By Joseph Hirsch: Smaller fighters moving up in weight have a special appeal for boxing fans, as someone who passes the test (Jack Dempsey in his match against Jesse Willard) proves his greatness, while those who climb too far and fall (Mikey Garcia vs. Errol Spence) at least prove their desire for greatness, and also their refusal to be hidebound by the fear of one loss as if it was the end of the world, which it isn’t.
The kind of fans willing to write a fighter off after his first loss are, frankly, the kind of fans a fighter doesn’t need. As Angelo Dundee, famed trainer of both Muhammad Ali and Ray Leonard once said, “Observe who’s in the locker room with you after you lose, not after you win.”
Two men who already have both legacies and losses to their names are Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. Kovalev is the Russian-born throwback whose skillset is more the result of hard work and hard knocks rather than a blessed array of natural gifts. He’s a murderous puncher who’s hell from midrange. Once the boogeyman of the light-heavyweight division, he was deposed by Andre Ward, lost more convincingly in the rematch, and suffered another hard KO loss to Eleider Alvarez, after which some considered him washed up.
But Kovalev regrouped and retooled, navigating a few obstacles along the way and colliding with some obstacles, too (literally, in the case of a car wreck). He fought last time out under the tutelage of legendary trainer and ex-boxer Buddy McGirt, showing new wrinkles, patience, and maturity to go with his previously-noted fearsome arsenal. The result for Kovalev was a very polished win and the reacquisition of his WBO title, and a performance that was the equivalent of Bernard Hopkins’ staredown of Press Row after his victory against Kelly Pavlik, or young Mick Conlan’s middle finger to the judges at the Olympics. Those who’d been ready to close the book on Kovalev were forced to concede that the man had at least one more chapter to write in his story.
For his part, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez has come from humble beginnings, turning pro at the ridiculous (and in some nations illegal) age of 15. He suffered an early loss to counterpunching wizard Floyd “Money” Mayweather when he was very young and ill-seasoned, won convincingly against credible opposition, and got some narrow (re: controversial) decisions against high caliber opponents. Canelo also had to weather the storm that came when he tested positive for a banned substance, and all kinds of insinuations about how and why one judge, Adelaide Bird, tarnished a super-fight with her ridiculous scorecard in his hard-fought near-classic with Gennady Golovkin.
But come through the storm Canelo did, and based on his rematch with Gennady “Triple G” Golovkin, in which he controlled center-ring and dared GGG to bring the “Mexican Style” war he’d promised, it appeared that Canelo was only getting better as he got bigger. His fight against Danny “Magic Man” Jacobs was a clinic, punctuated by some beautiful and sneaky inside work as well as slips and evasions that call to mind James “Lights Out” Toney rather than Canelo’s countryman Julio Caesar Chavez (not that Chavez didn’t have great defense).
Both Canelo and Kovalev have had hard rows to hoe, and have toiled without complaint in the face of criticism (which boxer doesn’t?). Canelo is probably either near-peak or peaking right now. Kovalev, while undoubtedly a bit worse for wear after three losses (two of which were clear), is still dangerous. He also has a man in his corner who can undoubtedly extend his shelf-life (if Buddy McGirt could extend the sometimes kamikaze-like Arturo Gatti’s shelf-life, there’s no fighter on Earth he can’t help in that department).
Canelo has climbed mountains successfully in the past, while Kovalev, having just reclaimed his perch, is eager to keep the high ground and fight off all comers to his newly-reclaimed throne.
It’s compelling stuff, filled with potential drama and all kinds of questions to keep hardcore boxing fans up at night. How much does Kovalev have left in the tank? How far can Canelo climb before he falls? At what point do pound-for-pound talks about Canelo start to bleed into weightier conversations about his place in the pantheon of all-time greats?
Canelo Alvarez has technically captured belts in three divisions, but his fight against Rocky Fielding at super-middleweight, while a well-deserved soft touch after a couple of backbreakers with Golovkin, was for a secondary trinket and amounted ultimately to little more than a showcase. Nothing wrong with that, as you need some “days at the office” as Frank Warren calls them, as well as all-out wars, if you hope to be able to carry on a conversation with your grandchildren long after the crowd has stopped roaring and you’ve retired.
