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The humbling of Canelo Alvarez

Canelo-Bivol
Ed Mulholland/Matchroom
Canelo Alvarez is out of ideas, outsized and thoroughly outboxed by brilliant Dmitry Bivol who is almost undone by unfathomable judging. Declan Warrington reports from Las Vegas

WHENEVER the day comes for Canelo Alvarez to retire, his one-sided defeat by Dmitry Bivol risks ensuring that instead of being seen as truly special he is regarded, more simply, as very good. Vasiliy Lomachenko preceded Alvarez as the world’s leading fighter, and if he never fights again he will, like his predecessors Floyd Mayweather Jnr and Manny Pacquiao, be remembered among the very best. Alvarez, however, can realistically only join them by swiftly avenging his defeat by Bivol and, while realism is becoming less essential to the art of matchmaking, a rematch is not a fight he should take. 

His admirable recovery from losing equally convincingly to Mayweather in 2013 will ultimately define his career – his greatest strength has proved to be his ability to learn from a variety of quality opponents and therefore to continue evolving, just as his ambition and self-belief has continued to develop.  

Alvarez is also wired such that unless the punishment inflicted by Bivol has brought his prime to a marginally premature end, the Russian will also have taught him even more about timing, and distance. Yet no number of fights at 175lbs will ever make him a true light-heavyweight, and so if he wishes to continue fighting the very best then he will have to again move down in weight.

The physical advantages that contributed to Bivol’s victory were complemented by his confident tactics and that was ultimately too much for Alvarez to negate. For even the most cultured, intelligent and experienced of fighters, Bivol’s schooling and dimensions were insurmountable.

As also once happened against Mayweather, but in a significantly less humbling manner, Alvarez was exposed as a fighter who had run out of ideas. Against another leading light-heavyweight, Bivol’s compatriot Artur Beterbiev, there is every chance the Mexican would even have been stopped.

The first of those ideas had succeeded against Callum Smith in 2020, and involved Alvarez targeting Bivol’s arms from the first round in an attempt to gradually nullify his 72ins reach. Bivol, the WBA belt-holder, leading with his jab and a more consistent work ethic, regardless succeeded with both eye-catching and accurate combinations, leaving Alvarez’s typically pale face a shade of red.

His height and range, which had been as noticeable when they weighed in as it was before the opening bell, also proved influential in the second when he forced the normally patient Mexican to fight at an increased pace. Alvarez landed not only an uppercut towards the ropes and two strong body punches, he then responded to another effective combination by landing a similarly strong right hand. The same output against so many previous opponents would at least have encouraged him, but as Bivol had throughout the opening round, he showed a capacity to absorb his power.

Canelo Alvarez vs Dmitry Bivol
Ed Mulholland/Matchroom

Each fighter had already stopped prioritising their characteristic attempts to measure and read each other, and they similarly showed an increased willingness to engage and commitment to their approach. Bivol combined periods of being judicious with successful flurries that not only stopped his opponent from advancing but forced him to think, to such an extent that to an unbiased judge by the end of the fourth it was clear he was building a promising lead.

Alvarez’s desire to rely on fewer, more powerful punches was contributing, but there were also brief moments when Bivol looked hurt and when it appeared the Mexican’s approach would gradually slow him down. The swelling that started to appear under Bivol’s eye from the fifth would have given Alvarez similar encouragement, but he just as quickly showed unfamiliar early signs of fatigue. 

Bivol again succeeded in penetrating his usually sound defence with a combination on the ropes that hurt Alvarez more than anyone since Sergey Kovalev, also at 175lbs. When in a show of bravado he dropped his hands to convince Bivol, referee Russell Mora and the three ringside judges that he hadn’t been hurt he was unconvincing; he then landed a single right hand and neglected targeting Bivol’s body, almost certainly because he was in more pain than he wanted to admit.

When it suited him Bivol slowed the pace at which they were fighting and remained sufficiently composed when so many other rivals might have taken risks. With Alvarez backed into a corner, waiting and watching him, the Russian showed patience instead of throwing when his opponent expected, in what instead provided a brief moment for Alvarez to rest.

Bivol’s feints and ability to dictate the range at which they fought continued to trouble the Mexican, who after another combination on the ropes started showing swelling under his left eye and further signs of frustration. He also again looked tired after exchanges that ended with Bivol somehow remaining fresh. 

When Canelo emerged for the eighth he did so with both increased swelling around his right eye and the most negative body language he has shown since fighting Mayweather. Under pressure as Bivol continued to land jabs and straight rights through his guard and less mobile than he has shown when lighter, as he attempted to fight in close he slumped to his knees, a sign of how much he was tiring.

Regardless his finest round unexpectedly followed. Demonstrating renewed energy and aggression, improved upper-body and head movement he resisted Bivol’s punches and repeatedly succeeded landing powerful, single shots when the Russian found himself on the ropes. The sense of momentum he had discovered, and the belief that he was finally forcing Bivol into a test of physicality, were sufficiently effective that that largely pro-Alvarez crowd that had long been quiet were brought to their feet.

Bivol’s biggest challenge appeared set to follow, and yet it transpired that after his efforts Alvarez had nothing left to give. He started the 10th with intent and throwing punches but, in a moment that captured the nature of his struggles he retreated to where he expected to be out of range and found himself again being caught. 

Alvarez – like all but his most optimistic followers – knew by that point that defeat was inevitable, and from then until the final bell it increasingly showed. Bivol continued to mostly defend himself and absorb what Alvarez had to offer. After he landed successive left hands in the 11th, in a further sign of frustration Alvarez ducked under a third and lifted him over his shoulder. 

