“Do you like interviews?” I ask the most coldly ferocious puncher in professional boxing. Artur Beterbiev, the only world champion boxer to have won every single one of his professional fights by knockout, looks quietly at me as he weighs up his response to my exasperated and mildly sarcastic question. The 38-year-old Russian, who holds the IBF, WBC and WBO world light-heavyweight titles, strokes his beard and then gives me a blunt answer: “No.”
I wish I could say that I have spent the previous 20 minutes going toe-to-toe with the formidable Beterbiev, probing him with questions that persuade him to open up and discuss his mysterious aura, terrifying knockout record, Islamic faith and seemingly close relationship with the Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov. But he responds to most queries with amused evasion. It’s another mismatch because Beterbiev is a master at saying nothing and our hapless interview is reeling already.
Even questions about his potentially explosive world title defence against the hard-hitting Anthony Yarde at Wembley Arena on Saturday night have been dispatched with wry shrugs and gnomic one-sentence replies. It’s a real shame because, rather than the impassive mask he wears when bludgeoning his opponents, Beterbiev smiles a lot with a hint of mischief and dry humour. He also has an interesting backstory and there are glimmers of hope that we might be getting somewhere in the first five minutes when I still have modest hopes for a decent conversation.
I have heard stories of Beterbiev being seen at an airport, sitting alone after another brutal victory far from his current home in Montreal. He is said to always be without any entourage while he waits for the first flight out of a strange city. He never seems to celebrate his wins or proclaim his greatness as a fighter. Beterbiev just turns up for fight-week bang on time, does what he is contractually bound to do in the buildup and then climbs into the ring and stops his stricken opponent. His professional record is 18 fights, 18 wins, 18 knockouts.
He is also far more than just a wrecking-machine. Beterbiev is a father to four children. He is a husband and a son. I know that Beterbiev is close to his mum and that he lost his father in a car accident when he was just 16. So I begin by asking him about his mother. “When I was young she take care of me a lot,” Beterbiev says in his functional English. “She does a personal diet for me, preparing food, and everything else. I remember that time when I lost my father I received an invitation from a sports college in Moscow. It was a personal invitation for me and it was also like an Olympic boxing academy. We had lost my dad that year but she asked me to go there.”
Did she want to help him get over the death of his dad? “There are many [reasons] but I think the main thing she wanted was I continue my work.”
Beterbiev, who is of Chechen descent, was born in the Russian republic of Dagestan. At 16 he must have felt very lonely, grieving for his dad and missing his mum, while living 1,200 miles from home in Moscow. “Yeah, it was difficult,” Beterbiev says before breaking into an unexpected smile. “But I believe what doesn’t kill you make you stronger.”
There were money problems following the death of his dad, who had been a bus driver, while his mum did not receive a big salary as a nurse. “I remember that time,” Beterbiev says. “My oldest brother sold his car when we needed money to go to a [boxing] tournament.”
Beterbiev developed into a world class amateur boxer and he fought at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. At London 2012 he lost a close decision in the quarter-finals to Oleksandr Usyk, who currently holds three of the four main world heavyweight titles. After the Olympics he resolved to emigrate to Canada. His mother now lives with him, his wife and children in Montreal and I ask if she gets nervous before his fights.
“She’s always worrying about me,” Beterbiev says of his mum, “but I think she already adjusts.”
What about his wife? Will she find it hard to watch him step into the ring against Yarde, who will certainly be dangerous in the early rounds on Saturday? “Maybe yes. I think she’s worrying too.”
Beterbiev might have stopped all his professional opponents but he is not invincible and he has also been dropped to the canvas. Does he too suffer from nerves on fight night? “Of course,” he says with a little laugh. “But I am not just sitting there, nervous. I have things I am thinking about. Every time it’s different but it’s also very interesting. I like these feelings.”
Yarde, a 31-year-old Londoner who has won 23 of his 25 fights, is a credible opponent. But when they have been face-to-face does it seem to Beterbiev that Yarde carries a real conviction that he can win? “What we do in the ring is more important than face-to-face. I’m all focused on myself. What he’s doing is his problem.”
Has he watched a lot of Yarde on tape to prepare? “I watch enough.”
I know we’re sinking into troubled, monosyllabic terrain so I try a different tack. Usyk and Beterbiev were both ringside for Tyson Fury’s predictable stoppage of Derek Chisora in London last month. Did he and old rival talk? “No,” Beterbiev says curtly, perhaps miffed that Usyk offered Yarde advice on how to beat him.
Is Usyk the most gifted fighter he has ever faced? “Let’s not talk about him.”
Does he not like Usyk? “Not as a person. Maybe he did a good job in boxing, but not as a person. I don’t know him personally.”
I ask Beterbiev about two of his more difficult bouts. In 2018, Callum Johnson knocked him down heavily in the second round before Beterbiev blitzed the English light-heavyweight in the fourth. An attempt to discuss the fight is shut down with a pithy response. “Yeah, it’s boxing.”
What about his bout against Marcus Browne 13 months ago when a clash of heads opened up a terrible cut and blood poured down Beterbiev’s face and chest. Did it make him more determined to produce the knockout which won him the fight in the ninth round? “A little bit.”
Beterbiev is a tough nut but we press on. I ask him about Dmitry Bivol, who holds the WBA version of the light-heavyweight world title and was Fighter of the Year in 2022 after he easily defeated Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez – touted until then as the pound-for-pound best boxer in the world. Is Beterbiev close to fighting Bivol in a unification contest?
“I don’t know about close or not but I want this fight,” Beterbiev says. “But I don’t feel he wants to fight.”
Is Bivol really avoiding him? “I don’t know.”
Pushed to comment on Bivol’s achievements, Beterbiev admits that his rival “did a good job”. So would a fight with Bivol be his most difficult challenge? “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Once we reach the standoff moment where Beterbiev admits to disliking interviews I reach for my questions about Kadyrov, the notorious Chechen leader accused of human rights abuses, forced disappearances, torture, executions and a relentless purge of Chechnya’s LGBTQ+ community. Kadyrov made him an “Honorary Citizen of Grozny” in December 2021.
Beterbiev shakes his head as soon as I mention the award. “You know, I don’t want to talk about these things.”
Is he still close to Kadyrov? “Can we not talk about this?”
Considering Kadyrov’s reputation, and that there are photographs of him and Beterbiev smiling together, it is a legitimate area of discussion. Why doesn’t he want to talk about Kadyrov?
“Because I’m a sportsman and I’m preparing for a fight,” Beterbiev says. “I’m not a politician. Why should I answer any politician questions?”
I know there is no point moving onto my next questions about Kaydrov’s close links to Vladmir Putin and Russia’s unjust war against Ukraine. Beterbiev even bats away my next query about him fighting Canelo and so we crawl down the last stretch of this, by now, tortuous interview. I wonder if Beterbiev has considered life beyond boxing?
“We live and we will see,” he says cryptically.
Beterbiev has seen me off with ease and he nods when I suggest that it must suit him to be largely unknown outside of hardcore boxing circles. “This is good for me. I like it like this. I am quiet quite a lot and I’m not a big fan of being famous.”
We’re almost smiling at each other in mutual relief as we reach a shuddering halt. The quiet and deadly Beterbiev looks unsurprised after another early interview stoppage for, just like his unbroken record of knockouts, his life of mystery remains intact.