The Validation of Canelo Alvarez
On September 15, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin did battle at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas for the middleweight championship of the world. It was the kind of match-up that boxing needs more of. Two elite fighters ranked high on every pound-for-pound list and the top two fighters in their weight division, one of them boxing’s biggest pay-per-view draw.
It was a legacy fight for both men. But for Alvarez, it was something more. One year earlier, he and Golovkin had fought to a controversial draw. That fight had been for history and glory. This one, because of a positive test for a banned drug, was for Canelo’s honor.
Alvarez is a fighter at heart. He’s a tough SOB with a great chin. And he can fight. He turned pro at age fifteen and, in the thirteen years since then, has fashioned a 50-1-2 (34 KOs) ring record. On many occasions, he has gone in tough. But with each big win he achieved in the past, there was a caveat attached. This opponent was too old. That one was too small. The decision wasn’t right. And there was a 2013 loss to Floyd Mayweather when a too-young Canelo was befuddled over the course of twelve long rounds.
Golovkin, now 36, won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics on behalf of Kazakhstan and had compiled a 38-0-1 (34 KOs) ledger in the professional ranks. More significantly, he’d reigned at various times as the WBC, WBA, and IBF middleweight champion and still held the WBC and WBA crowns. While Gennady had been tested by fewer world-class inquisitors than Canelo, he’d never shied away from a challenge. At his best, he relentlessly grinds opponents down.
Alvarez and Golovkin met in the ring for the first time on September 16, 2017, in the most-anticipated fight of the year. That bout generated a live gate of $27,059,850 at T-Mobile Arena, the third largest live gate in boxing history. The 22,358 fans in attendance comprised the largest indoor crowd ever for a fight in Las Vegas.
It was a spirited bout with most observers believing that Golovkin deserved the decision. Dave Moretti scored the contest 115-113 for Gennady. Don Trella scored it even. Adelaide Byrd turned in what might have been the worst scorecard ever in a major fight: 118-110 for Canelo.
Clearly, a rematch was in order. But on what terms? Despite being the challenger, Alvarez had been the driving economic force behind the first fight. That was reflected in the slightly better than 70-to-30-percent division of income in favor of Canelo and his promoter (Golden Boy). The differential was narrowed to 65-35 as negotiations for the rematch proceeded. A contract for a May 5 encore was signed. But while Canelo-Golovkin I had been conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect, the atmosphere was different now.
Alvarez is a hero in his native Mexico, while Team Golovkin has gone to great lengths to position Gennady as a “Mexican style” fighter.”
“There is no such thing as a Mexican style,” Canelo noted. “There have been many fighters from Mexico with different styles. My style is mine. I’m Mexican, and that’s what is important.”
But at the February 27, 2018, kick-off press conference for Canelo-Golovkin 2, Abel Sanchez (Gennady’s trainer) roiled the waters, saying, “I hope Canelo was able to see a transmission specialist for the rematch because in the first fight he was stuck in reverse. He was a runner. It behooves Canelo, with as much talking as he’s doing about his legacy and how he’s going to be remembered, to at least make it a fight.”
“I outboxed him,” Canelo said in response. “I went on the ropes. I made him miss, I controlled the center of the ring. I’m not a jackass who just comes forward, throwing punches and gets hit. He believes he is a great coach. He does not know what boxing is. He does not know what it is to have technique, what it is to box, what it is to make a move, knowing how to adapt to the circumstances of the fight, not just going forward throwing punches. I hope he goes home tonight and really thinks about what he says. Because he’s saying stupid idiotic things.”
Then there was a problem. A big one. On March 5, it was revealed that urine samples taken from Canelo by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) on February 17 and February 20, 2018, had tested positive for clenbuterol.
Clenbuterol helps the body increase its metabolism and process the conversion of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into useful energy. It also boosts muscle growth and eliminates excess fats caused by the use of certain steroids. Under the World Anti-Doping Agency Code, no amount of clenbuterol is allowed in a competitor’s body. The measure is qualitative, not quantitative. Either clenbuterol is there or it’s not.
