Dillian Whyte survived a ninth-round knockdown to overcome Oscar Rivas and edge closer to a world title shot in a gripping bout at London’s O2 Arena.
The British heavyweight was smart early on and was close to stopping Colombia’s Rivas in round two after a right hand.
Whyte, 31, has campaigned for a shot at WBC champion Deontay Wilder but his dreams looked set to be dashed when an uppercut floored him in the ninth.
He composed himself to land a unanimous 115-112 115-112 116-111 decision.
Whyte has been ranked as the WBC’s number one heavyweight – behind champion Wilder – for more than 600 days and many have questioned his decision to repeatedly take high-risk fights when a defeat could take his hopes of a title shot away.
In a split second against previously undefeated Rivas, such risk was made clear. Having been floored, Whyte took another heavy shot but found the spirit to rally with his own work in the closing 20 seconds of the ninth, drawing huge roars around the arena.
“I went to move and crossed my legs and got caught with a punch,” said Whyte. “I won every round after that. These guys have had hundreds of amateur fights; I had seven.
“I had a hell of a camp, lots of things have been happening behind the scenes. I wanted a war and had a war.
“He’s a great fighter. He’s a tough man. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Former Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho and pop star Ellie Goulding were ringside, as was former world heavyweight champion Frank Bruno, who was repeatedly out of his seat encouraging Whyte.
After a left-right combination sent 32-year-old Rivas staggering in round two, Whyte dictated range with a strong jab, nullifying the pressure Rivas looked to apply.
Whyte’s early power show seemed to discourage Rivas, who received an expletive-laden telling-off from his corner after the sixth as a result of his caution.
Rivas duly served up greater ambition and drama but could not quite build on his knockdown and Whyte came through a test which will surely pave the way to a first world title shot in the next 12 months.
The question is what the Brixton fighter does during that period as Wilder looks set for a rematch with Britain’s Tyson Fury in February.
Andy Ruiz Jr holds the division’s other three titles as he prepares to again face Anthony Joshua, whom Whyte turned down the chance to fight in April.
“We’re looking to get another fight booked for November, December time,” said Whyte.
“Titles matter – to beat these kind of guys. People keep writing me off but I keep showing up.”