That said, I don’t think I have to tell you that Canelo winning a strap from Sergey Kovalev at 175 would mean quite a bit more than blowing out a game-but-overmatched Rocky Fielding at 168 lbs.
It’s not that there are no other legitimate fights for Canelo at 168 lbs. to be had. Caleb “Sweet Hands” Plant is short on power but long on creativity, while David Benavidez is a hulking two-fisted juggernaut who raises headhunting to an art with his accurate and targeted upstairs combos (look at his KO of Porky Medina to see Benavidez do what he does best). The last name I’d throw in the hat at 168 (assuming Gilberto Ramirez stays campaigning at light-heavyweight) is Callum “Mundo” Smith, who, while neither the most creative ringsmith nor the hardest hitter, is a rugged all-rounder and a very tough out for any man.
But with boxing being the sport, and prizefighting the business, Kovalev is still the fight that’s likely to draw the most eyes and dollars for Canelo right now, outside of arguably a matchup between Canelo and Jaime Mungia that could be slated for Mexican Independence Day weekend, or a rubber match with Golovkin (whom Canelo is understandably tired of talking about). Arguably a fight with Jermall Charlo could prove a draw, but considering Charlo’s last lackluster performance, the bloom may be a bit off the rose, and it’s likewise hard to say while DAZN is still in its fledgling stages how easy a cross-platform deal could be struck between a PBC stable fighter and a Matchroom boxer with an exclusive (and insanely lucrative) contract with DAZN.
As things stand now, Sergey Kovalev is set for a date to dance with the young Brit Anthony Yarde in late September, the same month Canelo is slated to fight, regardless of who the opponent ends up being. Yarde is an underdog with a good chance to prove himself in a big step-up fight, while “Krusher” will get a chance to show that he’s back to rule the den and make another string of defenses against a murderer’s row of young lions looking to take over the pride (including Artur Beterbiev, “Sir” Marcus Browne, Oleksandr Gvozdyk, and Dmitry Bivol, to name just a few).
The deal to fight Yarde that Kovalev has done, however, should be considered scratched in pencil and not written in stone.
If certain criteria are met, purse adjustments negotiated, and so on, the fight between Canelo and Kovalev can and will get made. To put aside the horse-trading going on between Kathy Duva of Main Events and Oscar De La Hoya of Golden Boy, and briefly look at what each man might bring to the fight (if Canelo can convince Oscar to let him take the chance to put his own legacy as a fighter before his own and Oscar’s bank accounts), here are the main elements of intrigue:
Age is a factor for Kovalev, but shouldn’t be given anywhere near as much weight as some fans might be inclined to give it. A 36-year old bantamweight might as well be a greybeard, but Kovalev is a light-heavyweight and provided he doesn’t engage in the extracurricular activity of which former trainer John David Jackson accused him earlier, or go full Paul Spadafora and run off the rails- and more importantly, provided he doesn’t over-train at high altitude- he should be okay in that department.
Kovalev hits incredibly hard, and, as former HBO commentator Jim Lampley once said of Miguel “Angel” Cotto, he doesn’t just beat you; he beats you up. Kovalev typically doesn’t dispatch victims with a single blow, and his power is of the thudding, cumulative variety, which initially makes one think that someone who can take sting off shots, roll with punches, and slip like Canelo should not only be able to take some of the force out of the big bombs but also make Kovalev miss some of his shots altogether. Canelo can undoubtedly make Kovalev miss, but it’s harder to make Kovalev pay, because he’s a master at not overcommitting. Even when he throws a looping power shot he puts himself in position to sling something else as a follow-up rather than leaving himself vulnerable (except at certain angles, especially in close). His ability to look like he’s in retreat one moment and then to open up is somewhat reminiscent of “Jersey” Joe Walcott’s shuffle that tricked a lot of opponents into pressing hard at just the time they should have been exercising maximum caution.