The Alvarez camp maintained that the positive tests were the result of Canelo having inadvertently eaten contaminated meat. To this day, Canelo has maintained his innocence. Regardless, on April 3, he announced that he was withdrawing from the May 5 rematch. Then, on April 18, the Nevada Athletic Commission unanimously approved a settlement agreed to by Alvarez that called for the fighter to be suspended for six months retroactive to the date of his first positive test for clenbuterol. There was no admission of wrongdoing on Canelo’s part. But there was an acknowledgement that clenbuterol had been present in his system.
With Alvarez temporarily out of the picture, Golovkin fought Vanes Martirosyan on May 5. Martirosyan had fought his entire career at 154 pounds, been out of the ring for two years, and won only four of eight fights over the previous six years. HBO didn’t even put his image on promotional posters for the fight. Instead, it ran a full-body photo of Golovkin down the left side of the poster and relegated Vanes’s name to a font one-twelfth the size of the letters “GGG”. Golovkin knocked Martirosyan out in the second round.
Then negotiations for Canelo-Golovkin 2 resumed. But now the Golovkin camp was demanding a 50-50 revenue split and pushing the narrative that, having tested positive for clenbuterol, Canelo needed to fight Gennady again to rehabilitate his image. They also argued that Team Canelo should be penalized an amount equal to the out-of-pocket expenses that had been lost as a consequence of the May 5 postponement. On June 13, the warring camps agreed to what is believed to have been a 55-45 division of revenue.
Canelo-Golovkin I was a feel-good promotion and a celebration of boxing. Two elite fighters had fought one another in an atmosphere of good will. “He respects me, and I respect him,” Gennady said of his opponent before they met in the ring for the first time.
Canelo-Golovkin 2 was a different matter. The expressions of mutual respect were gone. Leading up to the rematch, the antipathy between the fighters was such that they declined to participate in traditional marketing ventures such as HBO’s “Face Off” and, prior to the fight, appeared together only for the final pre-fight press conference and weigh-in. There was no kick-off promotional media tour. In its place, the two teams participated in a split-screen media conference on July 3 from their respective training camps in Big Bear and Guadalajara.
A deep wellspring of resentment flowed from Golovkin as a consequence of the first fight. He came into the rematch nursing a host of grievances. Some of his anger was motivated by having to take short money. He was also upset by the decision in Canelo-Golovkin I.
“Canelo lost that fight,” Gennady said. “That’s it. He lost the fight according to all standards. I thought I didn’t understand something, but then I reviewed the fight. These people [the judges] are like terrorists. They’re killing sport. It’s not about me. People like that should be in prison. People being cheated like that; it’s too much. This is America.”
And more significantly, Golovkin believed that Canelo had used illegal performance enhancing drugs while preparing for their first fight. Let it go? In Gennady’s mind, that made Canelo as much of a cheater as Miguel Cotto and many others believe that Antonio Margarito was cheating when Margarito fought Cotto with allegedly loaded gloves. Did Cotto let go of that grievance?
Golovkin called Canelo a liar and added, “I told the truth. If he does not like the truth, it is not my problem. It doesn’t matter if he likes me, loves me, doesn’t like me. I wouldn’t say I hate him. It’s just that my opinion of him has changed completely. What he says doesn’t inspire any respect. The people who support him and stand by him are swindlers, just like him. How could one respect them?”
Meanwhile, Abel Sanchez called Canelo “a man without character” and questioned his credentials as a representative of the Mexican people.
“Abel Sanchez just likes to talk,” Chepo Reynoso (Canelo’s manager and co-trainer) responded. “He talks too much. At the end of the day, it’s going to be Canelo and Triple-G fighting with their fists, not with their mouths. He likes to be the star of the movie, but this is not about him. It’s about Canelo and Triple-G. What we need to do as cornermen, as trainers, is to do our job quietly because it’s not about us. Learn to be quiet, please.”
