Canelo Alvarez: Contemplating Greatness
On November 2, Canelo Alvarez and Sergey Kovalev met in the ring at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas and fought for the World Boxing Organization 175-pound title.
Alvarez is conscious of the image that he projects. He’s generally quiet and reserved in public. A lengthy recitation of his ring exploits is unnecessary here. Suffice it to say that, since turning pro in 2005 at age fifteen, Canelo has compiled a record of 53 wins, 1 loss, and 2 draws with 36 knockouts. He’s boxing’s biggest star and only 29 years old.
It’s fashionable in some circles to demean Canelo because his power is sometimes overshadowed by his finesse. This, his critics say, is a betrayal of his Mexican roots. He’s not a “Mexican-style” fighter.
Bart Barry rebutted that notion, writing, “Mexican prizefighters do not wish to get struck in the face any more than any other type of prizefighter does.”
Canelo speaks to the same point, noting, “In boxing, you have to take care of yourself. I haven’t had as many wars as others have had. But there is no need for you to let yourself take a beating and to be bloody to be a great fighter. I am not going to stop what I’m doing to get all bloody and get knocked down all over the place if I have no need to.”
Initially, it was expected that Canelo would fight Gennadiy Golovkin in Las Vegas on September 14 in conjunction with Mexican Independence Day weekend. But Golovkin was upset by the judging in two previous bouts that added a loss and a draw against Canelo to his resume. Thus, Gennadiy stated his reluctance to fight Canelo for a third time in Sin City, and Canelo seized on that to pursue other opponents. That left DAZN, which has invested a reported $465 million in multi-bout contracts with the two fighters, in a quandary. DAZN needed a marketable opponent for Canelo, who is its flagship attraction. The nod went to Kovalev.
Kovalev, now 36 years old, came into the fight with a 34-3-1 (29 KOs) record. Once, he was the best of boxing’s 175-pound champions, having torn undefeated through the light-heavyweight division. He’d dominated an aging Bernard Hopkins en route to a unanimous shutout decision in Atlantic City and knocked out Jean Pascal twice before losing a controversial decision (114-113 on each judges’ scorecard) to Andre Ward in 2016. Meanwhile, two months prior to Kovalev-Ward, Canelo had fought Liam Smith at 154 pounds.
The idea that Canelo and Kovalev might meet in the ring someday would have been derided as fanciful three years ago. But after Kovalev-Ward I, Sergey faltered. He was knocked out in a rematch against Ward and, subsequent to reclaiming the WBO belt by stoppage over Vyacheslav Shabransky, was KO’d by Eleider Alvarez. He rebounded to decision Eleider in February of this year but struggled to defeat Anthony Yarde this August.
Canelo, who has grown comfortable at 160 pounds during the past two years, would be moving up two weight classes to challenge Kovalev. To his credit, he did not demand a catchweight.
Asked about Canelo-Kovalev, Ward (who now works as commentator for ESPN) replied, “There are a lot of variables I’m trying to process right now. It is going to be a good fight. I know that.”
The promotion was about Canelo. The storyline wasn’t whether Kovalev could withstand the challenge from his younger opponent. Nor was it a defining fight for boxing’s light-heavyweight division. But it would be a defining fight for Canelo.
Throughout fight week, Canelo was relaxed, confident, and comfortable. “I always imagine the best,” he said. “But when I turned pro, I never imagined that I would fight at 175 pounds.” Speaking of Chepo and Eddy Reynoso who have guided him in and out of the ring for fourteen years, he proclaimed, “It is beautiful to have a family like this. I am who I am because of them.” And referencing the good will between Kovalev and himself, he declared, “We are to put on a fight, not to insult and be rude to each other.”
Kovalev responded in kind, saying, “I like his boxing style. I like him as person. Boxers punch each other. But after fight, we will be friends again.”
Then, recalling several days in 2011 when he and Canelo were in the same training camp, Sergey added, “He seemed like nice guy. We say hello. I never think we fight each other.”
Canelo was a 7-to-2 betting favorite.
The case for an upset by Kovalev rested in large measure on the size differential between the fighters. Canelo was the naturally smaller man. He’d turned pro at 139 pounds. Three years ago, as previously noted, he was fighting at 154. Six months ago, he entered the ring to face Danny Jacobs after weighing in at 159½ pounds. Sergey had fought at light-heavyweight for his entire ring career.