An even more one-sided final round was to follow. Bivol’s increased aggression and consideration of forcing a stoppage showed a mistrust of the judges that proved more essential than it should have. He was awarded a unanimous decision via three scores of 115-113, which meant that losing that final round would instead have ensured a draw. Equally deplorable was Tim Cheatham, Dave Moretti and Steve Weisfeld each awarding Alvarez the first four rounds; Boxing News’ scorecard had read 118-110. 

Speaking from the ring immediately afterwards Alvarez recognised, as he had while the fight was unfolding, that he had lost, but in the interval between then and his post-fight press conference – even as the Mexican fighter and attraction in Vegas against, of all nationalities, a Russian on Cinco de Mayo weekend – he had become convinced the wildly generous judging was wrong.

“He’s a great champion,” the 31-year-old, from Guadalajara, had said earlier. “Sometimes in boxing you lose. I lost today and he won. He’s a really good fighter; he manages distance very well, and he has a good jab. I also felt his power. No excuses. He’s just a great fighter.”

“I lost maybe four or five rounds, but I definitely didn’t lose the fight,” he later claimed, and from behind sunglasses that masked the swelling around his eyes. “Maybe the weight was a slight issue that made me feel not 100 per cent.” 

That his trainer Eddy Reynoso – one week after overseeing Oscar Valdez’s one-sided defeat by Shakur Stevenson and having also likely approved the selection of Bivol as his latest opponent – spoke similarly perhaps explained his dramatic change of stance. 

“We want that rematch,” Reynoso said. “We didn’t lose that fight; just some rounds. We want that rematch to see what we can do better. Saul is a winner and will come back stronger.”

Alvarez is, and Alvarez may, but if he does it won’t be against Bivol. Overlooking his few limitations would be as complacent as him so willingly and regularly speaking about Gennadiy Golovkin at the expense of Bivol, who so impressively undermined the agreement that was in place for Alvarez-Golovkin III. 

“I was a little bit shocked when I heard 115-113,” said Bivol, also 31. “I thought: ‘Maybe I lost today’. I thought I won but everything was against me. Then, at the end, even Eddie Hearn was congratulating me. He was smiling, he was happy for me, but not too much.”

A rematch remains the likeliest outcome on the basis not only of Alvarez’s hunger but the fact the Mexican would again present the titlist with another career-high purse. In the coming days he will fly home to see his family in St Petersburg, having fought with them as absent as his country’s flag and national anthem.

“My family are in Russia now and I didn’t speak to them yet,” he added. “My wife doesn’t watch my fights, my mother doesn’t watch my fights – ever. I don’t want them to see me fight. After the fight is over they can watch it.” So masterful a performance will regardless transform their lives as much as his. 

An unremarkable undercard on what will be remembered as a both remarkable and dramatic evening was led by Montana Love, of Cleveland, Ohio, earning a unanimous decision at super-lightweight against Gabriel Gollaz Valenzuela, also of Guadalajara. They exchanged knockdowns in the opening two rounds, first when Love landed a right hook, and then in the second when Gollaz Valenzuela threw an overhand right.

Complemented by referee Tony Weeks, the three judges Eric Cheek, Max DeLuca and Patricia Morse Jarman each awarded Love scores of 114-112. 

Another Guadalajara native, the welterweight Christian Gomez, convincingly lost to Shakhram Giyasov of Bukhara, Uzbekistan over 10 rounds. He first went down in the fourth, owing to a hurtful left hook; a counter right uppercut followed him in the seventh, and after another uppercut in the 10th under the supervision of Kenny Bayless, judges Lisa Glampa, David Sutherland and Don Trella awarded respective scores of 99-88, 98-89, and 99-88. 

Marc Castro, of Fresno, California, defeated Puerto Rican Pedro Vicente Scharbaai over six rounds at lightweight. His accuracy ensured three scores of 60-54 from Cheek, DeLuca and Morse Jarman, but that he fought without urgency meant his opponent, from Mayaguez, was rarely hurt and that referee Celestine Ruiz needn’t intervene.

In the absence of the popular heavyweight Filip Hrgovic, who withdrew from fighting Zhang Zhilel after the death of his father, the crude Zhang, from Zhoukou, China, stopped late replacement Scott Alexander 1-54 into the first round. A straight left forced the heavy knockdown in front of referee Robert Hoyle, after which Los Angeles’ Alexander was helped to his stool.

Joselito Velazquez, the flyweight from Oaxaca, Mexico, forced the intervention of referee Mike Ortega 64 seconds into the sixth of his scheduled 10 rounds against Jose Soto of Barranquilla, Colombia, when Soto struggled to recover after going down following a strong left hand. There was also a stoppage victory for super-middleweight Aaron Silva of Monterrey, Mexico, 76 seconds into the fourth of his eight-round fight against Vegas’ Alexis Espino, who was struggling to defend himself when Ruiz intervened.

Miami-based Cuban Manuel Correa suffered his first defeat after 2-38 of the second round of his super featherweight fight with Elnur Abduraimov, from Gazalkent, Uzbekistan and living in New York, when Hoyle was again the referee. The evening had started more encouragingly for those from Guadalajara, when another local fighter, Fernando Angel Molina, earned a split decision over six rounds at super-lightweight with San Diego’s Ricardo Valdovinos overseen by Ortega. Kermit Bayless, Cheek and Trella awarded respective scores of 57-56, 58-56 and 56-57. 

The Verdict Alvarez will respond impressively if he returns to 168lbs.

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