The former super middleweight world champion overcame cancer to return to boxing. Now he must overcome Avni Yildirim to become world champion again Saturday night on PBC on FS1.
Anthony Dirrell always brings himself back. He can’t help it.
Every time a fight nears, the former super middleweight world champion’s mind will wander to the time he put his right arm up against the smooth cement arc of the hospital doorway on his way to chemotherapy; leaning down and vomiting from inhaling the fumes of the chemo medicine emanating from inside.
Dirrell stares at two faded scars in the mirror each morning, one on each side of his chest. The horizontal burn marks just above his left wrist remain from his victory over non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2006. “The Dog” hides the wounds well. But they won’t go away. They’re a part of him—as is the lingering memory of sitting there in that reclining chair feeling as if every cell in his body were on fire.
Those memories have returned this week as he prepares for fight night. This Saturday, Dirrell, 32-1-1 (24 KOs), takes on Avni Yildirim, 21-2 (12 KOs), for the vacant WBC Super Middleweight Championship in the main event of PBC on FS1 and FOX Deportes (10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT), live from The Armory in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“I remember I would throw up before I even got in the building from the medicine smell,” said Dirrell, 34, who lost two years of his career (2006-2008) in his fight against cancer. “I’m a cancer survivor who’s going to be a two-time world champion. Who many fighters can say that? Things will be different in that ring for [Yildirim], because I’ve almost had all of this taken away from me.
“This guy has no idea what’s coming at him. I still remember the time I had cancer and it’s something that I will never forget.”
Dirrell hasn’t fought since he beat Abraham Han by 10-round decision in April 2018. He was waiting for shot at then-WBC 168-pound champ David Benavidez, but that ended when Benavidez was stripped by the WBC and suspended in September 2018 through February 2019 for failing a drug test. The layoff hasn’t stunted him.
“I’m older and wiser, and as you get older, you have to fight smarter,” Dirrell said. “I want to be able to read to my children. I do know I have a past. I’m not the guy that walks away from a fight. If he comes at me, I’m going to come back at him. It’s the way I am, the way I’ll always be, but I do keep in my mind that I want to talk right, walk right and think right when this is over.
“ I’m a cancer survivor who’s going to be a two-time world champion. ” Former Super Middleweight World Champion - Anthony Dirrell
“Now am I saying I won’t bang with the guy? I’m not saying that. I just have to be smarter on how much I do and when I’m doing it.”
In preparation for this fight, Dirrell handpicked fighters over 200 pounds. He feels it will acclimate him for what Yildirim, 27, will try and do. Yildirim, who lasted just three rounds against Chris Eubank Jr. in October 2017, is three inches shorter than the 6-foot-2 Dirrell and will be giving up a whopping four-and-a-half inches in reach to the veteran from Flint, Michigan.
Dirrell, one of boxing’s genuine good guys, feels Yildirim will try and crowd him and keep the fight in a phone booth where he won’t be able to extend his arms.
But Dirrell says he’s too sly for that.
“We’ll see,” said Dirrell, who let out a bellowing laugh. “He’s not going to be able to get inside me. The sparring for this fight was great. I know I can take this guy’s punches. I know you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But if you really want to do it, you can change. For me, I have to use my jab more.
“That’s going to be the difference maker in this fight. The jab is everything. It will dictate the pace and the distance. If [Yildirim] wants to get inside—and getting inside is the only way he’s going to win—he’s going to pay a big price to do that. He’s going to get pounded. Everyone has a jab. It’s a matter of how well you use it."
As motivation after 14 years as a pro, Dirrell keeps it simple: It’s his family: Three boys; a seven-year-old and twin three-year-olds, plus his wife. His sons mimic his every movement. They watch videos of their father on YouTube, though dad isn’t crazy about his sons one day doing what he does.
“I’m the one doing the fighting, so they don’t have to,” Dirrell said. “I love boxing, but I’m enough for my sons in this sport. Boxing is my life. I’m ready. Once I win this fight, that’s all I need. I’m going to make history by being a two-time champion coming back from cancer.
“That’s all the motivation I need.”
Plus, an occasional look in the mirror.
For a closer look at Anthony Dirrell, check out his fighter page.