Chepo also said that Golovkin fought “like a donkey” in that “he does the same thing over and over again.” That led Sanchez to counter, “Chepo Reynoso has never had an Olympian. Chepo Reynoso has never had a silver medalist. Chepo Reynoso has never had eighteen world champions like I have had. When he gets to that level, maybe he can speak in an intelligent manner.”
Canelo stated the obvious when he observed, “The cordiality we had is over. The respect that I had, that we had, it has been lost. They disrespected me for everything they have been saying, everything they have been doing, all their actions. Now it’s different. This fight is personal because of all that has been said, and it will be difficult to regain the respect we once had.”
As a general rule, the week of a big fight has a celebratory feel to it. It might be stressful for the fighters and promoters, but most people on site are enjoying the ride.
Fight week for Canelo-Golovkin 2 felt different. There was a sour residue from the ugly back-and-forth between two respected camps. The devastation that Hurricane Florence was wreaking in North Carolina added to the malaise. Oscar De La Hoya added silly to the equation when he told TMZ that he was “seriously” contemplating a run for president in 2020.
Canelo tried to tone things down. Taking questions in English and answering in Spanish at media events during the week, he observed, “I expect the best Golovkin for the fight, I will be the best Canelo. There will be no excuses. Some say that he won the first fight, and some say that I won. That is why it was a draw.”
Asked about having tested positive for clenbuterol, Canelo answered, “I learned from it. I turned the page on it. And I am done with it.”
As for De La Hoya running for president, Canelo noted, “I don’t like politics. If he wants to do it, that’s his decision and his problem.”
All of this led to the question that mattered most: Who would win the fight? Here the war of words continued.
From Abel Sanchez: “On the fifteenth, when Oscar and Canelo are having breakfast, Oscar needs to remind him he needs to bring his courage to the venue that night . . . To win a fight, you have to try to win the fight. You win a fight by doing damage to your opponent and making it a battle . . . If he fights Gennady, he’s going to get knocked out. He would have gotten knocked out the first time, but he decided to make it a track meet that night. If he doesn’t defraud the fans again, then he’s going to get knocked out . . . Canelo Con Carne is finally going to face the music from the man he has avoided most. It will be a public service to the sport and the Mexican beef industry he has selfishly maligned.”
From Golovkin: “This wasn’t boxing by Canelo. It was running. He always has a way of running in the ring. However, in our last fight, he was really avoiding fighting close to me . . . I felt a couple of slaps. Slap! Slap! I didn’t feel real power, punch power . . . He’s fast; he’s quick. He is good fighter but he is not at my level.”
A lot of the commentary from the Golovkin camp was gamesmanship aimed at influencing the judges. It was also designed to lure Alvarez into an ill-conceived firefight.
Canelo was not shy in responding:
* “It’s easy for Abel Sanchez to talk. He won’t be getting in the ring and fighting on Saturday. Comments from Sanchez don’t really bother me because he doesn’t know what boxing is. He doesn’t know what it is to have technique. He doesn’t know what it is to box or to move. He doesn’t know what it means to adapt to the circumstances of a fight and not just go forward and throw punches. I find it strange that someone who believes himself to be a great trainer does not know how to distinguish between having technique and what he is saying.”
* “I have watched the first fight several times. The first fight gave me the guideline for the second fight. I know that I can do many things in the ring against him. I know that I can hurt him. I’m going to do the necessary adjustments and the necessary things to win. Instead of making changes, I’ve added to the strategy. They’re trying to get me to do what they want. But I will do what I have to do to walk away with the victory.”
* “Golovkin knows who I am. He knows what I am about. But he doesn’t know how much more I have left to show. I’m looking forward to showing him that on September 15.”
But neither side was certain who would win.
“It makes me laugh,” Canelo said of Sanchez’s predictions. “Saying what will happen when boxing is so unpredictable and so hard.”
And Golovkin was in accord, acknowledging, “Is not like a show. Is serious business. Every fight is dangerous fight. Even with the same fighters, every fight is different. Nobody knows for sure how it will end. I want. He want. I am ready for him. He is ready for me. This is boxing.”
