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Kubrat Pulev the heavyweight contender nobody is talking about

As heavyweight world titleholder Deontay Wilder has been saying lately, “The heavyweight division is lit.”

Indeed, boxing’s glamour division is as interesting and deep as it has been in years even if fight fans are not getting the biggest and best fights, at least not yet.

It could be a golden era, though, with three clear top big men — Wilder, three-belt unified titlist Anthony Joshua and lineal champion Tyson Fury. There are also a host of bona fide contenders such as Dillian Whyte, Luis “King Kong” Ortiz and Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller. There are also quality prospects on the rise who should make noise soon, including Joe Joyce, Daniel Dubois, Filip Hrgovic and Tony Yoka.

And there are contenders adding depth to the weight class, including undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk, who is slated to make his heavyweight debut in May, Joseph Parker, Alexander Povetkin, Dominic Breazeale, Adam Kownacki and Kubrat Pulev.

Pulev (26-1, 13 KOs), 37, of Bulgaria, will make his United States debut when he headlines the Top Rank Boxing on ESPN card on Saturday (ESPN/ESPN Deportes, 10 p.m. ET) at The Hangar in Costa Mesa, California. In a 10-round fight, Pulev will face Romania’s Bogdan Dinu (18-1, 14 KOs), 32, who is coming off a fourth-round knockout loss to Miller in November.

The fight will be Pulev’s first since signing a multiyear deal in December with Top Rank to co-promote him with John Wirt and Ivaylo Gotzev of Epic Sports.

So, who is Kubrat Pulev and why is he here?

Pole position

The 6-foot-4½, 250-pound Pulev, a former two-time European champion known as “The Cobra,” looms as one of the mandatory challengers for Joshua. As long as Pulev keeps winning — he has no plans to just sit idle waiting for the fight — he is going to get a shot at a world title, be it against Joshua, whoever might defeat Joshua or for a vacant title. Pulev earned the position in October when Hughie Fury, the first cousin of Tyson Fury, traveled to Pulev’s hometown of Sofia, Bulgaria, and lost a clear unanimous decision in an official title-elimination bout.

Whom has Pulev fought?

Like any heavyweight contender, Pulev, who is trained by renowned German trainer Uli Wegner (who has worked with world titleholders such as Arthur Abraham, Sven Ottke, Markus Beyer, Marco Huck, Yoan Pablo Hernandez and others), has defeated some solid opponents, including Hughie Fury and longtime contender and former world title challenger Dereck Chisora (in 2016).

Pulev also has notched wins over his share of former or fringe contenders such Tony Thompson, a two-time world title challenger; former world titlist Samuel Peter, Alexander Dimitrenko, former title challenger Matt Skelton, Dominic Guinn and Derric Rossy. In 2012, he defended the European title against Alexander Ustinov, who later challenged for a world title, and handed him his first loss by 11th-round knockout.

What about his only loss?

It was a memorable one — let’s put it that way. Pulev was a mandatory challenger for then-unified world champion Wladimir Klitschko, who was in the midst of his historic and dominant second title reign when they met in November 2014 at the O2 World Arena in Hamburg, Germany, where Klitschko was a superstar.

Klitschko, in his 17th title defense, authored one of his most emphatic knockouts when he pulverized Pulev in the fifth round of a fight he had been winning handily — 40-33 on all three scorecards at the time of the knockout.

Klitschko knocked Pulev down four times, but none was as brutal as the left hook to Pulev’s jaw that separated him from his senses, ended the fight and went down as the 2014 ESPN knockout of the year.

Since the crushing defeat, Pulev has come back strong to the tune of six wins in a row, including against Chisora, the long-faded Peter and most recently Fury.

What about Pulev’s boxing background?

Pulev, who didn’t turn pro until age 28, was a standout amateur with a resume that includes a 2008 Olympic berth and gold at the 2008 European Championships. His father, Venko Pulev, was a professional heavyweight in Bulgaria. Younger brother Tervel Pulev (12-0, 11 KOs), 36, who is on Saturday’s undercard, received a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics.

What’s next if Pulev beats Dinu?

Top Rank chairman Bob Arum said he did not sign Pulev simply because he’s going to eventually cash a big check in a potential title fight against Joshua. He said Pulev will stay busy before the world title fight.

“That was not the reason we signed him — that [mandatory fight] was just a bonus,” Arum said. “We’re going to help make that fight happen, but we signed him because we can show the public a decent foreign fighter in a competitive heavyweight match. How well it’s received depends on how he performs, but he’s not going to sit. We’ve talked to Ivaylo and John about it — maybe a summer or early fall fight after this one to get him ready for Joshua.”

Arum’s thoughts

Gotzev, who has known Arum for many years, approached him before Pulev faced Fury to inquire if he would have any interest in buying the American broadcast rights to have Pulev-Fury streamed on ESPN+. Top Rank was buying rights to many overseas fights as part of its deal with ESPN, and with Pulev-Fury being a significant fight, it made sense.

“We thought Pulev-Fury was going to be an interesting fight, so we bought the rights for ESPN,” Arum said. “Before that I had never seen Pulev fight. I watched that program and the production was tremendous and there was a big crowd there in Bulgaria (where Pulev is a star). Once that fight happened, Wirt asked me if we would be interested in signing Pulev so he could do some fights in the U.S. We thought it was a good idea. He was a reasonably good heavyweight and we made a deal. It fit in with our plans and hopes to expand the sport beyond the American base.”

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