Canelo is 5’8″ tall. Sergey is four inches taller. Canelo would have to get inside Kovalev’s jab to nullify Sergey’s advantage in reach and work the body. It’s a good jab. Kovalev hits harder than anyone Canelo had fought before with the possible exception of Gennady Golovkin. And how effective would Canelo’s punches be against a man who was bigger than anyone he had previously fought?
“It’s going to be a hard fight,” Kovalev acknowledged. “Canelo is very dangerous. He is strong. He smashes you with body punches, hooks, uppercuts. He has good technique. He is great champion. But this is my division, not his. I am bigger. I am taller. I make the fight my way.”
That said; Kovalev has been known to wilt when his body is effectively attacked. Canelo has “man strength” now, coupled with a ferocious body attack. And the 175-pound contract weight was a double-edged sword as revealed by the satellite tour interviews that the fighters engaged in two days before the fight.
Canelo looked hale and hearty. He hadn’t put on weight to fight at 175 pounds. He had simply lost less weight while adding muscle in the process.
“Do you like fighting at a heavier weight?” he was asked.
“Si,” Canelo answered. “More eat, more happy.”
Kovalev, by contrast, looked tired and drawn. When asked about Canelo coming up in weight, he answered, “He is more dangerous now than ever because he does not have to lose energy to make weight. When you are losing weight, you are losing energy. He is saving energy. For me, it is more difficult now to make weight, but next division is very high for me. One-eighty-five would be best, but there is no title at 185. I will be very happy for the weigh-in.”
When the weigh-in came, Canelo registered 174½ pounds; Kovalev 176.
Sergey removed the crucifix from around his neck . . . 175½.
He took off his shorts . . . 175¼.
He excused himself, went to the restroom, vomited, and returned to the scale . . . 175.
* * *
Canelo Alvarez arrived in his dressing room at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday, November 2, at 6:35 PM. Eighteen camp members wearing matching navy-blue tracksuits with white-and-lime trim were with him.
The room had industrial carpet and cinderblock walls painted ivory-white. Two black sofas and fourteen cushioned folding chairs were spread about. A large flat-screen television mounted on the far wall faced a 6-by-12-foot Mexican flag.
Ryan Garcia, who would fight Romero Duno for a minor WBC title in the next-to-last bout of the evening, was already there. Garcia was sharing the dressing room with Canelo because Eddy Reynoso trained both men. The two fighters greeted each other warmly.
A rectangular table had been set perpendicular against the wall near one end of the room to create a small alcove in front of the television. Canelo settled in the alcove on a folding chair opposite the TV. Chepo Reynoso sat beside him.
Garcia turned off his music in deference to the champion. It was Canelo’s room now.
At seven o’clock, Shane Mosley came in to wish Canelo well. Mosley turned pro in 1993 and blazed through the lightweight division before moving up in weight to conquer Oscar De La Hoya at 147 pounds. Then came the fall. In Shane’s last 21 fights, he suffered ten losses – an all-too-common end game for a once-great fighter. One of Mosley’s losses was a lopsided decision defeat to Canelo.
Garcia started warming up.
Canelo watched as a bloody bout between Seniesa Estrada and Marlen Esparza unfolded on the television in front of him. In round five, Esparza suffered a horrible gash on her forehead from an accidental head butt. With each round, it worsened. The conventional wisdom in boxing is that a cut on the forehead shouldn’t stop a fight. Here, the conventional wisdom was wrong. Esparza had been cut to the bone. But for reasons unknown, referee Robert Byrd, the ring doctor assigned to Esparza’s corner, and Esparza’s seconds let the fight continue. Canelo and Chepo shook their heads.
At 7:35, Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Bob Bennett entered with referee Russell Mora and assorted dignitaries who listened as Mora gave Canelo pre-fight instructions.
The thud of Ryan Garcia hitting the pads with Eddy Reynoso resonated throughout the room.
The bloody mask that was Marlen’s Esparza’s face grew bloodier.
Eddy began wrapping Canelo’s hands.