Canelo Alvarez arrived at Dressing Room #1 at the T-Mobile Arena on Saturday night at 5:10 PM. A five-by-ten-foot Mexican flag hung on the wall opposite a large flat-screen television monitor.
Two hours earlier, a seven-man film crew that works for Canelo had set up in the room. In recent years, the crew has been gathering material for a documentary about Alvarez’s life. They also feed content to Canelo’s 3.6 million Instagram followers, his 1.3 million Twitter followers, and the 2.9 million people in his Facebook community. The cameras recorded his arrival in the dressing room with Chepo and co-trainer Eddy Reynoso.
Alvarez was a 13-to-10 betting underdog. One day earlier, he’d weighed in at 159.4 pounds while Golovkin registered 159.6.
Canelo sat on a black imitation-leather armchair to the left of the flag. HBO production coordinator Tami Cotel came in and repositioned him for a pre-fight interview with Max Kellerman. When it was done, he returned to the armchair and, arms crossed across his chest, began watching the first pay-per-bout of the evening – Roman Gonzalez vs. Moises Fuentes – on the TV monitor. Gonzalez knocked Fuentes unconscious in round five. Canelo nodded in acknowledgment.
Chepo Reynoso began folding gauze into pads for his fighter’s fists. When each pad was ready, he showed it to a Nevada Athletic Commission inspector for approval before bringing it to Canelo to ensure that it fit comfortably.
David Lemieux vs. Gary “Spike” O’Sullivan – the second televised bout of the evening – began. The winner would be on the short list of prospective opponents for Alvarez. Canelo turned his body slightly to the right in his chair, crossed his right leg over his left thigh, and studied the action with his right hand pressed against his chin. The fight didn’t last long. Lemieux KO’d O’Sullivan two minutes 44 seconds into round one.
Two fights. Two reminders of how quickly and brutally a fight can end.
Soft Latin music began playing in the background.
The monitor showed Gennady Golovkin arriving at T-Mobile Arena. Again, Canelo nodded.
Several sponsor representatives entered. Alvarez rose to greet them and posed for photos before returning to his chair. Video footage from his first fight against Golovkin began to play on the TV monitor. Canelo watched impassively, chatting occasionally with Diego Alejandro Gonzales (the son of Golden Boy public relations director Ramiro Gonzalez).
At 6:05, clad in a tuxedo, Julio Cesar Chavez came in to conduct an interview for Mexican television. That was followed by a visit from Nevada Athletic Commission executive director Bob Bennett, who arrived with several commission dignitaries and referee Benjy Esteves, who gave Canelo his pre-fight instructions.
Golden Boy publicist Gabriel Rivas and matchmaker Robert Diaz appeared from time to time to attend to various matters.
The video of Canelo-Golovkin I ended.
More well-wishers, family members, and friends came and went. Canelo rose from his chair to greet each one with a welcoming smile and embrace.
At 6:20, Canelo’s girlfriend came into the room with his youngest daughter, an adorable toddler named Maria Fernanda Alvarez. Canelo took his daughter in his arms and sat with her on his lap.
“What a beautiful girl,” he murmured.
He lifted her arms up and down while nuzzling her cheek and saying “Papa! Papa!” over and over again in a sing-song voice.
Maria rested comfortably in her father’s arms. Then Canelo rose from his chair and walked her around the room on her unsteady legs, holding both of her arms above her head from behind.
He looked like a man playing at home with his daughter, not a warrior readying for war.
Jaime Munguia vs. Brandon Cook – the third fight on the pay-per-view telecast – began. It was over in three rounds. Canelo put his daughter down and began stretching with Eddy Reynoso, his first boxing-related exercise of the evening.
Miguel Cotto, who Alvarez defeated in 2015 to win his first middleweight belt, came in, hugged Canelo, shook hands with Eddy, and chatted for several minutes with Chepo.
There was more stretching.
At seven o’clock, Eddy began wrapping Canelo’s hands with a representative of Golovkin’s camp looking on. Right hand first, then the left.
At 7:15, inspectors Alex Ybarra, Francisco Soto, and Charvez Foger cleared the room of camera crews, family members, and friends. In forty-five minutes, Canelo would leave his sanctuary for the ring.
