Monday, April 22, 2024  |


Fighting Words — Canelo Alvarez-Callum Smith: The Bold and the Beautiful

Photo by Ed Mulholland/Matchroom.
Fighters Network

The first time wasn’t a fluke. The second time makes it a trend.

Twice in the span of 13 months, Canelo Alvarez has stood in the ring against another man who stands taller, who weighs more, who should be more intimidating, more powerful, more dangerous than they wind up being.

Canelo is 5-foot-8, a smaller man moving up in weight, a former junior middleweight titleholder and current middleweight champion campaigning in the domain of super middleweights and light heavyweights. He is taking on what should be depicted beforehand as significant challenges — but can’t be described that way afterward.

He is the one presenting the challenge once the bell rings. He is the one imposing his will, intimidating his opponents, landing the more powerful punches, doing the most damage. Canelo Alvarez has knocked out Sergey Kovalev. He has beaten up Callum Smith. He steps up his level of difficulty and then rises to the occasion.

His win over Smith was both bold and beautiful.

It looks too easy. It isn’t.

Smith was The Ring’s champion at 168, crowned two years ago after the World Boxing Super Series tournament culminated in Smith knocking out George Groves in the finale. He was undefeated, expected to be a good test, a big jump up from the last super middleweight Canelo had faced. Two years ago, Canelo had blasted through Rocky Fielding, flooring him four times in three rounds to capture a secondary belt. Smith had similarly bested Fielding three years before that, dropping him three times in three minutes.

Boxing matches aren’t won or lost on paper. The only reality is what happens in the ring on fight night. But the paper — the accomplishments coming in, the storylines of the two fighters who are preparing to face off — still matters.

It can be tempting to fall into a mental trap, to look at the one-sided manner in which Smith was defeated and conclude that he must not have ever really been that good, to see the brutal fashion in which Kovalev was destroyed and believe that he must have been faded and vulnerable.

There may indeed be times that such verdicts are valid, that the storylines on paper were based on incomplete information, and therefore that the results revealed reality. 

Photo by Ed Mulholland/Matchroom.

It would be acceptable to ask whether Smith’s performance was hampered by an arm injury and in draining his lengthy frame to make the super middleweight limit, and whether Smith’s controversial win over John Ryder last year meant he was no longer at his best at 168. And it would be fair to wonder whether Kovalev’s chin had been weakened or exposed following knockout losses to Andre Ward and Eleider Alvarez. 

The reality, as often is the case, is somewhere in-between. The reality is that it takes a fighter as special as Canelo to win so masterfully, not only to know how to exploit flaws and shortcomings but to have the talent and ability to do so, and so completely at that.

This is the result of extensive experience. Canelo turned pro at 15, has been in the paid ranks for half his life, and still is only perhaps two or three years into his prime. 

It’s been nearly a decade since he won his first world title at junior middleweight. As he’s built this increasingly large collection of prizes — three major world titles in two different reigns at 154, two world titles at 160, two world titles at 168, one world title at 175, and now ruling concurrently as Ring Magazine champion at middleweight and super middleweight — he’s grown both offensively and particularly on defense.

Canelo commands the ring with his hands — power, speed, timing, placement — and with his feet, closing the distance, maneuvering his opponents where he wants them. He places consistent physical and mental pressure on them. 

If Ryder showed the blueprint for how to trouble Smith, then Canelo executed it to near-perfection on Saturday night in Texas. Smith had half a foot in height on Ryder and is seven inches taller than Canelo. Smith looked huge in comparison. On paper, that size was his only advantage. In reality, it was actually yet another disadvantage.

For years, Manny Pacquiao moved up the scale and picked apart larger opponents. Although both their styles and their substance are quite different, the results are otherwise similar. Canelo’s speed helps amplify his power. He is quicker than his opponents with his footwork and upper body movement, and he’s accustomed to facing shots that come at him faster than these bigger, slower foes can throw. Canelo capably dodges punches, blocks them with his gloves, and uses his hands and arms to pick them off along the way.

