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Canelo vs Kovalev revisited: A study into the mind of a Mexican boxing legend

Canelo Alvarez
Steve Marcus/Getty Images
Prior to fighting Sergey Kovalev, Canelo Álvarez observed, 'It’s a challenge. But I won’t know how big a challenge until I get in the ring with him.' By Thomas Hauser

ON November 2, 2019, Canelo Álvarez and Sergey Kovalev met in the ring at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas to do battle for the World Boxing Organization 175-pound title.

Canelo’s credentials are a matter of record. At age 29, he was boxing’s biggest star and the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Early in his career, his red hair had been a much-publicised marketing tool. And because of that, some people were slow to give him his due as a fighter. It was also fashionable in some circles to demean Canelo because his power is sometimes overshadowed by his finesse. This, critics said, was 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 spoke to the same point, saying, “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.”

Elite fighters have self-belief. Canelo believes in himself and radiates quiet confidence without the loud bravado often associated with boxing. He has the mindset of a fighter and is fundamentally sound with speed, power, and a solid chin. When speaking in public, he chooses his words carefully and keeps his guard up in interviews as he does in the ring.

Prior to fighting Kovalev, Canelo had compiled a 51-1-2 ring ledger. One of the draws came when he was 15 years old. The other was against Gennady Golovkin. The loss was to Floyd Mayweather when Mayweather was at his peak and Canelo had yet to mature as a fighter. He has worked hard to get better and tested himself at every level. He embraces challenges.

Initially, it was expected that Canelo would again fight Golovkin in Las Vegas on September 14 in conjunction with Mexican Independence Day weekend. But bad blood between the two camps led Canelo to seek another opponent. That left DAZN, which had invested a reported $465 million in multi-bout contracts with the two fighters, in a quandry. DAZN needed a marketable opponent for Canelo, who was its flagship attraction. The nod went to Kovalev.

Kovalev came into the promotion 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 judge’s 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 earlier. 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 Elieder Álvarez. He later decisioned Edieder but struggled to defeat Anthony Yarde in August 2019.

Canelo, who had grown comfortable at 160 pounds during the preceding two years, would be moving up two weight classes to challenge Kovalev. To his credit, he did not demand a catchweight.

The promotion was about Canelo. The storyline wasn’t whether the 36-year-old Kovalev could withstand the challenge from his 29-year-old opponent. Nor was it a defining fight for boxing’s light-heavyweight division. But it would be a defining fight for Canelo.

Canelo was a 7/2 betting favorite. The case for an upset rested in large measure on the size differential between the two men. Canelo had turned pro at 139 pounds. Kovalev 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 hit harder than anyone Canelo had fought before, with the possible exception of Golovkin. And how effective would Canelo’s punches be against a man who was bigger than anyone he’d 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 had been known to wilt when his body was effectively attacked. Canelo had “man strength” now, coupled with a ferocious body attack. And the 175-pound contract weight was a double-edged sword, as revealed by the interviews that the fighters engaged in two days before the bout.

Canelo Alvarez v Sergey Kovalev light-heavyweight

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.

“Sí,” 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 174-½ pounds; Kovalev 176.

Sergey removed the crucifix from around his neck . . . 175-½.

He took off his shorts . . . 175-¼.

He excused himself, went to the restroom, vomited, and returned to the scale . . . 175.

★ ★ ★

Canelo Álvarez arrived in his dressing room on fight night at 6:35pm. 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 14 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 García, who would fight Romero Duno for a minor WBC title in the next-to-last bout of the evening, was already there. García 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 (Eddy’s father and Canelo’s longtime manager) sat beside him.

García 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 had 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 10 losses – an all-too-common end game for a once-great fighter. One of Mosley’s losses was a lopsided decision defeat to Canelo.

García started warming up.

Canelo watched as a bloody bout between Seniesa Estrada and Marlen Esparza unfolded on the television in front of him.