Finally, after nine rounds, Estrada-Esparza was stopped. Canelo nodded approvingly. There was no reason for it to have gone on that long.
At eight o’clock, Dan Bilzerian (an actor, internet personality, and professional poker player known for his lavish lifestyle) was escorted into the room to meet Canelo. The fighter rose to shake hands and, after Bilzerian left, returned to the chair he’d been sitting on for the past ninety minutes.
A cape was draped over Ryan Garcia’s shoulders as he readied to leave for the ring.
“Looking good,” Canelo exhorted.
Then Canelo’s two-year-old daughter (Maria Fernanda) and infant son (Adiel) were brought into the room.
“Papa!” Maria Fernanda cried out as she rushed toward him.
Father and daughter embraced.
Then Maria Fernanda kissed Chepo, examined her father’s hands, and announced that she wanted her hands to look like papa’s.
Canelo put a strip of tape on the back of her hand.
Maria Fernanda informed him that this was unsatisfactory. She wanted the real thing. So on a night when his place in boxing history hung in the balance, Canelo Alvarez took gauze and tape and elaborately wrapped his daughter’s hands.
“This is not a distraction,” he explained. “It is motivation. Having my children here reminds me of what I am fighting for.”
Almost unnoticed, Ryan Garcia left the room with Eddy Reynoso at his side for what was expected to be the biggest challenge of his ring career.
Maria Fernanda, her hands now properly wrapped, began an impromptu dance recital for her father.
At 8:25, Canelo lay down on the floor for a series of stretching exercises, his first physical boxing-related activity of the evening. Maria Fernanda climbed on top of his chest and kissed him. Then, while physical conditioner Munir Somoya stretched Canelo’s legs one at a time, she simultaneously tugged on the other.
A loud “OOOH!” resounded through the room. Ryan Garcia had scored a devastating first-round knockout.
Canelo stopped stretching and looked at the television to watch a video replay of the knockout . . . Jab, straight right, left hook. KO at 1:38 of round one.
Three minutes later, Eddy was back in the dressing room. Garcia was still being interviewed in the ring.
Eddy gloved Canelo up.
Garcia returned and Canelo embraced him. Minutes later, Duane Ford (president of the WBC North American Boxing Federation) came in and told Garcia that the belt he’d just won had to be returned to Duno.
“The WBC will mail you a new one next week,” Ford explained. “This one belongs to him. If you want to present it to him personally, come with me.”
Garcia left the room with Ford and returned alone minutes later.
“That was hard to see,” Ryan said. “In the ring, you do what you do. But just now, Duno was crying. I felt bad for him.”
Canelo paced back and forth, stopping occasionally to rotate his torso.
Then absurdity set in.
It was 9:05 PM. Team Canelo had been told to be ready to walk by 9:15. But earlier in the week, DAZN had made the decision to delay the start of Canelo-Kovalev until after the conclusion of a UFC pay-per-view card that was being contested in New York. Thus, there would be an unconscionably long delay between the end of Garcia-Duno and the start of Canelo-Kovalev which would ultimately begin at 10:18 PM (1:18 AM eastern time).
That was insulting to fans who had traveled to Las Vegas and bought tickets for Canelo-Kovalev. It was off-putting to DAZN’s east coast subscribers (Canelo-Kovalev didn’t end until after 2:00 AM eastern time). And it was both disrespectful and grossly unfair to Canelo and Kovalev.
As one disgruntled media scribe noted afterward, “You can’t spell ‘fuck’ without a U, an F, and a C.”
The delay was more compatible with the rhythms of Canelo’s dressing room than it would have been for most fighters. There’s very little physical exertion on his part in the hours before a fight and his psychological make-up minimizes tension. If anything, during the next hour, he got a bit bored; that’s all. He chatted with Chepo and Eddy, watched DAZN’s filler content on the television, and rose occasionally to shadow-box.
Finally, at 9:52 PM, DAZN production coordinator Tami Cotel came into the room and announced, “You walk in eleven minutes.”
Canelo hit the pads with Eddy . . . Ferociously . . . With power . . . Now he looked like a fighter. A tattoo in English on the left side of his upper back read, “Destiny is not a matter of chance. It’s a matter of choice. Life is hard but never give up. Keep on trying and always believe in yourself to achieve your dreams.”