There are two schools of thought for fighting a taller opponent. You can box and let them come to you, make them miss and land counters, jump in with single shots and flurries before getting back out of the way. Or you can come forward, close the distance, and take away their reach advantage.

Canelo and his team likely had seen Ryder use the latter approach, noticed that he’d successfully gone around Smith’s high guard to the head and targeted the body, and frequently pressed Smith to the ropes. Canelo probed with his jabs and hooks in the early rounds, looking for openings, gauging Smith’s reactions, and making Smith even more aware of what would be coming his way. And Canelo made sure to let his hands go every time he trapped Smith along the ropes.

Smith showed his respect for Canelo from the outset, put on his back foot, trying to keep Canelo away by throwing more punches. It didn’t work, not when Canelo could just take a step back out of range, duck, slip, or block. Smith hadn’t earned Canelo’s respect in return, hadn’t disrupted his rhythm, hadn’t made Canelo question whether he’d bitten off more than he could chew by taking this fight. Through three rounds, Smith had gone 32 of 168, a paltry 19 percent connect rate, landing just one punch for every five he threw, according to CompuBox. Canelo landed six more punches in that span (38) and threw about half as many (85), a 44 percent connect rate.

Photo by Ed Mulholland/Matchroom.

This further bolstered Canelo’s confidence, not that he’s ever been deficient. Suddenly in Round 4 there was more power on his hooks and crosses. He changed levels and threw a wide array of shots, going to the head and body, and he recognized that Smith’s guard also left openings for uppercuts. Smith tried to throw more combinations. Even though little landed, it caught the attention of all three judges in Round 6. These combos rarely caught Canelo, though. His solid chin had stood up to two fights with Gennadiy Golovkin. It held firm here, too.

Canelo demoralized Smith and then dissected him, taking him apart bit by bit. He didn’t overwhelm him with activity but rather with accuracy, not a tsunami submerging him but rather tides crashing into him with regularity, eroding away his resistance. 

Canelo could throw just 36 punches in Round 7, for example, 12 per minute, one every five seconds, but would land half of them. His connect rate with power shots was even more outstanding. Canelo landed more than half of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts in 10 of 12 rounds. He landed more than 60 percent of them in six of the 12 rounds.

The punishment accumulated. Smith began to slow down. Canelo filled that vacuum — as the joke goes, the beating will continue until morale improves. He landed 19 of 31 power shots in Round 9, rocking Smith with a solid right, mocking him with a feinted jab that transitioned into a left uppercut and a right cross, scoring with another big shot as the round came to a close.

Smith’s corner was concerned after the ninth, tending to a bloody nose and a cut over his right eye, and warning the fighter that they’d give him one more round. Smith objected, yet that brief resistance between rounds was more than he was able to provide for the remaining nine minutes. Canelo went 20 of 30 with his power punches in Round 10, including the Mike Tyson Special, a right to the body that set up a right uppercut to the chin.

Smith’s corner didn’t stop the fight. He wasn’t in danger, but he wasn’t winning either.

In those final four rounds, Canelo went 101 of 217, including 64 of 113 with power punches, a 57 percent connect rate. Smith tried an occasional short combination but had no significant success, held to a mere 27 of 122 overall from the ninth through the 12th, including 20 of 62 power shots. 

There’d be no last-round comeback, only a couple moments in which Smith clinched with Canelo and looked up at the clock. The crowd booed. There’d been no mercy in the ring and none from the stands either, not from the pandemic-sized, Canelo-loving crowd at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

Two judges scored it 119-109, with Round 6 for Smith and the rest to Canelo. One judge had it 117-111, the lone set of eyes on the panel to credit Smith in Round 5 and Round 7.

Canelo’s post-fight interview included the expected questions about Golovkin, who’d fought the night before on the same network, DAZN, beating mandatory challenger Kamil Szeremeta.

Then he walked back toward his dressing area, passing Smith’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, along the way. Canelo pulled down his mask. “Hey! Who’s next?” he asked rhetorically, before letting out a laugh.

