Squandered Skill


Our 2017 Cinco de Mayo fight is here, but there isn’t much to say about this classically flawed matchup.  On paper, it sounded like an important fight–two famous Mexican fighters, one at the top of his division, fighting for status as their nation’s warrior–but after last week’s spectacular display between Klitschko and Joshua, the reality of the fight is looking somewhat more bleak.  There isn’t much heated debate between fans on either side about who will win or why.  That’s because there isn’t that much at stake unless you’re an old-school Mexican fight fan.  Not that there aren’t enough of those out there to generate some impressive ratings for the pay-per-view, but will the result of this fight be significant to any boxing fans who aren’t Mexican?  Chavez is clearly the one with more invested in the idea of being known as the genuine Mexican warrior, but will his machismo draw Alvarez into a career-altering mistake?

Breaking down what each athlete is trying to achieve gives us a clearer idea of what’s at stake.  Chavez is trying to prove he really is great by beating a smaller, better fighter, after years of wallowing in apathy and mediocrity.  Alvarez, by all accounts, is trying to show that he can take detours on his predestined route to greatness.  If Alvarez lost by knockout, we might think that middleweight was just too big for him.  But we would’ve known that after his first fight at 160 anyway.  If he won but got beaten up, or lost but came close to a win, then the ultimate result is the same but his ability and skill-level are called into question.  In the most extreme scenario, if Alvarez dominates the fight completely, all we get is an indication that he’s ready for middle, which again would’ve been evident in his first fight at that weight.  None of these scenarios tell us anything about the middleweight division as it currently stands (where Alvarez claims to be headed).  We still won’t know if Alvarez will be able to handle a top 160-pound fighter and we still won’t know if a fight with Gennady Golovkin will be made.  Most of all, we still won’t give a shit about what Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. does with himself, because he hasn’t been a middleweight in years and has never held an elite position in any division.

Those scenarios aside, we’re left with the purely negative possibilities for the result of the fight.  By contrast, these consequences could significantly affect the middleweight and/or junior middleweight divisions.  If by some calamity Chavez were to dominate the fight against Alvarez, the rankings for junior middleweight would be entirely upset, and the showdown between the top junior middleweight and the top middleweight would be summarily neutered.  Lastly and least desirably, we must accept the possibility of a draw.  If some cosmic aberration causes the fight to be declared a draw, the reputations of both fighters will suffer, and their fans’ devotion will be diminished, as will the revenue involving either fighter in the future.  This result would lock one of the sport’s top attractions into a messy negotiation for a rematch that very few outside of Mexico would be likely to watch.  Even if negotiations were uncharacteristically efficient and brief, Alvarez would spend at least months, and possibly years, at the peak of his career, negotiating, promoting, training for and recovering from the rematch.  Chavez would soak up all the money he could and proceed with an uneventful denouement to his career.

That brings me to a point I’ve made before, and I’ll try to make it my last lambast about this.  Alvarez has developed a pattern of struggling to make smooth transitions from one stage of his career to another.  Suddenly shifting from junior middleweight opponents to a light heavyweight opponent for this fight shows an unsettling lack of perspective from his camp.  It’s eerily reminiscent of the decision to jump from opponents like Alfonso Gomez, Kermit Cintron, Josesito Lopez and Austin Trout, to Floyd Mayweather.  He’s jumping two weight classes ostensibly to test his abilities for a fight against Golovkin, but the opponent he chooses isn’t a popular middleweight, a highly skilled middleweight, or even a middleweight at all.  Instead, he chose for his opponent a lazy, unrefined non-entity, who typically comes in 10-15 pounds heavier than Golovkin does.  Yes, these fights make Alvarez more money and afford him more recognition than almost any other could, but in terms of his reputation, they’re risks without reward.  Mayweather is still looking for number 50, and had Canelo stayed undefeated through Mayweather’s retirement, a return for the reigning junior middleweight champion would be very attractive.

