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Breaking down Canelo vs Kovalev

Canelo vs Kovalev
Hogan Photos/Golden Boy Promotions
Lee Wylie examines in depth the techniques and tactics that will come into play in the Canelo vs Kovalev WBO light-heavyweight title fight

THE CHAMPION
SERGEY KOVALEV is a dangerous boxer-puncher whose ring craft tends to get overlooked. He is mobile, athletic and intelligent – not stiff like some Eastern European boxers. His jab has been one of boxing’s most effective weapons for the better part of a decade. Thrown to the head and body, it disrupts the opponent’s balance and rhythm, dictates the range and tempo of a fight, and sets up the Russian’s potent right cross. Kovalev also likes to end combinations with the jab. For instance, by reversing the order of a traditional one-two and throwing the right cross with less weight behind it, he gains leverage for a more powerful jab. Technically, it is more of a left cross due to Sergey’s right shoulder being in front of his left before he throws it. Kovalev uses the two-one or one-two-one combination to take advantage of opponents who move straight back. Because a right cross is typically a finishing punch, the final straight left catches opponents off guard.

Adding to the effectiveness of Kovalev’s jab and cross is the way he plays them off each other to disguise each punch. One moment he is flashing a jab at the opponent’s face to hide the right hand coming behind it, the next he is faking with his right and then nailing the opponent with a stiff jab. Kovalev further deceives his rival by bringing his right shoulder closer to the target before throwing the cross. What this punch may lack in power, it makes up for in speed and directness. Sometimes if the opponent ducks under the cross, Kovalev quickly improvises and pushes down on the back of the opponent’s neck with his right forearm, which allows him to land a left hook to the body unimpeded.

Kovalev also crafts openings by deliberately throwing his right hand short of the mark and then stepping through with his back foot to build momentum for a straight left thrown from a southpaw stance. Sergey used this tactic, known as ‘shifting’, to good effect against Jean Pascal. Kovalev is equally adept at using feints to unlock an opponent’s defence, too. Most useful are his lead shoulder and foot feints, which he uses not only to keep opponents on edge (the threat of the jab alone can be enough to throw an opponent off his stride) but also to lure them into punches. Kovalev steps forward with his lead foot as if to throw a jab, hop-steps back to re-establish his range, and then catches the opponent while he is out of position.

Kovalev outsmarted and dropped Bernard Hopkins this way in the opening round of their fight – Sergey stepped in, stepped out, and then met Hopkins with a right hand as he came forward. Kovalev’s chopping right hand has led to many knockdowns and knockouts. It works best against shorter opponents and is something to watch out for during the fight.

Canelo vs Kovalev
Look out for the way Sergey Kovalev lands his right Mikey Williams/Top Rank

THE CHALLENGER
A SLICK technician with fast hands, cute defensive moves and an imaginative offence, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez is a dazzling boxer. And yet there is nothing flashy about his footwork. Providing the foundation from which he so often makes opponents miss and then makes them pay, it is purposeful and efficient. Canelo’s shuffling footwork (stepping forward with the front foot and then sliding the back foot up the same distance) keeps him balanced while advancing, and when combined with some crafty upper-body movement, deceives his rival at the same time. As he edges forward, Canelo routinely shifts his weight onto his front foot, then back again. But occasionally he throws a jab as his weight is on his front foot. Thus, whenever Canelo leans forward, the opponent cannot tell if he is going to jab from that position or not. This tactic enabled Canelo to outjab the notably taller Julio Cesar Chavez Jnr and Daniel Jacobs, whose game plans were to maximise their height and reach advantages. Also, by leaning forward at the waist, Canelo creates a false sense of distance and goads opponents to jab down at him, which leaves them vulnerable to counters off slips and up-jabs.

Canelo’s jab is less formidable than Kovalev’s, but it is a resourceful tool which he uses, among other things, to counter a jab after catching it in his right glove, or to coax return jabs so he can slip and counter them. Against James Kirkland, Canelo set up the fight-ending overhand right with a jab to the body. Likewise, Canelo uses a throwaway jab aimed at the opponent’s chest to set up a sweeping right hand to the body. For five rounds, Canelo conditioned Amir Khan with a right hand to the body before cleverly shifting his attack upstairs in the sixth – expecting another right to the body, Khan lowered his guard and left his chin exposed to the overhand right. Likewise, Canelo flamboyantly fakes with his right hand to get opponents ducking into his left uppercut. Miguel Cotto, with his forward-leaning posture, was especially susceptible to this technique. Canelo’s winding left hook has a similar effect – Canelo fakes as if to throw a left hook to the body, but then redirects the punch upstairs, snaking it around an unsuspecting opponent’s right glove.