The relationship between Canelo and Hearn has been tied to their affiliation with the streaming service. Canelo signed a landmark contract in 2018 to headline several shows and hopefully bring in subscribers, while Hearn inked a large deal to provide programming. Their paths often met, given that Hearn has several middleweights and super middleweights in his stable.

“That’s three now,” Hearn replied.

That Canelo was back on DAZN for this show was somewhat surprising. He’d sued the company and Golden Boy Promotions about three months beforehand, arguing that they weren’t fulfilling their contractual agreement. The case ended with all parties agreeing that Canelo could become a free agent. He could pick which promoters and networks to work with, which would open up more fights than had been available before. He was already paid well, but this free marketplace could earn him even more.

DAZN still sought out Canelo vs. Callum Smith to headline this broadcast, adding a pay-per-view component to try to bolster its bottom line. Its executives likely still would welcome a third fight with Golovkin. Canelo isn’t necessarily avoiding that fight, but it hasn’t seemed like his first choice either. 

Canelo now has more options. And this free agency could reward boxing fans as well with fresh matchups that once seemed out of reach. 

First, however, is an obligation. Canelo picked up the vacant WBC world title (alongside Smith’s WBA title) on Saturday and could be ordered to defend it against mandatory challenger Avni Yildirim next. The potential fights beyond that could see matches made from within the Premier Boxing Champions stable. At super middleweight, there’s David Benavidez or the winner of the upcoming fight between Caleb Plant vs. Caleb Truax. Middleweight titleholder Jermall Charlo could move up or meet at a catch-weight.

Hearn’s company also promotes 168-pound titleholder Billy Joe Saunders and 160-pound titleholder Demetrius Andrade. 

And there are light heavyweights who could come down if Canelo doesn’t want to jump back up to 175. Dmitry Bivol has said he’s willing to drop the extra seven pounds to make the fight happen.


Boxing fans love fighters who dare for greatness, who don’t shy away from tough challenges but embrace them instead, like Teofimo Lopez eagerly getting in the ring with Vasiliy Lomachenko and then winning the lightweight championship, and like Naoya Inoue rising up from weight class to weight class and knocking out good opponent after good opponent.

The three major promoters and their network deals — Hearn with DAZN, PBC with Fox and Showtime, Top Rank with ESPN — allows too many boxers an easy excuse for certain fights not happening. 

Canelo’s situation is extraordinarily rare and refreshing. 

He’s had his share of keep-busy bouts, pay-per-view attractions that lined his pockets without padding his legacy. But he’s also stepped up again and again. He was young when he stepped in against one of the best boxers ever, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Canelo’s lone loss. He’s faced opponents that others eagerly avoided, like Erislandy Lara. He’s stepped in the ring with Miguel Cotto and Golovkin, leaped up in weight for Kovalev, picked one the best available super middleweights in Smith.

“I don’t run from nobody,” Canelo said in his post-fight interview, and it’s hard to argue with that statement.

He’s accomplished a lot over the past decade, particularly in the last five or six years. And at 30, there’s plenty more ahead of him. We, like Canelo speaking to Hearn, are left with one question for which we’re eagerly awaiting the answer:

“Who’s next?”

The 10 Count

1 – On the one hand, you can read that Gennadiy Golovkin beat down his undefeated mandatory challenger, Kamil Szeremeta, knocking him down four times en route to a seventh-round stoppage.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t read too much into the result at all.

Golovkin’s victory over Szeremeta doesn’t mean he’s still the same fighter he was over the past several years, not when Szeremeta had never fought anyone near the top level before, and not when Szeremeta was coming in with just five knockouts in his 21 victories. Golovkin, meanwhile, has only had five victories by decision. The other 35, now 36, were by knockout.

Photo by Michael Owens/Matchroom.

We can’t yet conclude that Golovkin is done as a top fighter either, not when he was coming off a long layoff, had a training camp during a pandemic, and may still have needed to shake off some rust; and not when he may have been more willing to plod forward and take shots to land them given what little threat Szeremeta posed.

However, some things are worth mentioning — and monitoring.

