This past weekend fans were tantalized by what one astute blogger called “a super fight, just not a ‘superfight’.” We did get the pleasure of observing two skilled boxers near their primes with contrasting styles fighting for high stakes. Unfortunately, the popularity and former relevance of the smaller fighter did nothing to improve his ability against a more skilled, harder-working opponent. I had predicted an eighth round knockout for Alvarez, and he managed it in six. And yet, I was still very surprised by the outcome. Every aspect of it.
Saul Alvarez showed that when in the past he demonstrated great adaptability, it was crucial to his success in the ring in a way we may not have realized. Between rounds one and four, no matter what Harold Lederman might tell you, Alvarez fought the dumbest, least strategic fight anyone could have imagined. The fight was billed as “power versus speed.” The appeal behind this phrase is ostensibly that the smaller fighter must be vigilant and intelligent about his attack in order to maximize his own abilities and avoid his opponents power shots, which could end the fight at any moment. In that case, the power fighter wants to land as many times as possible, preferably slowing his opponent down initially with body shots so that the off button is easier to find. The speed fighter wants to land as often as possible, maximizing impact by using timing and exhausting his opponent by making him miss almost all of his significant shots.
My take on the fight was that Khan had a bad knockout coming for multiple reasons. He was an undisciplined fighter who liked to talk a lot about his ability but always seemed to struggle in the ring. He was a welterweight challenging an elite fighter who holds the 160 pound championship. In addition, Khan was (and is) a deceptively ineffectual puncher, electing to flail his arms desperately rather than carefully place well-timed combinations. That’s because, all-time great trainer or no, Khan is a lazy fighter. He doesn’t work his fundamentals in training, it’s written all over him every time he steps in the ring. Jim Lampley aptly observed during the fight that his defense was lacking except for his foot speed. Most fighters at Canelo’s level are good enough that no opponent whose defense relies entirely on foot speed will beat them. And that was the case here.
Though Lederman did glorify Canelo’s efforts in the third and fourth rounds, it wasn’t until the end of round four that he really began settling down and behaving like himself. His style has never been, as HBO commentators noted, the classic “seek and destroy” Mexican style. Alvarez has always been a very powerful counter-puncher, body puncher and cumulative punishment fighter. He looked completely paralyzed against Floyd Mayweather in the only loss of his career, and maybe that was because he didn’t believe in his accuracy. Maybe he was looking for just one shot. This time around with a speed disadvantage, it looked like Canelo was having flashbacks to Mayweather’s phantasmal defense, expecting his opponent to appear and disappear at will. In reality, Khan is nowhere near that talented nor that coordinated. He manages to dart in and out quickly and touch his opponents, but nothing more.
Against Khan, Alvarez seemed to be trying to forego the inescapable slow and steady approach that he tried for most of the Mayweather fight, in favor of trying to look like Marcos Maidana (who arguably had the most success of any modern fighter against Mayweather). He threw his full body weight into each punch putting himself off balance and in no position to recover quickly, absorbing meaningless combinations from Khan while trying to regain his guard. Alvarez actually opened a small cut above his opponent’s eye in the early rounds, but that was in no way a reflection of his accuracy to the head. Aside from body punches, the left hand that opened the cut was one of only a handful that he landed in those rounds.
In defiance of all convention, Khan fought the responsible fight for those three rounds, and continued to do so in the following three despite the result. Khan moved on the outside and covered his body effectively. He always moved away from the ropes as soon as he was pressured toward them. He even used a good jab, and less than reckless combinations to compose a good fight plan. A lesser fighter, like a James Kirkland or Josesito Lopez, might have been overwhelmed by the speed and use of the jab in their efforts to land the winning shot. To be honest, though, I would have been embarrassed for both us if Alvarez had lost. Forget that Khan went up two weight classes, forget that Alvarez is nearing 50 fights against good competition at the age of 25. Forget that the mandatory challenger to the winner of the fight is Gennady Golovkin, one of the most feared fighters in boxing. Alvarez is just too damn good to lose to Amir Khan. I’ve taken every chance I could get to demean Khan by calling him “A Mere,” because the matchup was ludicrous. A larger, more talented, more experienced fighter against a guy who couldn’t make fights with the best of the era, so he settled for this guy. Everything I know about boxing and fighting styles tells me he should have won that fight by knockout, no problem.
