SELDOM have pre-fight head-to-head photos meant so much to so many and then ultimately meant nothing as those capturing Saul “Canelo” Alvarez looking up at Callum Smith days before the Mexican cut the taller man down to size and took his WBA super-middleweight title, and the vacant WBC strap, at the Alamodome, San Antonio.
If the fight became the enduring image, fight week served as a reminder that boxing fans are guilty of seeing what they want to see, rather than the reality, and that the same is also true of fighters, whose success relies upon a certain suspension of disbelief. Here, in the case of Alvarez and Smith, a collective desire to see a competitive fight end a miserable year led to plenty believing images of the two super-middleweights standing head-to-head at the weigh-in was indication of a potential upset. Predictions were changed. Past form ignored. Smith, meanwhile, was just as guilty of looking straight ahead during those photo opportunities and seeing nothing in his way, both literally and figuratively. The threat was beneath him. Smaller than him. Perfect for him. It was his weight and his title. It was apparently his time.
But, alas, a gulf in class will guarantee one size fits all in a sport like boxing and, sure enough, Callum Smith, despite a commendable effort, was well and truly outgunned by Canelo Alvarez, the smaller but better man, before a crowd of 12,000 in San Antonio. Beaten not only on the inside but also on the outside, where some believed he would flourish, Smith was in the end wilting to such a degree the two boxers, who had once seemed weight classes apart, operated in the 12th and final round at roughly the same height. He then stood tall again, rightly so, when scorecards of 119-109 (twice) and 117-111 sealed his fate.
A professional since the age of 15, Canelo is now a veteran at 30 who boasts an awareness of things others can’t see and, moreover, sees things for what they are as opposed to how someone would, in an ideal world, like them to be. Where, for instance, Smith and his team saw height and reach advantages, as well as an edge in physical strength, Canelo, a world titlist at super-welterweight, middleweight and light-heavyweight, would instead have seen numerous ways to counteract these supposed shortcomings and recalled numerous examples of him doing exactly that in the past. Such knowledge will allow a fighter to relax in the presence of a larger man and smile contentedly when gazing at their chest, precisely as Canelo did. Such knowledge will also afford a fighter the luxury of showing up at a weigh-in wearing floral print pyjamas, precisely as Canelo did.
Other factors helped Alvarez, of course. The fact Smith had taken the fight on four weeks’ notice was hardly ideal, nor was the fact the fight took place during a year in which the entire sport has been shrouded in uncertainty. Also, Canelo, unlike Smith, was coming off two great wins in 2019, against Danny Jacobs at middleweight and Sergey Kovalev at light-heavyweight, and possessed all the momentum the champion lacked, his career having soared to new heights since serving a six-month performance-enhancing drug ban in 2018 (for clenbuterol). These elements aided him throughout the Smith fight but were then superseded, in terms of deciding factors, by Canelo’s superior talent, punch power, hand speed, and head movement, all of which he used to dictate a contest far more one-sided than most expected.
If there was a round to give Smith, it was arguably the first. He was clearly the busier, at least for the first couple of minutes and at least in the sense of moving his hands and searching for openings. However, it was a mark of Alvarez’s composure, something developed during the course of 57 pro fights, that he was able to cajole and control the champion with his feet before demonstrating the stark difference in hand speed between them in the final minute of the round. He did this with a jab and a body shot, thrown one after the other, and his earlier toying with Smith only helped to highlight the difference in potency when Alvarez woke up.
Just as telling was the sight of Smith, though the taller man at 6ft 3ins (to Alvarez’s 5’8), surrendering his height advantage and also giving ground the moment Canelo, forever flat-footed, began to trudge forward and punch. This would happen regularly and throughout, more so when Smith began to tire, but was noticeable as early as the first round, at a time when it benefitted Smith to emphasise this advantage and create space.
