On Saturday night, in front of a rip-roaring capacity crowd at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas (that was soon left in stupefied silence), global boxing megastar Saul “Canelo” Alvarez returned to the ring against Dmitry Bivol.
The bout, billed as Legacy Is Earned, saw the undisputed super-middleweight champion step back up to the light heavyweight class, in his latest pursuit to cement his position as pugilism’s preeminent practitioner.
Canelo was expected to do as Canelo does, which is come, see, and conquer. Except boxing is the theatre of the unexpected, of course, and that’s precisely what we got: the unexpected.
In one of the most notable upsets in recent memory, Bivol used his crafty footwork, rapier-sharp jab, slick combinations, and a tight, disciplined gameplan to not only score a stunning unanimous decision victory over the freckled favourite but retain his 175-pound title.
Was it a case of Canelo finally biting off more than he could chew? His reach exceeding his grasp? Ambition getting the best of him? Bivol being too big, too strong, too composed, and just too damn good?
How about all of the above?
Regardless of the unanticipated result, we maintain that Canelo is still the best thing going in boxing today. Period. In case you require any reassurance after this weekend’s shocker, here are four reasons why.
Reigniting a rich Mexican tradition
Ever since boxing-mad Mexico crowned its first world champion in 1913, literally hundreds of titlists representing the vertical tricolour of green, white, and red have exhilarated fight fans worldwide in scores of sizzling slugfests.
Kid Azteca. Vicente Saldivar. Ruben Olivares. Carlos Zarate. Salvador Sanchez. Julio Cesar Chavez. The triumvirate of Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez.
These are a mere handful of the iconic names who have earned the highest praise a Mexican fighter can hope to attain: warrior. They are also some of the men responsible for popularizing what is dubbed “Mexican style.”
The term describes an ultra-aggressive approach based on crowd-pleasing constant pressure and delivering all-out attacks at the expense of defence. It places courage, heart, endurance, and usually the promise of pure fireworks first.
For Canelo, however, boxing has never been about going in there to trade, to give, and take, or to get knocked down and get back up.
His version of “Mexican style” is predicated on working the jab to his advantage. It’s about scoring combinations and finishing with hooks, feinting and using the ropes, breathtaking head movement, counterpunching, knowing when to step forward and when to retreat, hitting, and not being hit. Yes, when they squared off, Bivol may have had all the solutions to the Guadalajara native’s own south-of-the-border spin on the sweet science, which was a little too uncharacteristically focused on arm-punching and loading up with power shots.
But nevertheless, hailing from a land of legends, Canelo has carried his nation’s standard, his way.
That still counts for something.
Unlike in decades gone by, the majority of marquee boxers at the moment don’t ply their trade as much as they should. Beyond stunting their development, it restricts their bankability. It’s nearly impossible to become a headline attraction when you mix it up so infrequently, let alone build yourself up as a recognized entity.
Canelo is wired differently. He treats boxing as a full-time job.
In 11 months – from December 2020 to November 2021 – he frogmarched the 168-lbs. division, achieving his goal of becoming its first undisputed champion.
Canelo routed Callum Smith for the WBA and WBC titles. He demolished Avni Yildirim in a mandatory defence. He broke Billy Joe Saunders’ eye socket to take his WBO belt. Then he knocked out Caleb Plant to secure the IBF strap.
Don’t expect a lengthy layoff before he goes straight after Bivol again, either. He seems keen on executing his rematch clause. This relentless spell of activity isn’t just atypical in the modern era, it’s practically unheard of.
As quick-witted scribe Steve Kim has put it, these days, plenty of pugs act as if simply having an army of social media followers is enough. But really, the best form of marketing for a boxer is – get this – actually fighting.
Canelo appears to have received the memo.
Became the best by beating the best
Before Bivol beat him, the general consensus in the boxing world was that Canelo had separated himself from the pack as the best pound-for-pound boxer on the planet. He didn’t reach that lofty perch atop the sport on his talent by itself.
Look at his resume:
He fought through “Sugar” Shane Mosley, Austin Trout, Erislandy Lara, Miguel Cotto, Amir Khan, Gennadiy Golovkin (twice), Daniel Jacobs, Sergey Kovalev, Callum Smith, Billy Joe Saunders, and Caleb Plant. He’s earned wins against Alfredo Angulo, James Kirkland, and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., too.
Canelo had defeated 16 champions. Several would argue it’s 18 if you factor in the secondary titles he scooped from Trout and Rocky Fielding.
Maybe you think he was given the benefit of the doubt in a few close decisions. Or maybe you think he tilted things in his favour once or twice with a convenient catchweight. That’s fair. Still, notwithstanding his clear loss to Floyd Mayweather in 2013, it was the most captivating run in contemporary boxing.
Will he be able to duplicate it on the comeback trail? You can bet he’ll try.
Legacy over lucrativity
It is believed that Canelo will collect a guaranteed $15 million for the Bivol fight, in addition to claiming 70 percent of pay-per-view sales. Coupled with gate revenue, he is expected to pocket around $53 million for his efforts. Not a bad consolation prize.
The haul would build on the $225 million he has reportedly already raked in throughout his career, a total bolstered by lucrative endorsements with Under Armor, Everlast, Tecate, and Hennessy.
It’s impressive but incidental. Although he makes a ton of it, the cash stopped being a primary concern long ago. Canelo is out for history.
He is the first undisputed four-belt super-middleweight world champion — and the first Mexican to reign undisputed in a division. All told, he’s won championships at 154, 160, 168 and 175 lbs. In two of those weight categories, he was lineal, meaning he was the man who beat the man.
Long-term, losing to Bivol shouldn’t derail his mission. Just reroute it a bit.
The odds are he will continue setting his sights on the all-time boxing attendance record in a Mexican homecoming matchup one day soon.
And that multi-fight masterplan he had spoken of to establish himself as the greatest to ever lace a pair of gloves? The one that included finally vanquishing Golovkin? That included going for undisputed honours at light heavyweight against the winner of the upcoming clash between Artur Beterbiev and Joe Smith Jr? That included competing for a title at cruiserweight? That even included potentially challenging unified heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk?
Forget Usyk, but the rest remains in the realm of possibility, presuming he can obtain retribution in a second encounter with Bivol.
Right now, the question about that prospective second encounter is: will it be a repeat or revenge?