Billy Dib gets made-for-TV makeover

Featherweight titlist revamps his style to reach fans, save his future in U.S.

Updated: February 28, 2013, 3:32 PM ET
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

When Australia's Billy Dib fought a handful of bouts in the United States between 2006 and 2008, he quickly developed a well-earned reputation as an unwatchable fighter.

Although Dib was fast and talented, with a bit of charisma and an outgoing personality, it wasn't enough to overcome what fans saw of him in the ring -- a running style that was excruciating to watch.

He was dumped by Golden Boy Promotions and essentially blackballed by American television networks. In fact, when he was due to face Miguel Angel "Mikey" Garcia for a vacant world title, HBO refused to buy the fight because it wanted no part of Dib. Garcia (who would eventually win a title) gave up the opportunity to fight Dib for a belt, instead electing for a televised nontitle bout.

Plain and simple, Dib was the stinker of all stinkers. The ultimate indignity came in 2008 when he suffered his lone career defeat -- a decision loss in a horrendous featherweight world title fight against Steven Luevano on the Bernard Hopkins-Kelly Pavlik pay-per-view undercard in Atlantic City, N.J.

Without a prayer of making it in the United States with his style, Dib, who absorbed withering criticism, went home to Australia. Many fight fans hoped it would be for good.

Dib eventually realized he would need to change his ways if he wanted to make something of himself as a major draw in boxing. Although most in the U.S. haven't bothered to pay attention to Dib over the past few years, he discovered that he could still win while also pleasing the crowd.

[+] EnlargeBilly Dib
Matt King/Getty ImagesFeatherweight Billy Dib has always been a fast and talented fighter, but he needed to overhaul his style to ensure his future as a major draw in the U.S.

So what transformed Dib from a human sleeping pill into a watchable top-10 featherweight?

He credits his hooking up with trainer Billy Hussein not long after his return to Australia. Hussein had trained his own brothers, former flyweight contender Hussein Hussein and former featherweight contender Nedal Hussein, as well as former flyweight and junior bantamweight titlist Vic Darchinyan. All three were crowd-pleasers.

"Billy dissected my style and he brought in Hussein Hussein to work with me, and they turned me into a wrecking machine," Dib said. "I believed I could knock everyone out. I didn't try to box everyone. In my last 13 fights, I have 10 knockouts."

Although Dib, 27, might not make the kind of slugfests Hussein's other fighters have, he became much more aggressive while winning a vacant 126-pound world title in 2011 and making two title defenses, including a thoroughly entertaining sixth-round knockout of Mexican contender Eduardo Escobedo last March.

Now armed with a world title and a more fan-friendly style -- and backed by rap star Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's SMS Promotions -- Dib is back in America for a second chance and his third title defense when he faces 26-year-old pressure fighter Evgeny Gradovich (15-0, 8 KOs) of Russia on this week's "Friday Night Fights" (ESPN2/ESPN Deportes, 9 ET) at the MGM Grand Theater at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Conn.

In the scheduled 10-round co-feature, junior middleweight Willie Nelson (19-1-1, 11 KOs) will face Michael Medina (26-3-2, 19 KOs).

Dib is facing Gradovich -- known as "The Mexican-Russian" because he fights with the same aggressive style that Mexican fighters are known for -- because his original opponent, 2004 Cuban Olympian Luis Franco (11-1, 7 KOs), dropped out three weeks ago. Unhappy with the $20,000 purse he originally agreed to, Franco quit training and told his managers that he was retiring. Days later, a deal was finalized for Gradovich to replace Franco.

"I train most of the time and I'm always in shape," said Gradovich, insisting that the short notice is no issue. "To fight for a world title in only my 16th pro fight is quick, but I have good experience and this is a great opportunity for me."

"I am ready to bring excitement," said Dib, who plans to fight regularly in the U.S. now that he is with Jackson. "I have nobody to blame but myself for the Luevano fight. I know against Luevano I made a lot of mistakes. I should have tried to mug him and fight him instead of hitting and running and fighting this ridiculous boxing style."

Although Dib (35-1, 21 KOs) blamed himself for the series of agonizing performances, he said the approach was what he was taught by past trainers, including Harry Hammoud and Jack Mosley.

"They had me thinking about hitting and not getting hit -- hit and run," Dib said. "Harry had me looking at Ivan Calderon and Pernell Whitaker. But that's not me. They didn't have me thinking about knockouts. With the Husseins, they have me thinking about knockouts. Back then, I was going through different trainers. I didn't know where I was."

Once paired with Hussein, Dib says, he worked hard to become more exciting to watch and had a goal of winning a world title and returning to the U.S.

"I accepted the criticism, but I knew there'd be a day when I would be resurrected," he said. "I stayed under the radar. Didn't try to secure any TV and basically built myself back up to where I could beat [Jorge Lacierva] for the title."

In his first title defense, Dib smashed previously undefeated Alberto Servidei in the first round. Then came Escobedo, who had gone the distance with Daniel Ponce De Leon in a tough junior featherweight title bout in Las Vegas in 2007.

"A lot of people picked Escobedo to beat me," Dib said. "And then I made a Mexican quit, and you never see that. But I came out with a ferocious style."

Dib said he plans to do the same against Gradovich, who is trained by 2012 trainer of the year Robert Garcia. Dib wasn't at all upset by the change of opponent from Franco to Gradovich, who is much more likely to stand and fight than to move the way Franco probably would have.

"I think they found an even better opponent for me for a TV fight," Dib said. "Gradovich seems more willing to take risks, which means he will come and fight. I'm not taking anything away from Gradovich, but if I can't beat him, I don't deserve to be in the sport of boxing. I need to dismantle this kid. But I know he's undefeated and getting a title shot. I understand when a fighter gets a shot at the title, you fight out of your skin."

[+] EnlargeFloyd Mayweather
Chris McPherson for ESPN The MagazineBilly Dib credits rapper and new boxing promoter 50 Cent for helping to build the fighter's once-toxic profile.

Jackson was involved as a promoter in Yuriorkis Gamboa's interim junior lightweight title bout in December on the Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez IV undercard, but Top Rank ran the overall event. For this card, Jackson is far more involved, working on a co-promotional basis with Lou DiBella.

"This is the first boxing event that I have been involved with for the entire process, from beginning to end, and it really is going to be a special night for me on Friday night," Jackson said. "To actually be in Billy's camp and to see the sacrifices that he makes day in and day out is really something special. It makes you realize really what these fighters go through. It gives you a whole new appreciation for them and for this great sport."

Dib signed with Jackson, who he credits with getting him another chance on American television.

"He has delivered on all the promises he made to me," Dib said of Jackson, who will perform as part of Dib's ring walk. "People know this is 50's first promotion and he's going to rap. I'm excited to be back on [U.S.] TV and I'm very thankful to 50 Cent, to Lou and to the network.

"I feel like this is a second coming of my career. You got to be hungry. If you want to eventually be on HBO or Showtime, you got to show your stuff. So I'm going to be smart and exciting and give people their money's worth, and put on a great show."

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