Rather than move, Smith, 30, instead found himself lost at mid-range, then bullied when against the ropes. There, Canelo would slash away at his body with right hands and show no fear of retaliation. He found it easy to get there, too, owing to the fact Smith, as well as giving up his height, also appeared reluctant to snap out his jab or use the punch as a weapon with which to hurt Canelo or gain his respect.
In the second and third rounds, Smith got the jab working but threw it only in a pecking motion, exploring with it rather than doing much damage with it. This, at times, offered the impression of a coach testing the head movement of a boxer with a broom, making him bob and weave around and beneath it, as opposed to what we expected: the image of a champion needing to make an early dent in a pre-fight favourite. Being touched like this, little more than teased, allowed Canelo to take chances he was not so willing to take against men like Gennady Golovkin, or even Sergey Kovalev, and to stalk Smith until he was satisfied with both the range and the openings presented to him.
When these openings arrived, a well-picked right cross landed on Smith in the fourth round, as did a stabbing right cross to the body, which was then sent upstairs immediately after. Smith, in response, created angles and openings for shots of his own but was never able to match the intensity or venom behind the punches to which he was responding.
By the fifth, Canelo was starting to confidently move his head without any concern it might go wrong. Often, in fact, he would wait for Smith to reach with his punches, prodding and probing, and then use these shots as the obstacles around which he would dodge, duck and weave, always having fun with it. More than just elusive, there was an assuredness to Canelo’s work. He was convinced he would not make a mistake and just as sure he would not be in any sort of bother even if he did. He has perhaps never looked so comfortable under fire.
The moment Canelo himself opened up and returned fire, of course, it spelled danger – always. In the sixth, a big right hand from him flustered Smith, with a hook to the body thrown in for good measure, and Smith’s composure, usually impressive, threatened to desert him. To his credit, though, he regrouped, he moved away, and the Brit then produced some decent work with uppercuts, which he threw with both hands, and the occasional left jab.
Occasional was as good as it got. By halfway, it was apparent it was easier for Canelo to land his jab on a taller, upright target than it was for Smith to land his jab on a smaller, rolling target. Also apparent was how all the traits that had made Callum Smith such an enigmatic and appealing prospect and contender were likely going to contribute to his undoing at the highest level: his smoothness, his calmness, his all-round niceness. He was, for better or worse, comfortable in there, maybe too comfortable, and was stuck operating at the only pace he had ever needed when winning previous fights. This placid attitude and paucity of gears allowed Canelo to dominate the exchanges and routinely launch right hands at Smith’s body from mid-range, a shot normally deemed a risk, though from Alvarez thrown without hesitation. He was safe in there, after all. Relaxed. Unthreatened. At the end of the eighth round the pair even tapped gloves following a shot Smith landed on the bell, which was a nice touch, albeit from Smith’s perspective probably too nice; not so much politeness as acquiescence.
In the final third of the fight Canelo cruelly explored all the gears Smith lacked, landing a wild right in the ninth round, which had Smith lurching against the ropes, and also hurting him with an uppercut in the corner. By round 10, meanwhile, the two seemed almost the same height, with Smith’s legs no longer sturdy and his posture prone to collapsing against the ropes, where body shots would help to further reduce his stature and break his resolve.
If shrinking, both in size and as a threat, Smith, 27-1 (19), never came close to being stopped and would always do his best to give Alvarez, 54-1-2 (36), something to think about. Yet, in the end, with his nose broken and his left tricep injured, Smith’s work started to resemble that of a student attempting to replicate moves taught to him by a coach. It appeared correct, a fair impression, but, crucially, lacked the technique and conviction of someone who has been doing it a) at a high level and b) for as long as the master from whom the lesson is being learnt.
During a final clinch, Smith, eager for the lesson to be over, looked up at the arena clock. Then, with the bell a symphony, the dethroned champion was left looking up to Canelo Alvarez, their roles reversed, the distance between them shortened not only by a post-fight embrace but 12 one-sided rounds.
The Verdict A masterclass in every way from the best in the sport, Canelo Alvarez.