And while Canelo has a great chin and demonstrates equal punch resistance to the body, he has never been hit (outside of sparring) by someone with the murderous, numbing power of a Sergey Kovalev. Canelo Alvarez has a higher ring IQ than Kovalev, especially on the inside (where Kovalev’s game has always been lacking), but chief among all the questions this fight needs to answer going in is whether or not Canelo can handle the drubbing from the anvil-fisted Krusher even in single shots. For he will be tagged at some point, and Kovalev’s shots stay with you. Even Bernard Hopkins will tell you that; and considering B-Hop is a man sparing in his praise of opponents, Kovalev, must, indeed, hit hard as hell.
For his part, if Canelo can in fact handle the power, he can win a wide decision by judicious use of the ropes, especially around the turnbuckles (he is a phenomenon when his back is to the ropes) and overall generalship based on superior footwork and his ability to adapt on-the-fly.
There are the intangibles to consider, too. We know that Kovalev wilted more than broke against Andre Ward in their rematch (I had Kovalev winning their first fight) and that Sergey tended in the past to be disconcerted when his opponent wasn’t intimidated by him (like Sonny Liston or Mike Tyson, he lets his reputation work on the opponent’s psyche before they even get in the ring with him).
Canelo is both fearless and slick, careful when intelligence calls for caution, but a total warrior when the gauntlet is thrown down and his opponent tries to test his manhood in a contest of brute force. This mixture of slickness and warriorhood is a lethal combination against someone who may still have a lingering seed of doubt somewhere in his mind, a memory of his previous losses and a fear that he may be on the downslide. If Canelo can find that seed and nurture it with consistent jabs, good, sneaky uppercuts from the inside, as well as judicious bodywork, he might knock out the Krusher rather than just outpointing him. And that would be quite a statement.
One way for Kovalev to maybe win and for Canelo to definitely get tagged with some serious and lasting damage would be to remain at jabbing distance, where Kovalev is one of the most effective punch-pickers and level-changers I’ve seen in light-heavyweight history.
Canelo and Andre “S.O.G.” Ward have quite different styles, so if the blueprint for a Canelo fight against Kovalev isn’t in those tapes (or DVS or streams) of Ward’s two wins (especially the second one) over Krusher, it would at least behoove Canelo to heed what Ward and his trainer Virgil Hunter figured out about Kovalev before togging up to do battle with him: he’s great from one distance, and not so great from others.
If Canelo tries to keep Kovalev at the end of his own punches, rather than picking spots and angles, it’s possible he gets not only broken down, but stopped, and in merciless, wince-worthy fashion. Canelo can lose to Kovalev and recover, but if he takes a hard beating in the process, some of the damage may be permanent (ask George Chuvalo about how he has to close one eye to parallel park thanks to all the laser-like lefts he ate from “Smokin’” Joe Frazier many moons ago).
That said, I’d still install Canelo as a slight favorite against Kovalev, since he is peaking, is the better boxer, and has every chance to prove that a great small man can beat a good ( formerly great) bigger man.
Kovalev stands to lose a lot if he loses to a smaller man (no matter how great Canelo is, the focus would be on the size disparity), chief among his losses of course being that brown WBO belt. Then again, if Kovalev’s win was dramatic enough, an early-round blowout or a thorough outclassing (like the one Errol Spence meted out to Mikey Garcia) he might get more credit than initially anticipated. With Canelo the preeminent star in boxing right now, Kovalev would definitely get a lot of practical benefit from the “W,” including more exposure and more money. Since he’s already breaking in the bill on his promoter hat, any final purses he picks up on his way out the door would be good seed money for his future ventures, post-boxing. But as the saying goes, if a fighter’s contemplating retirement, he’s already retired, and if that’s the case then all Canelo has to do is show the man to the door, give him the out he’s unconsciously seeking.
The fight probably won’t happen, though, which is a shame, since a legitimate win over a credible light-heavyweight star (albeit one whose shine is on the wane) would be a cornerstone lain in Canelo’s pediment in the pantheon of all-time greats. That would matter quite a bit to Saul Alvarez, who appears to care more about his legacy than his 401k.
A win for Canelo against a bigger, bad man would certainly silence those critics who’ve accused him in the past (maybe legitimately) of being a weight bully, especially if he beat Kovalev in convincing or dramatic fashion.
It’s one fight I want to see, one I imagine some of you want to see as well, but alas, time is running out.
The author of this piece, Joseph Hirsch, is also the author of a novel about an ex-boxer, available here.