Canelo vs Kovalev
Canelo Alvarez’s clever tactics outfoxed Amir Khan Tom Hogan/Golden Boy Promotions

Contrary to the typical ‘Mexican style’, Canelo is a defensive specialist, but one who uses his defence not just to avoid punches, but also to set up his offence. He is at his best inside the pocket, where he expertly catches, slips, ducks, or rolls with punches and then counters before the opponent can return to a defensive position. A timely half-step back, which makes the opponent fall short with an attack, also allows Canelo to stay in range and counter aggressively with both hands. Canelo wonderfully combines evasive movement from the waist with pivots to prevent an opponent from scoring with multiple jabs and taking an angle, and when finishing on his right hand, he proactively ducks and weaves out to his right to safely pass under the commonly thrown left hook counter. To say Canelo is difficult to hit cleanly would be an understatement. Even blows which appear to land flush have often been subtly rolled on closer inspection.

When it comes to creating and exploiting openings in the opponent’s defence through a series of well-placed punches, few are on Canelo’s level. He masterfully doubles up on his left hook to the head and body – the first hook thrown upstairs causes the opponent to instinctively raise his guard to protect his head, which exposes his lower right side and sets him up for a successive hook to the body. Often a mere tap with the left glove is enough to raise the opponent’s arm and pave the way for a hook to the body. Canelo varies not only his targets but also the weight of his punches when throwing combinations. One of Canelo’s favourite sequences is a six-three, where the first punch (a right uppercut) is a mere decoy thrown with less power to occupy the guard and gain leverage for a debilitating left hook to the liver. Like all great combination punchers, Canelo throws one punch to set the table for the next, teeing up hooks with uppercuts, and throwing straight punches between the gloves to pave the way for sweeping punches around the guard and vice versa.

HOW KOVALEV WINS

KOVALEV is essentially a long-range boxer, so for him to control and ultimately win this bout, he must push the pace behind the jab, keeping Canelo on the back foot, while maintaining enough distance not to smother himself or allow Canelo to get inside and work the body. “Krusher’s” vulnerability to body shots might be overstated, but Canelo will no doubt be targeting the older man’s midriff to take his legs away and slow him down. If you look at Canelo’s fights with Gennady Golovkin, the punch that gave him the most trouble was the Kazakh’s jab. In their first fight, “GGG” backed up Canelo with the jab. In the rematch, he used his jab defensively to keep Canelo at bay. So, if Kovalev intends to keep Canelo at arm’s length, the jab is crucial. On the other hand, Kovalev’s jab could inadvertently give Canelo, who is exceptional at slipping and countering, a clear route to the body. Therefore, Kovalev needs to feint and double up on his jab to disturb Canelo’s timing and stymie his counter-punching. Furthermore, Kovalev must not hesitate to throw his jab for fear of being countered. Instead, he must let it go without trepidation.

Canelo vs Kovalev
Kovalev must keep Canelo at range and away from attackning his midriff David Spagnolo/Main Events

Canelo’s head might prove difficult to hit, so Kovalev needs to jab what is available, aiming not just for the body, but the chest, arms, shoulders and even the top of the head if the chin is well-hidden. The same goes for throwing the right cross. Kovalev applied this logic in his last fight against Anthony Yarde, who boxed behind a raised lead shoulder and whose chin was not the easiest of targets. Kovalev’s two-one combination was very effective in that fight, and it could be in this one, especially since Canelo often shoulder rolls right hands. If he does this against Kovalev, he could accidentally move into the path of Kovalev’s straight left coming after the right hand.

Finishing on the jab also restores balance, which is vital for Kovalev as he cannot afford to be caught out of position against a counter-puncher the calibre of Canelo. Above all, Kovalev must not waste time and energy trying to take Canelo out with one punch. Instead, he must let his hands go freely and focus on winning the fight round by round.