At 7.35pm, 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 García hitting the pads with Eddy Reynoso resonated through the room. Then Eddy began wrapping Canelo’s hands.
The bloody mask that was Marlen Esparza’s face grew bloodier. After nine rounds, the fight was stopped.

A cape was draped over Ryan García’s shoulders.

“Looking good,” Canelo exhorted.

Then Canelo’s two year-old daughter (Mariá Fernanda) and infant son (Adiel) were brought into the room. This was Mariá’s fourth pre-fight dressing room experience with her father. Her first appearance had been at Canelo-Golovkin II when she wasn’t old enough to walk. Now she was able navigate her way around the room on her own.

“Papa!” Mariá Fernanda cried out as she rushed toward him.

Father and daughter embraced.

Then Mariá Fernanda examined her father’s hands and announced that she wanted her hands to look like papa’s.

Canelo put a strip of tape on her hand.

Mariá 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 Álvarez 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 García left the room with Eddy Reynoso at his side for what was expected to be the biggest challenge of his ring career.
Mariá 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. Mariá Fernanda climbed on top of his chest and kissed him. Then, while physical conditioner Munir Somoya stretched Canelo’s legs one at a time, Mariá Fernanda simultaneously tugged on the other.

A loud “OOOH!” resounded through the room. Ryan García had scored a devastating first-round knockout.

Canelo stopped stretching and looked at the television to watch a 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. García 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 García 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.”

García 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. 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 García-Duno and the start of Canelo-Kovalev, which wouldn’t begin until 10.18pm (1.18am 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 2am 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 minimises 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, 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.

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. In a matter of minutes, he would climb into a small enclosure that was both a stage and a cage. Seventeen thousand people in the arena would be focused on his every move. Millions more would be watching around the world. Most would be rooting for him to succeed. Some would hope that he was beaten into unconsciousness. Only a handful would see or feel the humanity in him. He’d be a symbol, a commodity, an action video game figure come to life. That’s all.

If Canelo were to be knocked flat on his back, he’d find himself staring up at the cupola of the video board suspended above the ring. The inside of the cupola is black, as dark as the nighttime sky when the moon and stars are in hiding. The referee would flash fingers in his face. Optimally, he’d recognise the numbers from the start of the count. If the first number he heard was “seven,” he’d be in trouble. As he rose, the black above would give way to a swirling image of the crowd. The roar would be deafening.

He wouldn’t think about whether or not he was fit to continue. It wasn’t his job to assess that. Maybe he’d be hurt. Hurt as in physical pain. Or worse, hurt as in being unable to fully control his body. If the referee asked, “Are you all right? Do you want to continue?” he’d answer “yes” even though some part of his mind and body – his instinct for self-preservation – might be shouting “No!”

If the fight continued, the same man who’d knocked him down would try to destroy him. The roar of the crowd wouldn’t stop. Canelo would be in the fire. And when it was over, the people who’d been watching would go on with their lives. They might talk about the fight, but they wouldn’t have bumps and bruises and swelling and pain. If their thoughts were fuzzy, it would be from too many beers, not punches they’d taken.

Canelo had never been knocked down in his ring career. But he knew what he’d done to other fighters. Could it happen to him? Of course, it could.

Canelo Alvarez
Tom Hogan/Hogan Photos/Golden Boy

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 10.

Round 11 – Canelo in control again.

BOOM!!!

With 53 seconds left in round 11, 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 rendered him senseless with his upper body draped over the lower ring strand. There was no need to count, and referee Russell Mora didn’t.

Canelo hadn’t needed a knockout to win. But he needed a knockout to make his point. And he got it.

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.” When asked, as he often is, to compare himself with Julio César Chávez (Mexico’s most storied ring icon), Canelo has said again and again, “I want to make my own history.”

He’s doing just that. Canelo might not be as beloved as Chavez in his native Mexico. But he’s starting to look like the better fighter. He’s also continuing to build his legacy the way a fighter’s legacy should be built. Not by self-aggrandising talk but by deeds in the ring, one fight at a time.

Canelo

Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honoured Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honour – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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