Sport

Dillian Whyte’s world title ambitions on the rock in Povetkin rematch

‘This is heavyweight boxing and it takes just one second and a lapse in concentration to end it,” Dillian Whyte told me earlier this month as he remembered his crushing loss to Alexander Povetkin last August. “That’s why it’s the star division of boxing. You never know what is going to happen with the heavyweights.”

Whyte faces Povetkin again in Gibraltar on Saturday night and the heavyweight division’s capacity to generate both brutal and shocking results could be decisive. The rematch between two dangerous but vulnerable fighters might end up being a surprisingly cagey and awkward encounter but it is freighted with even more uncertainty and jeopardy for both men. It is also clear that another defeat for Whyte would leave his dream of fighting for a world title in ruins.

The Briton dominated the first fight and by the end of round four, in which he floored his Russian opponent twice, it looked as if Povetkin was about to be knocked out. But when the end came early in the fifth there was astonishment as the devastating left uppercut was landed by Povetkin.

As Whyte rumbled towards his seemingly stricken rival he made the fatal error of dropping his head as he threw a right hand. In his haste to finish the fight Whyte left himself open, with his feet badly positioned, just as the Povetkin uppercut came straight up the middle like a runaway truck. Whyte was separated from his senses even before he hit the canvas. The 32-year-old lay frighteningly still for a few moments before one of his team and the referee rolled him on to his side.

Fortunately Whyte was soon back on his feet and within a few minutes of leaving the ring he had instructed his promoter, Eddie Hearn, to make the rematch. Such courage might seem foolish but Whyte argued that the single-punch knockout was less damaging than a sustained beating over 12 rounds. He also insisted, with some justification, he had hurt Povetkin consistently and come close to winning a fight that was meant to secure him a long-delayed crack at Tyson Fury’s WBC world heavyweight title.

The rematch has been postponed three times after Povetkin contracted Covid and was hospitalised twice. Povetkin, who turned 41 a few weeks after the first fight, has had a much greater physical ordeal to overcome in his slow recovery from the virus. But he looked fit and relaxed, as did Whyte, when they met on Thursday afternoon for the final press conference of a fight that has been billed, predictably, as the Rumble on the Rock.

If Whyte is to avoid the same outcome, and avenge only his second loss in 29 fights, he needs to conquer any lingering psychological demons that have had seven months to fester in his mind. The Brixton fighter admitted to me that, after the loss, “I was devastated but you can’t start crying: ‘Oh God, I’m never going back in the ring.’ It was a major setback but let’s get it on again. The first fight was going to plan. My boxing was good. I was sharp. I was making Povetkin miss and hurting him all the time.”

He also insisted he has not been psychologically scarred by the knockout. Whyte has overcome so much trouble and strife in his life – from nearly starving as a child in Jamaica to being shot and stabbed in London as well as becoming a father at the age of 13. “Adversity is the story of my life,” he said.

Whyte argues that such resilience will help him in the rematch. But he would be advised to listen carefully to the advice of Harold Knight who will be in his corner against Povetkin. The decision to add Knight, who was an assistant trainer of Lennox Lewis, is a sign he will box more cautiously. Knight was part of the team that helped Lewis avenge his knockout losses to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman – and he also advised Anthony Joshua before he won his rematch against Andy Ruiz after the British fighter had been stopped in a shock defeat six months earlier in June 2019.

Knight has noted how Whyte’s jab controlled the first four rounds against Povetkin. He will urge Whyte to get the win at all costs – even if it means adopting a safety-first strategy behind his jab and settling for a victory on points.

On Thursday afternoon, in the sunshine of Gibraltar, where 500 fans will be allowed to attend the fight, Whyte conceded that nothing can be taken for granted. “It’s like a game of dice,” he said. “You roll the dice and you don’t know what number it’s going to land on.”

Whyte will be less fatalistic when the bell rings. His career hangs in the balance and he cannot afford to have the dice tumbling down against him once more. Povetkin is over the top of the hill and already a long way down. But he is a former Olympic and world heavyweight champion and Whyte needs to be stringent in the ring on the rock. If he maintains his discipline he should avenge that painful loss. But, as always in heavyweight boxing, anything can happen.