But he did have problems. He would have kept having problems all night, in fact, if he hadn’t smartened up. When he finally settled down at the end of round four you could see Khan’s composure deteriorate instantaneously. I truly believe Alvarez fighting like himself would have scored the knockout in two rounds. Instead, he chose to wing haymakers one at a time that almost pulled him off his feet and left him no room for recovery. He kept his hands in a position that left him totally vulnerable just so he could use unconventional angles for his wild shots. As would be expected, the faster fighter was easily able to avoid most of his opponents shots. He landed nothing of consequence of his own, but Khan did land.
When the knockout finally came it was somewhat sudden, though you could feel Alvarez closing in for the entire sixth round. It was exactly what we expected to see, a single hard shot rendering Khan completely unconscious for a few moments. I didn’t expect the end so soon, but I did expect a more measured, intelligent fight from Alvarez. In my opinion, still, he’s the better, more learned fighter. That wasn’t evident in this match, though. It may be that certain styles cause Alvarez to overthink his approach. It’s possible that his success against Lara and Trout was due in part to his underestimation of the opponent, that he needs to be unimpressed to perform well. If this is indeed his Achilles’ heel, he’s going to be dangerously susceptible to his mandatory challenger’s attacks.
The result may not be decided for Alvarez-Golovkin yet, but the verdict is in on what Canelo should do. It’s unanimous; every article you read will at some point editorialize about what real champions do, or some version thereof. There was even a special in-ring promotion somehow spearheaded by trainer Virgil Hunter and Amir Khan. For some very suspicious reason, they spent their entire post-fight interview preemptively condemning Alvarez for any thoughts about not taking the fight. “He took the risk,” Hunter kept repeating in reference to Khan. Khan, too, insisted that it was time to step up for Canelo, while at the same time mentioning that he himself will be returning to 147 to fight opponents two weight classes smaller. Did anyone else wonder how much Golovkin paid Khan to get knocked unconscious by Canelo and then call him a chicken? Alvarez has 15 days to make a decision and sign off on the fight, or be stripped of his title.
If nobody else has done it, I’d be glad to be first. I’m going on record that I’m in favor and support of Saul Alvarez forfeiting the title. It’s time for self-righteous spectator journalists to take a step back and realize that modern belts and titles are meaningless. What’s not meaningless is how much of a challenge a fighter is willing to accept. So far Alvarez has been more ambitious than Amir Khan or Gennady Golovkin in terms of competition at the highest levels. Khan clearly took the fight against Alvarez (and asked for one with Pacquiao and Mayweather) because it was an easy way to be seen in a high-profile fight and get a lot of money. He had no other choice for maximizing his potential success and financial standing in the sport, but Canelo does.
Alvarez succumbed to pressure from fans and press to take the fight with Mayweather far too early. Had he avoided that fight he would still be undefeated and just as marketable if not as well known. If Canelo takes a fight against Gennady Golovkin in the next 15 days, the choice probably result in a loss. By itself, that wouldn’t be so bad, but he’s shown that he can be sensitive to the style of a fighter who beats him. Aside from the psychological impact affecting his career, the physical consequences could be severe also. At the very least he should take a better warm-up fight before facing Golovkin. How about the slightly less terrifying and previous challenger to Golovkin David Lemieux? Delivering an impressive win on Canelo’s undercard, Lemieux has established himself as a draw in the middleweight division. The match would be more lucrative, exciting and relevant than the fight against Khan, and it would give us an idea of whether a fight with Golovkin is worth watching.
If I really am the only one on this side, so be it. You have my vote, Canelo. You don’t have to prove yourself to Golovkin, or Virgil Hunter, and certainly not to Amir Khan. You’ve already proven to your fans what you’re capable of, and taking a stupid risk isn’t something we want to add to that list.