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By Bernard Fernandez

It is a saying nearly as old as boxing itself. “To be the best, you have to beat the best,” those who accept the challenge of taking on the top fighter or champion in their weight class, or the celebrated holder of the widely recognized if unofficial title as boxing’s pound-for-pound ruler, are told.

Before his May 7 bout at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena, already-great-but-seeking-to-become-greater Canelo Alvarez, the undisputed super middleweight champ who already sat atop many P4P lists, figured to buff and polish his burgeoning legend by moving up to light heavyweight and knocking off WBA 175-pound champ Dmitry Bivol. This time, however, Canelo’s soaring confidence proved to be a miscalculation.

Bivol, the Kyrgyzstan-born Russian who trained in Indio, Calif., not only defeated the Mexican superstar via unanimous decision, he did so convincingly, and in the opinion of more than a few knowledgeable observers, by wider margins than the identical 115-113 scorecards submitted by the three assigned judges.

OK, so beating the best – Canelo – might not have rocketed Bivol to the pinnacle of all those P4P rankings yet. But it certainly earned him a place on everybody’s top 10 list, if he weren’t on all of them already, and a higher position in the estimation of those who already had him pegged as a rising star. But just in case any skeptics might have figured Bivol’s watershed triumph was a bit of a fluke, he followed up his bravura performance against Canelo with an even more emphatic defense of his WBA title, totally dominating the previously undefeated Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez, another highly regarded Mexican, on Nov. 5 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. This time the unanimous decision for Bivol was indisputably a rout, by margins of 118-110 and 117-111 (twice).

For those who like to play around with numbers, the combined records of Alvarez and Ramirez at the time they shared a ring with Bivol was 95-1-2, with 69 knockouts.

For his double star-turn, the 31-year-old Bivol (21-0, 11 KOs), whose exotic facial features owe in part to his Korean mother, is the Sweet Science’s Fighter of the Year for 2022, a designation that might be repeated a couple of more times if he is able to continue making excellent fighters look just a bit less so.

After his dismissal of Ramirez, the drums signaling Bivol’s possible anointment as 2022’s top fighter, some of which first sounded after he handled Alvarez so convincingly (and as a 5½-1 underdog!) became a cacophony.

“I heard about it,” Bivol, who took up boxing at the age of six, said of his Fighter of the Year prospects, of which TSS is likely only one of several media outlets to confer that regal honor upon him. “People give me credit. `You should be Fighter of the Year.’ I like the sound of it, but I can’t say anything about (it) because I didn’t see all the other fights. I thought only about my career. I don’t know all about boxing. It’s hard.”

This much is certain: Although Bivol was well-regarded before his conquests of Alvarez and Ramirez, he is much more so now, if not at the summit of the pugilistic food chain, then ready to plant his flag there with another signature victory or two. He is now the hunted instead of the hunter, with any number of big-name, would-be opponents eager to find a spot on his dance card for 2023 and beyond. And Canelo Alvarez is clamoring for a place at the front of the line.

“He said, `It’s not my weight class,’” Bivol said of Alvarez’s rationale for not looking, well, Canelo-like at 175. “That was the first thing I heard. OK, it’s not your weight class. If you want a rematch, let’s talk about 168.”

The funny thing about boxing is that the weight-class escalator can go up or down. Just as Alvarez envisioned greater glory for himself by bulking up from super middle to light heavy (where he had fought and won once before, against Sergey Kovalev), Bivol said he would be amenable to slimming down to beat him again, in his preferred division.

“It would give the advantage to Canelo, no doubt, because that’s his weight class,” Bivol’s manager, Vadim Kornilov said of the lesser-poundage rematch possibility which his fighter would consider. “At least it would be a challenge for Dmitry and a motivation because if you did it again at 175, would it be interesting anymore?”

Other options for Bivol no doubt would prove intriguing. He has been called out by, among others, Callum Smith (29-1, 21 KOs, whose only loss was to Alvarez), WBC middleweight champ Jermall Charlo (32-0, 22 KOs) and top-ranked WBA light heavy contender Joshua Buatsi (16-0, 13 KOs). But maybe the most enticing matchup would be for full unification at 175 against Montreal-based fellow Russian Artur Beterbiev (18-0, 18 KOs), the IBF/WBC/WBO champ who defends those three belts against England’s Anthony Yarde (23-2, 22 KOs) on Jan. 28 in London. There are those who would make Beterbiev the choice to get the better of Bivol, as was the case with Canelo.

But, hey, to be the best you have to beat the best.

Bernard Fernandez, named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category with the Class of 2020, was the recipient of numerous awards for writing excellence during his 28-year career as a sports writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Fernandez’s first book, “Championship Rounds,” a compendium of previously published material, was released in May of last year. The sequel, “Championship Rounds, Round 2,” with a foreword by Jim Lampley, is currently out. His third boxing anthology, “Championship Rounds, Round 3,” is now out and available from Amazon and other book-selling outlets.