Tami Cotel returned with the request that Canelo sit for a brief interview for HBO social media.
“I’m sorry,” Robert Diaz told her. “This isn’t a television show now. He has to get ready for a fight.”
Canelo put on a protective cup and black trunks with gold trim. Eddy applied Vaseline to his face. There was more stretching followed by a brief interlude of shadow-boxing.
Eddy gloved Canelo up.
There was some padwork.
Cotel returned. “You walk in twelve minutes,” she instructed.
Chepo draped a black serape emblazoned with a Mexican-flag emblem over Canelo’s shoulders
The dressing room had been remarkably quiet from start to finish. Now only the soft Latin music could be heard.
Canelo began signing in tune with the music. A love song.
He looked like a boy in a man’s world.
A.J. Liebling once wrote of rematches, “The spectator who goes twice to a play he likes is pretty sure of getting what he pays for on his second visit, especially if the cast is unchanged. This is not true of the sweet science.”
With Canelo-Golovkin 2, fight fans got what they paid for.
The crowd was divided with vociferous partisans on each side. Chants of “GGG! GGG!” were met with “Ca-nel-o! Ca-nel-o!”
Golovkin looked flat in the early going. Or was it old? Either way, he didn’t fight the way the world is used to seeing him fight.
A lot of that was due to Canelo. Looking back on their first encounter, Alvarez had realized that Golovkin was wary of his power. Very wary. In his dressing room after that bout, Canelo had told his team, “The judges think he punches like a monster. My punches were just as hard as his, harder.”
So this time, Canelo decided to test Golovkin early with more aggression and see how he responded. By moving forward and holding his ground, he deprived Gennady of the ability to set up at his leisure and gave him less room to mount an attack. This time, Canelo was the man stalking. This time, Canelo moved forward constantly and gave ground more grudgingly while fighting a measured disciplined fight.
And this time, for all of Abel Sanchez’s talk, Golovkin was the more cautious fighter. He jabbed effectively. But Gennady has built his reputation and dominated opponents with the power punching that follows his jab. And that power was absent here because, like all boxers, Gennady throws with less authority when his forward momentum is stalled.
Canelo went to the body consistently and effectively, fighting like the more confident man while forcing the pace of the fight. When Golovkin hit him solidly, he didn’t crumble. He fired back.
Gennady’s face started to show bruising as early as round two. Canelo was cut on the left eyelid in round four
After five rounds, Golovkin was breathing heavily in his corner. He isn’t a robot or computer-game figure. He’s a real person who’s subject to fatigue, pain, and all the other conditions that affect how a fighter fights. And the older a fighter gets, the harder it is for him to summon up the resolve to walk through punches.
After nine rounds, Golovkin looked to be fading. Canelo’s power was influencing him more than his power was influencing Canelo. It was clear that Gennady needed another gear to win. And he dug deep to find it.
Midway through round ten, Golovkin shook Canelo with a straight righthand and followed with a barrage of punches. But most of them missed, and Canelo regrouped to fire back. In round eleven, Gennady shook Canelo again. Round twelve saw toe-to-toe action as both men sensed that the outcome of the fight was in doubt.
At the final bell, they embraced. Two men who understood that, in the ring, they’re the equal of each other.
If Abel Sanchez had been hoping to influence the judges, it didn’t work. Canelo emerged with a 115-113, 115-113, 114-114 triumph.
“I scored the fight even,” Sanchez said afterward. “I thought that the twelfth round was the pivotal round. We’ve got to give Canelo credit. He was able to do the things that he needed to do tonight.”
LeBron James, who was sitting at ringside, later tweeted, “One of the best fights I’ve ever seen! Ultimate competitors in @Canelo and @GGGBoxing! Salute to both of you. Could watch y’all fight any day.”
Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin. Two fighters with vastly different personalities who come from significantly different cultures. But as elite fighters, there’s far more that unites than divides them.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His next book – Protect Yourself At All Times – will be published this autumn by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.