Canelo vs. Golovkin: Great expectations, Part II
Part Two of a two-part series. Read Part One.
Canelo Alvarez entered dressing room No. 7 at the T-Mobile Arena on Saturday, September 16, at 5:02 PM. The partition that normally separates Rooms 7 and 8 had been moved aside, creating a space roughly 60 feet long and 20 feet wide. Five black leather armchairs, a black leather sofa and 14 cushioned folding chairs were spread around the floor.
The walls were gray with fuchsia trim. The carpet was maroon and black. Four huge Golden Boy backdrops were strategically hung from poles around the room so that one of them would be visible from every camera angle. Two large Mexican flags and a large flat-screen television monitor were on separate walls. A Tecate backdrop stood in a corner.
The ceilings were high with recessed lighting. The room was big enough for a pick-up basketball game.
Alvarez was wearing a cobalt-blue tracksuit with gold lettering and white trim that matched the trunks and robe he would wear later in the night. The words on the back of his jacket read “Never Feared Anyone.” The other members of his 16-man team, which included his father and four of his brothers, were similarly dressed.
When a fighter reaches star status, his dressing room reflects his own personal rhythm. Ricky Hatton’s dressing room was a madhouse from the moment he walked in the door. There was booming music. Hatton never stopped dancing, throwing punches and bouncing around except when his hands were being taped. Bernard Hopkins, by contrast, would engage in quiet conversation until the end stages of preparation when he morphed into Executioner mode.
Alvarez likes a low-key, quiet atmosphere in the hours before a fight. Reggae music played softly in the background for the next few hours and the conversation was limited.
Canelo sat on the sofa. A dozen members of his team took chairs around the room. Chepo Reynoso unpacked the corner equipment and put it next to Canelo’s trunks, groin protector, shoes and robe on one of four long tables that stretched along the wall adjacent to the door.
Chepo is the patriarch of Team Alvarez. He’s the one who began the process of molding Canelo into a fighter when the 13-year-old boy walked into a gym in Guadalajara 14 years ago and a journey to manhood began.
Later, the people around Canelo realized that, someday, he might be great.
Chepo still oversees Alvarez’s training. His son, Eddy, does the hands-on work. Four years ago, after Canelo lost to Floyd Mayweather, a lot of people told him it was time to move away from the Reynosos. They could just as easily have told him to change his parents.
“This is beyond boxing,” Canelo says of the Reynosos. “I met them when I was 13 years old. They are my family.”
Chepo has the face of a man who has seen the hard side of life. It’s a face that says, even if life breaks your heart, it doesn’t have to break you. And it’s a kind face.
“I’m a happy man,” Chepo said during fight week. “I’ve been married to my love for 43 years.”
Before leaving the hotel on fight night, Chepo gathered everyone on Team Alvarez together for a short prayer: “God, please, let no one be badly hurt. If we win, we win. It is in your hands.”
MGM Grand president Richard Sturm came into Canelo’s dressing room with several sponsor representatives. Canelo rose from the sofa, shook hands with each of them and sat down again. Then he took out his smartphone, checked for messages and began texting.
Times and pre-fight rituals have changed. It’s hard to imagine Rocky Marciano texting in his dressing room before a fight.
When Canelo had finished texting, he leaned back on the sofa, arms folded across his chest. There were more well-wishers and sponsor representatives, each of whom wanted a handshake and smartphone photo. Chepo looked on with an air of resignation. Golden Boy matchmaker Robert Diaz orchestrated the procession well. The visitors were soon gone.
Eddy Reynoso took a seat to Canelo’s left. For the most part, they sat silently, engaging in only sporadic conversation. Other members of the entourage sat or stood quietly in a large semi-circle with Canelo as the focal point.
Alvarez turned his attention to the TV monitor on the wall. The first televised undercard fight of the evening was underway. Occasionally, he rested his forearms on his thighs or raised his left hand to stroke his chin.
HBO production coordinator Tami Cotel entered with Max Kellerman for a brief pre-fight interview. After they left, Canelo lay down on the floor, put two rolled-up towels beneath his head, folded his hands across his chest and closed his eyes.
The room was quiet except for the soft music in the background. Canelo opened his eyes from time to time, looked briefly at the TV monitor and closed his eyes again. His face seemed to radiate the vulnerability of a boy. It’s a young face for someone who’s 27 years old and has engaged in more than 50 professional fights over the course of 12 years.
