THE last time Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez ventured to light-heavyweight to take on a Russian, both the challenge and the world itself looked entirely different to the challenge and world he faces today.
Back then, in November 2019, the world had yet to cross paths with Covid-19 and Álvarez was therefore oblivious to the fact he was about to spend a year out of the ring. His focus, at the time, was solely on Sergey Kovalev, the aforementioned Russian light-heavyweight, and, before all future plans became futile, the idea was to use Kovalev’s WBO belt as evidence Álvarez had conquered three – later four – weight divisions (even if that belt was merely one piece of a messy whole). The hope, meanwhile, was that Kovalev had been sufficiently worn out and softened by other fights, and other opponents, to somewhat diminish the risk of moving up in weight.
This hope then became a reality when Kovalev, despite having his moments, faded in the fight and was eventually stopped by Álvarez, by far the smaller man, in the 11th round. With few expecting it to finish in such a way, this immediately became one of the signature wins of Álvarez’s career, a testament to both his desire to leave his comfort zone and his capacity to defuse the threat of larger men. It was also the last time we would see Álvarez as a light-heavyweight.
Until now, that is. Now, with the Kovalev win feeling like it happened a lifetime ago, Álvarez prepares to return to the light-heavyweight division this Saturday (May 7) against another Russian: Dmitry Bivol.
Like Kovalev before him, Bivol is a light-heavyweight who has been targeted specifically, following no small amount of research, and will have been selected only because Álvarez and his backers are confident his style suits the Mexican. Yet, intriguingly, whereas Kovalev was at the end of his career when invited to fight Álvarez, Bivol happens to be a man undefeated in 19 fights. He is, by contrast, relatively fresh. He is arguably, at 31, at his peak.
For these reasons and more, it could be argued Bivol represents a much greater risk than the previous one Álvarez took at light-heavyweight. Certainly, if assessing the fight’s overall risk, one can make a strong case for Bivol being a far less rewarding (and therefore riskier) adventure – should Álvarez win – than the one he shared with Kovalev in 2019.
For Kovalev, despite his advancing years, was a genuine star when he met Álvarez three years ago. He was a man whose scalp meant something to people; a man whose legacy had already been established. By virtue of him having seen better days, we knew for sure Kovalev had been places, experienced things, and beaten opponents we both recognised and respected. Get him at the right time, Álvarez realised, and his name was one worth adding to his record.
Of Bivol, on the other hand, we cannot say the same. To beat him would still be a fine achievement for Álvarez, especially given nobody has managed it so far, yet ultimately Bivol, this dark horse of a light-heavyweight, remains an unknown quantity. He has held a WBA belt since 2017 and defended it seven times, but each of these seven defences saw the 12th round (with only one stopped in that round) and were against, in truth, men Bivol was always expected to beat. He is therefore that worst kind of champion: someone efficient and well-schooled, yet lacking breakout wins and an X-factor (read: selling power).
This, for Álvarez, makes Bivol the very definition of high risk, low reward. For while on occasion he may flatter to deceive, and while his name may be familiar only to hardcore fans, Bivol remains a well-oiled machine, someone with a knack for winning, and a light-heavyweight machine at that. In other words, though of course losing would be a disaster, even if Álvarez ends up beating Bivol he will likely receive a fraction of the fanfare he received for beating Kovalev, his previous Russian light-heavyweight victim in 2019, and arguably, too, a fraction of the credit he received for beating the super-middleweights he put to the sword more recently. Such is boxing, I guess.
But the reality here is that Bivol, irrespective of his economical and sometimes dull approach, offers more of a threat than anyone Álvarez has faced since Kovalev. He has more tools in his toolkit than the likes of Caleb Plant, Billy Joe Saunders and Callum Smith, all of whom were also unbeaten before meeting Álvarez, and, as a bona fide light-heavyweight, carries a physical presence those three lacked when going toe-to-toe with the Mexican. These elements alone make him a danger, but added to all that is the fact that Bivol has been a man easy to overlook and ignore; a silent assassin, if you will. Unknown in both the best and worst ways, he won’t be bringing to this fight the chat and hype of Plant or Saunders, which, in turn, makes him not only a mystery but means victory for Álvarez, should he get it, won’t mean as much in the eyes of some.
Boxing, after all, has never been more driven by perception than it is today. It’s what funds it. It’s what ultimately endures. With Álvarez, the pre-fight perception created by opponents like Plant and Saunders far outweighed their eventual performances, making the triumph – his triumph – more impressive than it perhaps should have been. Here, though, Bivol, whether due to the language barrier or his low-key personality, has been unable to create any sort of dynamic with Álvarez, so, to the wider world, enters this fight as merely ‘another opponent’. Those in the know will know he is considerably more than that, of course, but again, often perception reigns, both in a sport like boxing and in a world like the one we have today.