Alvarez has already racked up more wins at age 26 (two more wins to surpass Mayweather) than most fighters do in a career.  He could’ve made his legacy secure simply by staying active and fighting legitimate opponents, but he wasn’t content.  It would be great if that discontent translated into big fights against gatekeeper middleweights or stay-busy fights against everyone of importance at junior middle, but instead we get this third option.

In an interview with ESPN, Alvarez said making history in his career was important to him, but what kind of history is he writing?  The dominant junior middleweight who never passed up an opportunity to overreach?  The tiny middleweight who refused to take fights at 160?  Or does he expect us to see him as the Mexican warrior who took on all challengers?  The majority of fans won’t see him that way, I can tell you, regardless of the result of this fight.  For one thing, Alvarez has clearly been strategically avoiding Golovkin, and for another, fight fans who haven’t spent a lot of time on the Mexican history of the sport don’t care who beats Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. at welter, middle or any other weight.

Names with the resonance of “Chavez” are few and far between.  Chavez senior set standards for the whole sport with the level of competition he faced, his longevity, and the excitement of his fights.  Alvarez, on the other hand, is building his history on names that won’t stand the test of time, and for reasons that are less and less compelling.  The fight against Amir Khan made sense because it was hard to imagine Alvarez losing, even on points, and because it’s satisfying to watch loudmouth pretenders like Khan put in their place.  Of course, it would’ve made just as much or more sense before the fight with Mayweather.  Liam Smith was undefeated and large for junior middleweight, so that made some sense, but because no one had ever heard of him, the result was just more padding on Canelo’s record.

These factors have conspired to constrict the potential of one of the greatest fighters of our time.  In this context, when you start to look at the names and numbers on his record, the biggest accomplishments for Alvarez start to look thin.  While he already had a lot of experience at that age, he was very young when he handled Kermit Cintron so easily.  Pretty good.  In his very next fight, he handled an aging Shane Mosley impressively.  Very good.  Then, he dismantled two oversized welterweights and lost every moment of every round to Mayweather.  Not so good.  Three more upper-level guys crossed off the list after that.  Not bad.  Then, in possibly his greatest performance, Alvarez showed us new levels of talent in an impeccable fight against the shopworn Miguel Cotto.   Truly great–except that it was probably the last fight of Cotto’s career.  It was probably the most beaten up, worn down version of Cotto (who is probably one of the most beaten up fighters of all time) ever to enter the ring, and that’s the version Saul Alvarez built his middleweight reputation on.  It was no more legitimate that Cotto’s coup of the middleweight title from the all-but-absent Sergio Martinez.

So Canelo’s greatest professional achievement is asterisked.  His second greatest accomplishment, also necessary to qualify.  The more general accomplishments of gaining experience and compiling an impressive record, now compromised by puzzling decisions and an utter defeat.  If Alvarez wins tonight, will he finally feel secure in his status as a Mexican legend?  Will that release him from his obligation to take fights that don’t further his career?  Maybe then he could sign a fight against a real middleweight, or more appropriately, a large junior middleweight with real talent, like Kell Brook.  Or will the prospect of fighting David Lemieux, Martin Murray, and Daniel Jacobs scare his team into signing more set-up fights?  If so, what will his team do when fans and analysts are clamoring for the fight with Golovkin and questioning Canelo’s courage even more than before?

I guess the best possible scenario is that Canelo will win convincingly and immediately take the fight with Golovkin.  At least then, his reputation will be restored and rankings will remain intact until he faces the guy who will likely be his beginning of the end.  Maybe.

Or maybe not.  I haven’t been able to bring myself to write up a prediction for this fight yet because I just can’t shake the feeling that it’s going to be the culmination of too many bad decisions.  There’s some metaphor there about trying to be the cock of the walk and chickens coming home to roost, but I don’t know what it is.  The only way I can think to put this in writing is to painstakingly (and it will be painful) go through individual elements of each fighter’s style and compare.  I know it won’t be fun to read, but since I’m the only one paying attention…Hopefully, I’ll feel differently at the end than I do now.