Golovkin is 38. The implications behind that statement pain me given that I’m just days younger. But it’s true that fighters slow down as they age, as wear and tear from training and the fights themselves build up. It’s fair to expect that Golovkin’s prime years are behind him, and that the tough battles he’s had against Canelo Alvarez twice in 2017-18 and against Sergiy Derevyanchenko last year could be both a cause and a symptom.

The question is what comes next. It most likely won’t be Canelo, as much as GGG would like that, and as much as DAZN would like that, and as much as some boxing fans who presumably also go by their initials or abbreviations would like that.

Perhaps the most intriguing possibility is an entertaining fight that had been mentioned as a possibility years ago before being dismissed as too much and too soon for the other guy.

Jaime Munguia was turned down by the Nevada Athletic Commission in 2018, back when Canelo had tested positive for a banned substance ahead of a scheduled rematch with Golovkin. Instead, GGG made short work of Vanes Martirosyan.

Since then, Munguia has moved to 36-0 and moved up from junior middleweight to 160, defeating Spike O’Sullivan earlier this year and stopping Tureano Johnson on a bad cut in October.

It’s not the most marquee matchup. But assuming we won’t get Canelo-GGG 3, and that we might not get Golovkin against some of the other fighters who appear on other networks, then the Munguia fight is eminently makeable and eminently watchable. 

2 – And now for a sentence that’s never been uttered in any other boxing article: “I don’t completely agree with Flavor Flav.” 

You can believe the hype, but you first need to consider the sources and their motives. (These would make much worse lyrics than the ones Chuck D penned.)

The hype going into Gennadiy Golovkin’s fight with Kamil Szeremeta was that a win would mark his 21st title defense, breaking a record long held by Bernard Hopkins.

Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t believe the hype.

Golovkin’s real number is 15 successful defenses in a row, and 16 title defenses in total. Why the discrepancy? Because those marketing Golovkin understandably have different standards than we in the media have, or at least should have.

You can’t reach 21 unless you include the five defenses Golovkin made of the WBA’s “regular” world title — which is a secondary belt when the WBA also has a “super” titleholder. That’s exactly what the WBA had for part of Golovkin’s reign, with Felix Sturm the “super” titleholder from 2010 into 2012. Daniel Geale beat Sturm to become the new “super” titleholder in September 2012. Geale was stripped by the WBA in November 2012 when he decided to face Anthony Mundine next instead of meeting Golovkin. That elevated Golovkin into the WBA’s primary titleholder.

Hopkins, meanwhile, made 19 successful middleweight title defenses. It’s only 20 if you include the “no contest” against Robert Allen. Since we’re splitting hairs — and keep in mind that I’m bald — six of the defenses in Hopkins’ reign were when he was the lineal 160-pound champion. There were no losses while Hopkins compiled that 19- or 20-fight streak; Golovkin suffered a very close defeat in his 2018 rematch with Canelo Alvarez.

None of that should take anything away from Golovkin’s legacy as one of the top fighters in his division over the past decade. Believe the hype. But forget the spin. 

3 – Deontay Wilder in 2018, appearing on morning show The Breakfast Club: “I want a body on my record. I want one. I really do.” (Wilder made similar comments in 2019 ahead of his fight with Dominic Breazeale.)


Gennadiy Golovkin in 2020, asked about Oscar De La Hoya saying he wanted to come back and face GGG, speaking through a translator with Agence France-Presse: “Everything involving Gennadiy Golovkin for him is a nightmare. He can say whatever. But let me put it this way — if I got an opportunity to legally kill a person in the ring, I might seize it.”

I don’t believe either fighter truly meant it, but that doesn’t mean we should condone or excuse it. (It’s also eyebrow-raising, to say the least, that Golovkin isn’t getting anywhere near as much criticism for his remarks as Wilder did.)

Boxers do have to enter the ring with a warrior mentality. Their health and their lives can be on the line. Fighting is about hurting your opponent more than he hurts you. Yet talking about killing your opponent remains an ugly and unnecessary sentiment. It doesn’t ever need to be said to market yourself or an upcoming fight. 