In two hours, the eyes of the world would be upon him as he engaged in brutal combat.
Golden Boy president Eric Gomez came in, circled the room and shook hands with everyone. He was followed by Bob Bennett, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, who entered with Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and referee Kenny Bayless.
Bayless gave the fighter his pre-fight instructions. When he was done, Chepo requested that the referee warn Golovkin about hitting behind the head and to be vigilant about the infraction during the fight.
“Please, from the first time you see it, address it,” Chepo said.
Bayless promised that he would.
Canelo put on his trunks, stood up, stretched while pacing around the room, yawned and went back to watching the TV monitor.
It was hard to imagine that, in a little more than an hour, this quiet, almost passive young man would transform into an instrument of destruction.
Victor Espinoza, who won horseracing’s Triple Crown onboard American Pharoah two years ago, came in and wished Alvarez well.
At 6:45, Canelo dropped to the floor and did 20 push-ups followed by a series of stomach crunches, his first exercise of the evening. Then he asked that his hands be taped.
An inspector was dispatched to Golovkin’s dressing room to summon the customary witness. A minute later, he returned and reported, “Abel Sanchez says he was told the taping would be at 7 o’clock. He won’t be here until 7.”
NSAC chief inspector Francisco Soto, who was assigned to Canelo’s dressing room, wasn’t pleased.
“Tell him we start in two minutes whether he’s here or not,” Soto said.
Eddy began taping Canelo’s left hand.
A thin layer of gauze. Tape. More gauze.
“You can’t do that,” Sanchez protested. “It’s stacking.”
“It’s done by everybody and his mother,” Soto said.
“I won’t allow it,” Sanchez persisted. “I’ll file a protest.”
The taping continued with a second layer of tape.
“You can’t do that,” Sanchez said again.
“Abel,” Soto warned, “you have to stop or send someone else over here.”
At 7:12, the taping was done. Sanchez left. He was not a happy camper.
“There are a lot of things that aren’t specifically forbidden by the rules,” Abel said after the fight. “But you aren’t allowed to do them because they’re wrong. Stacking is illegal. Just because some people get away with it doesn’t make it right.”
Canelo’s family and the members of his entourage who wouldn’t be in his corner left the room. Canelo hugged each of them as they departed. Then he put on his protective cup and trunks. Eddy Reynoso applied Vaseline to his face, arms and legs.
Canelo began shadow-boxing to rhythmic clapping from the members of his team who were left.
The mood was changing. There was an undercurrent of nervous energy. Part of the price a fighter pays for competing is that he can be beaten up.
Canelo paced back and forth.
Abel Sanchez returned at 7:40. Chepo gloved Canelo up, left hand first.
When that task was done, Eddy held up a round black leather cushion with both hands and moved it from position to position as Canelo punched. That was followed by Eddy swinging two yellow styrofoam tubes in Canelo’s direction as the fighter parried or evaded them by bobbing and weaving.
There was a minute of traditional padwork.
“We can teach him,” Eddy has said. “But in the ring, he has to make his own decisions.”
HBO production coordinator Tami Cotel returned and announced, “Six minutes until your opponent walks.”
Oscar De La Hoya and Bernard Hopkins entered and wished Alvarez well.
Canelo had been in his dressing room for three hours. There had been relatively little exertion. But he was ready.
It had been agreed that Golovkin would be introduced last but walk to the ring first. The partisan crowd of 22,358 let out a near-deafening roar as Canelo made his way down the aisle. They were there for what they hoped would be the dawn of a new era in boxing.
Michael Buffer introduced the fighters. Excitement inside the arena was at a fever pitch.
The fighters fought cautiously in the opening rounds, each one showing respect for the other’s power. Golovkin advanced behind an aggressive jab. Canelo had the faster hands and seemed to land the cleaner punches. But Gennady kept stalking his man, landing more often than his counterpart.
Rounds 4 through 9 belonged largely to Golovkin, who took control of the fight. He increased his output of power punches while Alvarez circled away and fought off the ropes, shaking his head when Gennady landed and also when Gennady missed. What Canelo didn’t do was land enough effective punches of his own and make Golovkin pay for his misses.
Canelo is a counterpuncher. But as a general rule, he’s quick to exchange when an opponent wants to. Here, more often than not, he didn’t.
