overcrowding in his humble house, where some 30 people sometimes lived together. Refugees, for the most part. People fleeing the bloody conflicts in neighboring Chechnya. They were many years at war. Many years of fighting. The years of childhood, those of memories that are not good. “I was a problem child. He was always fighting at school, in the streets. If there was a street tournament, I would fight outside. I was an angry boy, it was a very hard childhood. We all did that, it was a place where we had nothing else to do. Then my brothers took me to the gym. I was raised by my brothers, for me they are like my parents. He did boxing and wrestling. And they also kicked me out of there, for fighting when I didn’t have to,” Beterbiev recalls.

This Saturday he will defend the light heavyweight world title no less than at Madison Square Garden, in New York, against the American Joe Smith Jr. (in our country it can be seen on ESPN, a stellar combat of a meeting -titled Blood, sweat and tears– which will start at 19.30). A fight that, in addition to generating attraction per se, has a special seasoning: the future rival of the Mexican Saúl could come from there Cinnamon Alvarez. Bertebiev is called The Beast, but he rejects the nickname with a smile. “I am not a beast. I am a good guy. Maybe people like that or think that, but I’m a very simple fighter,” he says.

This reality that Beterbiev tells is the key to understanding why Dagestan is a factory for fighters: it is estimated that there are more boxers and martial arts and MMA fighters per square meter than anywhere else on the planet. It is not for less, the breeding ground that generates being one of the poorest enclaves in Russia, the social discontent, the history of war and religious conflicts… Everything means that the way out to unload the anger is to fight.

His older brothers took him out of that environment and sent him to Moscow to study physical education and there he also continued boxing. His father died when he was a teenager and it seemed that his whole world was falling apart, but his mother supported him to be part of the Russian Olympic team, which had called him. “Every time I think about what would have happened to me if I had refused to go to Moscow… I am madly grateful to my mother,” admits Beterbiev. He developed an interesting amateur career that spanned European and world championships and that he extended to try to obtain an Olympic medal for Russia. But he could not achieve it neither in Beijing 2008 nor in London 2012. Beterbiev lives today a different reality. He is already 37 years old, an age that in theory should find him in the final stage of his professional career as a boxer. However, he shines in full. At 28, he settled in Montreal, Canada, and was able to start his career as a professional.

Beterbiev with his mother, retired from nursing
Beterbiev with his mother, retired from nursing

He arrived there thanks to a woman named Anna Reva, a native of Kazakhstan, whom he met in Russian lands. She emigrated to Quebec at the beginning of the 20th century and dedicated herself to working in real estate investments. By chance, she ran into someone linked to the boxing universe and saw the vein: to represent Russian boxers in Canada. She thus contacted Beterbiev and had him settle in Montreal. However, the relationship between the two ended badly when in 2015, the Dagestani left with the businessman Al Haymon. Today, Beterbiev is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world with the added bonus of being the only champion with the same number of wins as knockouts: 17.

The memory of his family in Dagestan and the years of war and living surrounded by refugees are always in his memory. On his Instagram account, with more than 450,000 followers, Beterbiev often posts allusive photos, such as the celebration of the birthday of the first lady of Chechnya, Medny Musaevna Kadyrova. Or the memory of a leader of that Russian republic, Ajmat Kadírov, assassinated in 2004 by a bomb. He also usually shows images of his mother and one of his four children, although his marriage keeps him in a low profile. And he is a great devotee of the Muslim faith.

In a February 23 post, he posted: Dear friends, today the Chechens and the brotherly Ingush people are commemorating a bitter date: the anniversary of the repression. On a frigid February morning in 1944, thousands of people were uprooted from their homes and exiled to Central Asia. In this monstrous injustice, the Vainakhs displayed unprecedented courage, showing steadfastness and faith in Allah Almighty. Speaking of repression, we remember the hundreds of Khaybakh victims who were burned alive in the village. This inhuman act of cruelty is still remembered in our mountains. Even after hundreds of years we will feel the pain as it is one of the saddest pages in our history. We ask the Almighty to have mercy on all these innocent people affected by injustice. Friends, I wish us all a peaceful sky above our heads today and always!

Beterbiev, in a moment of rest during his preparation
Beterbiev, in a moment of rest during his preparation

Beterbiev won the IBF light heavyweight title on November 11, Fresno, United States, by defeating the German Enrico Koelling by KO in the 12th round. From there he made five successful defenses (three on American soil, one in Moscow and one in his new home, Montreal), among them, a brutal contest with the Ukrainian Oleksandr Gvozdyk, who ended up in the hospital and never stepped into a ring again. The last fight was on December 17, when he knocked out Marcus Browne at 43 seconds of the ninth round, in a duel in which the Dagestani ended up bathed in blood as a result of a cut due to a clash of heads.

On Saturday he goes for another challenge in the heart of Manhattan. Always with his ideals in tow. Without forgetting what he suffered in his childhood. Very far from that mountainous and wild land where he witnessed the great miseries of man. Fighting is just about fighting.

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