Every fighter who dies or suffers a critical injury is a reminder that all of the good that boxing brings also carries a lot of bad with it. The sport has changed so many lives for the better, but sadly it’s also changed too many lives for the worse. 

Every single one — the deaths of Patrick Day and Maxim Dadashev, the tragic injuries that befell Prichard Colon, Magomed Abdusalamov and Daniel Franco, just to name a few — is heartbreaking.

4 – Any time a fighter says something like what Golovkin said, I think of boxers whose opponents actually did die, who never wanted the unthinkable to happen and now live every day with the repercussions:

“I never meant for this to happen to you,” junior middleweight prospect Charles Conwell wrote in a heartfelt, emotional open letter after Patrick Day’s passing in 2019. “If I could take it all back, I would. No one deserves for this to happen to them. … I see you everywhere I go, and all I hear is wonderful things about you. I thought about quitting boxing, but I know that’s not what you would want.” 

“Pat will always be with me,” Conwell told Joe Santoliquito of before his first fight back after Day’s death. “Winning a world championship is something he would want. So, I’ll fight in his memory. That’s never going to change. I can’t let him down. I fight for two now.”

5 – We’ve gotten so accustomed to the battles between promoters and networks that a few small things stood out from Saturday’s pair of major boxing broadcasts:


Welterweight titleholder Errol Spence, a PBC fighter aligned with Fox and Showtime, was interviewed on DAZN while in the arena for Callum Smith vs. Canelo Alvarez. He was asked both about a potential fight with Terence Crawford (a Top Rank/ESPN fighter) and even about his interest in moving up multiple weight classes someday to face Canelo. 

The broadcast crew also spotlighted 135-pound champ Teofimo Lopez, a Top Rank/ESPN fighter whose interview included a discussion of Devin Haney, a lightweight titleholder who is a regular on DAZN.

Meanwhile on Showtime, the network’s pre-fight feature on Emmanuel Rodriguez also wound up shining a big spotlight on Naoya Inoue, the bantamweight titleholder and pound-for-pound great who is a Top Rank/ESPN fighter. (Rodriguez lost to Inoue last year in the World Boxing Super Series tournament.)

This is the way it should be. Obviously networks will need to expend most of their airtime and energy on the fighters within their folds and the shows on their schedules. But these networks aren’t separate comic book universes — with the X-Men and Justice League never to meet. (Please don’t email me about the isolated crossovers. I am a nerd and own them already.) 

There’s value in mentioning the big picture, both to tell the story about your fighter but also to help set up storylines down the line.

The fact that this month’s Errol Spence-Danny Garcia card finally showed a graphic featuring Terence Crawford — after only showing PBC’s 147-pounders for so long — was the right thing to do. Paint the picture of Errol Spence and Crawford being the two top guys at welterweight now, and that will only help drive more interest if the fight is finally made.

6 – Here were Spence’s comments about Crawford, which didn’t exactly get anybody’s hopes up:

“That could happen. We gotta see how it goes,” Spence said, before saying that it would take Al Haymon of PBC and Bob Arum of Top Rank to sit down “and for Bob to stop lying.”

“It definitely could happen next year. We just got to sit down and talk and go over numbers and things like that,” he said. “I’m the big dog at the welterweight division. And he got to take a back seat and take that 60-40 [percent split] or 70-30, whatever we give him.”

Crawford soon responded on Twitter:

“And they said it was me. I rest my case now. On to the next. That chapter is now [closed].”

This is all just posturing. Nothing that Spence and Crawford say in interviews matters. It doesn’t matter if a fighter says he’s interested, or is being ducked, if no serious offers have been made or no one has sat down for earnest negotiations.

Everything else is noise. And clickbait, which is too many boxing media members continue to ask surface-level questions instead of pressing the promoters, managers and fighters to back up their claims with substantial details and proof.

7 – The repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic on boxing extend well beyond the three months without fights, the arenas without fans, and the fights that can’t be made. There are also the gyms and boxing programs that are struggling or have shut down, and the people who’ve died from the virus.