“Gennady will go out and do what he does best,” Abel Sanchez had said before the fight. “And Canelo will have to adapt to it.”
Now, whatever Alvarez did, Golovkin moved forward. Even when Canelo landed solidly, Gennady walked through the blows.
There were outbursts of furious action that sent the crowd into a frenzy. Neither fighter, particularly Golovkin, went to the body as often as might have been expected. Afterward, Sanchez would explain, “Canelo’s movement and quicker hands made going to the body difficult. He counters well. A couple of times, I asked Gennady to go to the body a bit more, but he didn’t feel the opportunities were there.”
Still, Golovkin was fighting confidently. And Alvarez seemed to be fading in the face of his adversary’s power.
The action was intense from beginning to end. There was no margin for error. A fight isn’t like Microsoft Word. A fighter can’t simply click “command-Z” to undo a mistake.
Then, remarkably, Canelo turned the tide.
A fighter doesn’t win fights by taking big punches. But if he can take big punches, it can keep him in the fight.
Alvarez took Golovkin’s punches better than anyone else had before. Gennady is accustomed to seeing opponents crumble as he grinds them down. Canelo didn’t crumble. He came back strong.
In round 10, Alvarez launched his most effective sustained assault of the fight. Now it was Golovkin’s turn to take punches and fight back hard. But he was no longer in control.
Heart, courage, stamina, skill. Each man showed it all. They were warriors in the finest tradition of boxing and fought hard until the end. It was a superb fight.
Some of the rounds were difficult to score. The consensus at ringside was that Golovkin had done enough in the middle rounds to win. Then Michael Buffer announced the scoring of the judges.
Boxing fans have a sense of justice. Adelaide Byrd’s tally was the first that Buffer read: 118-110 for Alvarez. That was greeted with disbelief from the crowd, as though Buffer had incorrectly read the score.
Dave Moretti was next: 115-113 for Golovkin.
And finally, Don Trella: 114-114, a draw.
Several days after the fight, Abel Sanchez told this writer, “I scored it seven rounds to five for Gennady. I can’t argue with a draw.”
But Adelaide Byrd’s 118-110 scorecard cast a pall over the proceedings. If she had scored the bout 115-113 for Alvarez, the result would still have been a draw but the decision would have smelled better.
Hall of Fame sportswriter Red Smith was fond of saying, “If you want to know who won a fight, just ask a 9-year-old kid who watched it.”
A 9-year-old kid would have known that Byrd’s scorecard was a travesty. Promoters and fighters have objected to her erratic judging in the past, but the Nevada State Athletic Commission continues to assign her to important fights.
In this instance, NSAC executive director Bob Bennett acknowledged that Byrd’s scorecard was “a little wide.” That’s like saying that, after Hurricane Harvey, Houston got “a little wet.” Thereafter, Bennett backtracked and acknowledged, “In any business, sometimes you have a bad day. It happens. I’m not going to put her right back in. She’ll still be in the business but she needs to catch her breath. Unfortunately, she didn’t do well.”
Millions of dollars and fighters’ careers hang on a judge’s judgment. Things happen in boxing that aren’t expected to happen. And things happen that aren’t supposed to happen. There’s a difference.
After the fight, Canelo sat in a black leather chair in a corner of his dressing room with a disconsolate look on his face. He thought he’d won and was bitterly disappointed.
Eddy and Chepo Reynoso sat on either side of him. Several toddlers who had no idea what had happened an hour earlier were asleep in their mothers’ arms or scurrying around the room.
The judges think he punches like a monster,” Alvarez said. “So when his punches landed, he got more credit for them that I got for mine. My punches were just as hard as his – harder.”
Still, the lumps and bruises on Canelo’s face bore witness to the fact that he’d been in the ring with his equal as a fighter.
Eric Gomez entered the room. “Nobody lost here tonight,” he reminded the assemblage.
Each fighter kept the titles he’d had when the evening began. A rematch on Cinco De Mayo 2018 would be nice.
In recent years, it has been lamented that a fighting spirit is no longer prerequisite to being a star in boxing. Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez each evidenced a fighting spirit. Their battle was a celebration of boxing.
To read Part One of this series, click here.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected]. His next book – “There Will Always Be Boxing” – will be published by the University of Arkansas Press this autumn. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.