Speed:  Alvarez has the edge in speed though he’s not known for slick defense or fast combinations. Chavez can be sluggish but puts massive, fluid combos together when his opponent opens his defense.

Diagnosis: Non-factor.  Chavez is sturdy enough to handle sustained counter punching, Alvarez is smart enough to avoid 12-punch combinations if he’s not already badly hurt.

Size:  Chavez has the advantage in height, reach and weight.  If Alvarez can’t fight an active, powerful, precisely measured match, he loses either by points or by KO.

Diagnosis: Could be the deciding factor for Chavez.

Stamina:  Alvarez doesn’t seem to take rounds off toward the end of a fight, but doesn’t often reassert himself late either.  Chavez takes rounds off, but tends to hit a rhythm with high output that is rarely matched.

Diagnosis: Chavez has a bigger gas tank and a diesel engine, but if he needs much maneuverability he’ll end up in a fiery wreck.

Output and Activity:  Chavez has always had a high punch output in later rounds, but Alvarez is good at controlling distance and forward momentum throughout the fight.  Chavez leaves big openings when he’s being lethargic, but both fighters start slow.

Diagnosis: Whoever asserts this skill has a distinct advantage, whoever fails to prevent his opponent from applying this skill is vulnerable.  If someone starts faster than usual, his opponent will lose the early rounds and take some punishment.

Power:  Alvarez has the ability to apply enough power at the right time and in the right place for junior middleweights, but his record belies a more musclebound and less accomplished knockout artist.  Chavez has no sense of how to use the power he does have, and he hasn’t worked very hard at being powerful.  That said, he’s bigger and stronger and relies on volume and power in the later rounds for his wins.

Diagnosis: Chavez will demonstrate superior power even as he displays a superior chin.  In combination with volume, power could be Canelo’s undoing.

Chin:  Chavez takes a punch as well as anyone in boxing, and he’s larger than his opponent but doesn’t have a lot of power, and Alvarez is no slouch himself.

Diagnosis: Non-factor.  If Alvarez is getting hit enough for his chin to matter, the fight is already over.

Heart:  Alvarez has pushed through some tough moments in ways that we haven’t seen Chavez attempt, but neither one of them has had so little to gain in a fight against an opponent with such a size advantage.

Diagnosis: Chavez won’t have the fortitude (cojones) that Alvarez has, but he may not need it.

Footwork and Angles:  Alvarez can be impressive with his footwork and use of angles in both offense and defense, but he’s so much smaller he’ll have to use every bit of skill just to keep pace.  Chavez doesn’t do much with angles but he can move when he needs to, especially to cut off the ring, and he’s no more flat-footed than his opponent.

Diagnosis: If Alvarez isn’t at his best, all his tools will be negated by size.

Resistance to Damage:  Neither fighter has a history of stoppages for cuts or swelling, but Alvarez might have it a little better with his youth and resilience.

Diagnosis: Chavez could lose the fight on cuts or swelling.

Accuracy:  Precision punching and slipping is the only area where Chavez is helpless.  If Alvarez can build on what we’ve seen in the past and be in top form against someone this big, he could book himself for an extended stay in the elite ranks.

Diagnosis: Alvarez will probably outshine Chavez in every exchange, but if he doesn’t, there may be no chance.

Ring IQ:  Alvarez will be the smarter puncher all night long, but if he doesn’t hit the gas at the right moment he could easily lose a decision.  Chavez Jr. has Senior in his corner to pick up the slack.

Diagnosis: Chavez won’t evolve any brilliant strategies, but with a little luck and the help of Chavez senior he could adjust at the right moments and keep Alvarez from taking crucial rounds.

 

Okay.  I do feel a bit better.  Chavez could lose on cuts, swelling, sheer stupidity or inability to adapt.  Even so, and as much as it pains me to do this, I have to post my prediction now, and I have to guess that the larger guy, the one with deeper fan loyalty who’s more likely to get a close decision,  will take the win.  With any luck, tomorrow I’ll repenting for my lack of faith.  I’d be more than happy to admit my error.

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