Speaking of which, the perception of Saúl ‘Canelo’ Álvarez in 2022 is an interesting one to consider. At 31, he is, without question, a man in his athletic prime and appears to be getting bigger and better with each and every outing. He is refreshingly active for a fighter so rich and famous and, better yet, is fighting opponents fans actually want to see him fight. There is even a sense, due to this attitude, that when all is said and done he will have maximised every ounce of his talent, fought every possible rival, and picked up every available title. No mean feat in a sport like boxing. He just has that kind of drive; that kind of ambition.
Yet, in the same way that all that glitters is not gold, Canelo Álvarez is not beyond scrutiny, nor criticism. His two fights against Gennady Golovkin, for starters, could easily have resulted in two losses for the Mexican, as opposed to the draw and win that currently appear on and enhance his record. We also have to try to ignore the fact that clenbuterol showed up on one of his performance-enhancing drug tests in 2018 (for which he served a six-month ban), just six months before battling Golovkin in the rematch, every time we watch him in the ring and find ourselves awestruck by his ability to soar through the weights and physically dominate bigger men.
Still, these details are fading with time, as often they do. They will continue to fade, too, should Álvarez win yet another title as a light-heavyweight this weekend and then, as planned, engage Golovkin, his great rival, in a third fight later this year. That, one suspects, will be ideal for Álvarez, what with Golovkin now 40 years of age – nine years Álvarez’ senior – and plainly, while still thriving, not the force of old. It will give him the opportunity to score the conclusive win over the Kazakh that has so far eluded him and it will, eventually, remove all context from a rivalry some will argue should have been something different entirely.
Again, though, that’s perception for you. All that matters, in the end, is what appears on paper and Álvarez, 57-1-2 (37), is a perfect example of this. On paper, his achievements cannot be disputed, nor downplayed. He is not only as good as it gets right now but, on fight night, invariably exhibits the kind of talent that would have been a match for any fighter in any era. To look at him, particularly of late, is to see a boxer with the uncanny ability to throw every punch in the book, at any possible time, yet be able to take control of a fight without actually having to throw a punch. Almost unfairly, whereas the panic and sense of urgency increases in the mind of his opponent, for Álvarez everything in the ring appears to slow down, and time, for him, appears to almost stop.
Whatever it is that creates this other dimension for Álvarez, it clearly works. It could be God-given talent, it could be experience (he turned pro at 15), or it could simply be attributed to his preparation. But what is significantly easier to understand and say is that Álvarez has, over the years, become this wonderful and rare combination of élite-level fighter and all-action entertainer. He has not, as was the case with some of his predecessors, relied on a safety-first approach to both matchmaking and navigating his way through fights but has evolved instead into somebody whose fan-friendly approach to the sport has absolved past transgressions. Genius, really.
Because, apparently, a fighter easy to love is a fighter easy to forgive and Álvarez, who has not registered another positive drug test since 2018, is certainly loved right now. He is loved by the sport’s promoters. He is loved by its officials. He is loved by the fans. He is even loved by opponents, many of whom view the chance to box him as the end-of-the-rainbow pot of gold they have been waiting for.
Bivol, the next one, could be different. Or he could be the same. The assumption, though, is that a man whose talking has been done predominantly inside the ring, with his fists, will at least bring to this fight against Álvarez the integrity and conviction it both requires and deserves.
“I believe in my abilities,” said Bivol, 19-0 (11), ahead of it. “Every time I enter the ring, I believe I can beat my opponent. Why can’t I beat him? Of course, he has a lot of fans and he’s more popular than me, but he is still just a man and he fights at a lower weight than me. He has power, but I have power, too. He has good skills, but my skills are also good.”
Rest assured, nothing Dmitry Bivol has said before this fight has been untrue. Nor, for that matter, has it been anything that wasn’t said by someone else before him. That’s just seemingly the way it goes in the Canelo Álvarez business. You say the right things, and perhaps even believe them, only for the reality of the situation, on fight night, to all of a sudden make lies of what was initially your truth.
This says more about Álvarez’s staggering rate of improvement, as well his all-round ability, than it does his opponent’s honesty, or lack thereof. It is also something a studious, patient and measured type like Bivol will not need to be told. No doubt he will have watched with interest others before him talk a good fight only to then deliver quite the opposite when the time to fight arrived. He will know, because of this, not to reveal his hand, or overstep the mark, or offer Álvarez a comment he can later use as fuel. He will know that in a world of chaos, confusion and illusion often the greatest weapon is something that, to him, comes quite naturally: silence.