Inside the arena, three national anthems – Russian, Mexican, and United States – were sung.
Eddy massaged Canelo’s shoulders while the Mexican anthem sounded.
Chepo draped a serape over Canelo’s shoulders.
At 10:08, Canelo left the sanctuary of his dressing room for war.
* * *
The live gate for Canelo-Kovalev had been hurt by the fact that Canelo’s fans are used to traveling to Las Vegas to see him fight on Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day weekends, not in early November. The casino ticket buy had been smaller than usual.
The announced crowd of 14,490 was heavily pro-Canelo.
The notes I took as the fight progressed read as follows:
Round 1 – Kovalev throwing a probing jab with his right hand cocked. Canelo biding his time, processing Kovalev’s timing and rhythm.
Round 2 – Kovalev busier, keeping Canelo at bay with his jab. Canelo has to find a way to pressure more effectively. He can’t let Kovalev control the fight from the outside with his jab.
Round 3 – Canelo advancing. Kovalev still dictating the terms of the fight with his jab. Sergey has won the first three rounds.
Round 4 – Kovalev sticking to his fight plan. Canelo fighting a patient fight, starting to land to the body.
Round 5 – Canelo the aggressor, looks like the more powerful fighter. Kovalev circling away, jabbing.
Round 6 – Good body work by Canelo. The body shots are starting to break Kovalev down. Kovalev not throwing his right hand much because it will open him up to hooks to the body. Fight even after six.
Round 7 – Kovalev looks to be tiring, throwing a stay-away-from-me jab. Holding when Canelo gets inside or pushing him off with his shoulder.
Round 8 – Canelo backing away, going to the ropes, trying to lure Kovalev in. Poor strategic decision. Giving away the round.
Round 9 – Kovalev seems rejuvenated by the last round.
Round 10 – Canelo more aggressive now. Kovalev still holding when Canelo gets inside or trying to push him off with his shoulder (and maybe break Canelo’s nose). The fight is even after ten.
Round 11 – Canelo in control again.
BOOM! ! !
With 53 seconds left in round eleven, Canelo landed a chopping right hand that shook Kovalev; then followed with a left hook to the side of the head that put Sergey on spaghetti legs. Kovalev started to fall and a crushing right followed, leaving him senseless with his upper body draped over the lower ring strand. There was no need to count, and referee Russell Mora didn’t.
“The plan was patience,” Canelo said afterward. “We knew it was going to take some time for me to get him, but we stuck to our plan. It was delayed a little bit. It was a very close fight because he was defensive. He was closing up his guard. But we knew inevitably it would come. Everything came out the way we planned.”
After the fight, Canelo’s dressing room was filled with family and friends. Amidst the celebration, the final rituals of fight night were tended to. A VADA collection officer took a post-fight urine sample from Canelo. Chepo packed tape, gauze, gloves, and other tools of his trade in a gym bag.
One of the black leather sofas was moved to the far end of the room beneath the Mexican flag. Canelo, having showered and put on a stylish suit with a white shirt open at the collar, sat on the sofa with Chepo beside him. Cameras clicked. Then family and other members of Team Canelo took their turn for photographs at the fighter’s side.
Canelo hadn’t needed a knockout to win. But he needed a knockout to make his point. And he got it. With the victory, he staked a claim as the #1 pound-for-pound fighter in boxing today. And more significantly, he made a compelling case for being named “Fighter of the Decade.”
Fighters are defined in terms of historical greatness in large measure by the quality of their opponents. No other fighter has accomplished in this decade what Canelo has accomplished.
Great fighters have very little ambivalence about fighting. They love it. Canelo loves the challenge of competing in the ring at the highest level. When asked just prior to the final pre-fight press conference for Canelo-Kovalev where he thought he stood on the list of great Mexican fighters, Canelo answered, “The day that I retire is the day that we can judge my place in history.”
So for now, let’s say simply that Canelo is working his way up the ladder of Mexico’s ring immortals. He enjoys the big stage. He likes the money that comes with success. But most of all, he loves practicing the craft of boxing.
“It is an honor,” he says. “I am very proud of being what I am in boxing.”
He should be.
Thomas Hauser’s email address is [email protected] His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published 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.