HOW CANELO WINS

CANELO’S best chance of victory lies in getting inside Kovalev’s jab and then countering hard to the body. This way, he nullifies Kovalev’s biggest threat while exploiting arguably his most glaring weakness. Kovalev is unquestionably the bigger puncher, but Canelo’s sharper, more accurate body shots may prove more decisive. Kovalev mainly throws straight punches, so Canelo would be wise to slip inside the jab or outside the right hand and then take advantage of the opening with a left hook to the body. Canelo must be wary of Kovalev’s right hand when slipping inside the jab, but a left hook to the body following a slip to the left will reap the most success.

Canelo should not focus entirely on body punching, though. Besides, Kovalev might be so preoccupied with protecting his body that he leaves himself open up top. To vary his attack, Canelo should intermittently slip outside the jab and come back with a right cross. An overhand right following an inside slip is another excellent counter to a taller man’s jab (the overhand comes from a blind spot and passes over the jab). Canelo could also stifle the jab by taking his head off-centre (to the right) and jabbing with Kovalev, aiming for the bigger man’s chest. Canelo had some success doing this against “GGG” and Jacobs. Plus, Kovalev does not like to exchange and seldom counter-punches, so simultaneous jabbing may help break Sergey’s rhythm and force him to reset. Canelo is a counter-puncher first and foremost, but he can seize the initiative by getting off first or by punching with Kovalev.

Canelo vs Kovalev
Canelo is effective against bigger men Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

While Alvarez is the more complete boxer at close range, he cannot allow the bigger man to lean on him, which would eat away at his stamina. Kovalev fights at a fast pace and throws a lot of punches for an ageing fighter, whereas Canelo seems unable to fight full-throttle every round and has a relatively low punch output. Primarily, this is why he fights in spurts and goes to the ropes where he can rely on his superior defensive skills to make the opponent miss and waste energy. Therefore, whenever Canelo gets inside, he must let his hands go with abandon to prevent Kovalev from tying him up and putting his weight on him. He can also push off with his lead shoulder or press his head into Kovalev’s chest to foil any attempts of a clinch. Kovalev negated much of Andre Ward’s in-fighting during their first fight by tying him up, but when Ward’s arms were free, Kovalev was unable to defend his body.

As mentioned, Kovalev’s two-one combination could be a problem for Canelo, especially if he tries to deflect the right hand off his left shoulder or takes multiple steps back. Canelo would be wise to punctuate any slipping or rolling with a pivot to change the angle when counter-punching is not viable, but he could also use Kovalev’s two-one combination as a building block to get inside by pulling back from the right and then ducking under the follow-up left. A well-timed right hand to the body as Kovalev throws his left could be another solution to the problem. There are going to be times when Canelo must move laterally to keep his rival from setting his feet and lining up a target, but he should hold his feet, for the most part, to prevent Kovalev from gaining momentum and also to maximise his counter-punching ability.

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES

STEPPING up two weight classes is a bold move for Canelo, albeit a calculated one; Kovalev only fought a little over two months ago, and he is thought to be a fighter on the slide. Nevertheless, despite losing three of his last seven fights, Kovalev remains a very reputable light-heavyweight who has campaigned there his entire professional career. Canelo, on the other hand, can still comfortably make the middleweight limit of 160 pounds. Make no mistake, the difference in size between the two fighters is significant. Canelo has fought bigger opponents before, but none as big or as dangerous as Kovalev. Canelo will, however, enjoy a much-needed speed advantage over Kovalev, which is something Mikey Garcia lacked when he stepped up two weight classes to challenge Errol Spence Jnr earlier this year. One suspects Canelo will also hold an edge in perceptual speed over Kovalev.

Furthermore, while Alvarez is untested at 175, having fought just twice above 160 in bouts against Chavez and Rocky Fielding, it is not inconceivable to think that he might be just as physically strong as Kovalev. When Canelo boxed “GGG” and Jacobs on the front foot, staying tight defensively and capitalising on any loose punches, he was able to hold the centre of the ring and push them back. Should Canelo step to Kovalev, don’t be surprised if the bigger man yields. That being said, Kovalev’s persistent jab will make it difficult for Canelo to set his feet and not give ground.

If Canelo can punch with enough authority and frequency to discourage Kovalev, as well as withstand the blows of a natural, hard-hitting 175-pounder, expect Kovalev to fade in the second half of the fight and succumb to Alvarez’s body punching. If he can’t, then the bout may bear some similarity to Carlos Monzon against Jose Napoles, where the bigger man ultimately proved too strong and too powerful for his more skilful but naturally smaller opponent.

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