Last week, the Mendez Boxing Gym in Manhattan announced that it would not reopen. Its namesake, Francisco Mendez, died in April at the age of 61 from COVID-related complications.

Though Mendez rarely made headlines, he was a fixture at pre-fight events in New York City, opening his gym on East 26th Street to host media workouts that brought in a who’s who of boxing’s biggest names, from Vasiliy Lomachenko to Terence Crawford to Nonito Donaire,” wrote Ryan Songalia of

Boxing writer Patrick Connor has compiled a partial list of those in boxing who, in addition to Mendez, have passed away from COVID-19 or related complications (I’ve added the descriptions within parentheses):

  • Eddie Cotton (a boxing referee from New Jersey)
  • Nelson Cuevas (a boxer who went on to become a trainer and cutman. Cuevas also worked at Mendez Boxing Gym)
  • Jimmy Glenn (the former fighter and trainer who owned Jimmy’s Corner, a beloved New York City bar for boxing fans)
  • Skender Kurti (the coach for Albania’s national boxing team)
  • Hedgemon Lewis (a former welterweight title challenger)
  • Bernard Pope (a trainer from New Zealand)
  • Hector Rocha (a trainer from Houston)
  • Juan Domingo Roldan (a former middleweight title challenger)
  • Ron Ross (a boxing writer who’d also been a fighter, manager and promoter)
  • Angelo Rottoli (a former cruiserweight title challenger from Italy)
  • Ali Salaam (the father and trainer of former 154-pound titleholder Tony Harrison)
  • Andrew Sumner (a trainer from the United Kingdom)
  • Carmen Williamson (the first Black man to be an Olympic boxing judge)

8 – Boxing’s full of great names, from the unbelievable but real (Tyson Fury) to the surprisingly apt (the 0-31 Eric Crumble, the 12-44-2 Mike McFail), to the unintentionally juvenile (Dick Roughley). 

There are also the amazing noms de guerre that you’d just love to hear Michael Buffer belt out, such as Jukebox Timebomb, Proud Kilimanjaro, Bombaphani Bonyongo Destroyer, and Lancelot Proton de la Chapelle.


My favorite recent discovery is a 25-4 welterweight currently boxing out of the Philippines named Jameson Bacon, which is the only combination of two of my favorite things to be a fighter.

Until young middleweight Ice Cream Naptime turns pro.

9 – On a day when I’d already had ice cream and a nap, the best part of my Saturday was the news that Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada will have their long-awaited rematch on March 13.

It’s been more than eight years since they first met. At the time, Gonzalez was 25 years old with a 33-0 record and title reigns at 105 and 108. Estrada was 22 years old, a prospect who’d lost once and had been competing in heavier divisions but moved down to challenge for the title. 

It was a very good fight, and the rematch became even more appealing in the years since. Gonzalez moved up to add belts at 112 and 115 and earned recognition as one of the best fighters, pound-for-pound, in the world. Estrada blossomed even further into a unified titleholder at flyweight and is currently The Ring’s champion at junior bantamweight.

Estrada is now 30 and in most observers’ pound-for-pound lists himself. Gonzalez suffered a devastating knockout loss to Srisaket Sor Rungvisai in 2017, but the 33-year-old has bounced back this year, stopping Khalid Yafai to win a world title.

You could argue that the first fight came a little too soon, and that the rematch might be a little too late. You shouldn’t hear anyone complain. They’re two of the top three fighters in their division. This version of Gonzales is still very good. Estrada is great. Unlike Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, their styles are guaranteed to mesh well for fan-friendly action. This fight will still be worth the wait.


10 – Just when we were getting used to the idea of piped-in crowd noise, boxing in the pandemic threw us a curveball and introduced us to Virtual Michael Buffer.

The legendary ring announcer appeared on video to introduce Canelo Alvarez and Callum Smith on Saturday night, even though David Diamante was also in the arena performing the same duties for those at the Alamodome.

What would’ve happened if Buffer’s video had run into connection issues? Would the screen read “Buffering…”?

Follow David Greisman on Twitter @FightingWords2. His book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” is available on Amazon.