Alfredo Angulo, crestfallen, wore the pain of the decision on his badly misshapen face, and almost every boxing fan watching at that moment – whether in the ring, or ringside, in the “cheap” seats or the lower bowl, at a bar or at home, in Las Vegas, Mexico, Middle America, or at a movie theater like I was – carried its considerable, uneasy weight in his or her gut. In a well-anticipated pay-per-view main event pitting the relentless but relatable, self-styled underdog Angulo – nicknamed “El Perro” in case that identity wasn’t obvious enough – against slightly tarnished, by no less than Floyd Mayweather, Mexican matinee idol Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. The blunt instrument Angulo, at the end of a night in which he could hardly get out of his own way let alone that of his razor sharp and clearly driven opponent, lost the biggest fight of his career in the tenth round, and what had previously been a joyous, charmingly bipartisan, largely Mexican crowd filled Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena with non-stop, torrential disapproval in response.
Make no mistake, the night and this fight both belonged in full to Alvarez, who, building off the groundswell of love/mania he already inspires in Mexican boxing fans (easily the sport’s most dependably passionate, along with those from the United Kingdom), has been groomed and pushed by Golden Boy Promotions as the next great North American PPV star. After Canelo’s barely tapped but highly specific star power combined with Mayweather’s established supernova to produce his first loss but also the richest total gate in boxing history last September, the pressure was on for him to rebound in a big way, reestablish some momentum, and deliver emphatically in his first PPV as an unquestioned headliner. Canelo responded like a man with an empire to lose, which to some degree was the truth. The 32-year-old Angulo, a face-first Mexican warrior straight out of central casting, was selected as Canelo’s comeback partner in large part for his predictability. He is a thudding pressure fighter capable only of linear movement, with palpable power, minimal head movement and negligible defense, the kind of fearless, determined pug who practically guarantees exciting fights by his mere presence, and the sort of rugged but stationary target that could make an incomplete but talented pro like Alvarez look like a superstar again.
Styles make fights as they say, and Alvarez not only memorized the script beforehand but raced pages ahead thrillingly, dispatching jackhammer lefts and rights to his opponent that sounded upon impact like they had been mixed for a Hollywood action blockbuster. Round after round, pummeling jabs and vicious hooks whizzed past, around and through Angulo’s porous defense with vicious intent and results. Canelo’s speed advantage was evident, and appreciable. El Perro, already known as a plodder and chronic slow starter, seemed stuck in quicksand, could never gain the initiative or the forward momentum that had so often been his catalyst for victory, and simply could not get off his punches, particularly his potentially game-changing left hook, with any leverage. Angulo’s trainer, recent BWAA trainer of the year (for his work with Andre Ward) Virgil Hunter, spent the first seven rounds imploring his man to wake up, to dig in, to fight back, to be the “Perro” that fans knew and loved, but to no true avail. Angulo, who has no quit in him, tried to respond, and he did push Alvarez a decent bit even if he never particularly threatened him, possibly even stealing a middle round or two, but no more. His punches had no pop, but he never stopped throwing. Angulo threw hundreds more punches than did Alvarez, but Canelo landed at a much higher connect rate, and everyone could see that his punches landed with visceral effect. You heard them; you practically felt them. Sometimes you winced.
It was a clinic, comparable if not better than Canelo’s signature win over Austin Trout last year. But Trout was a slick boxer who gave Alvarez angles and various problems to solve, whereas this was a spirited rout, if not an outright beat down. Before the tenth round, Hunter, with whom Angulo has professed to feeling a father-son bond (Angulo’s own father died when the child was five), informed his charge that if Alvarez landed one more of his thudding, precision combinations, he, Hunter, would stop the fight, in effect saving Angulo from his own reckless, indefatigable in-ring courage. Referee Tony Weeks, among the best in the business, seemed to spend a couple of rounds doing his own pointed study of Angulo. The tenth began and predictably followed suit. Angulo, who had faded following something of a mid-rounds rally, was immediately swallowed up by Canelo’s offense, but never stopped returning fire. As the tenth ticked down to under a minute remaining, the two squared off center ring and got into an exchange not unlike two dozen or more others they’d already shared. Alvarez caught Angulo with a sharp, single uppercut that rocked his head back, and Weeks decided he’d seen enough, stepping in to call what the entire Showtime broadcast crew, seemingly the entire MGM Grand Garden Arena audience, and I in my theater seat with extra legroom, instinctively thought was an overly abrupt halt to the action.
Think on that. There had been no shortage of action, though any reasonable observer could see Angulo had no hope of winning and was now simply absorbing punishment, playing out the string with only his warrior’s pride on the line. Of course, in boxing pride is only one of many things at play, and among the least tangible and important in an existential final analysis. Why else would Weeks have stopped the fight at that moment, after a single landed shot, from which Angulo was ostensibly already recovering and firing back? Alvarez was nonplussed in victory. Angulo was despondent and apoplectic in defeat. The crowd was shocked and vocally furious, as is often the case following a controversial call or decision. As ring announcer Jimmy Lennon read the time of the stoppage, a battered but seemingly lucid Angulo stood in the red corner and pleaded his case for continuing with Weeks in English that I did not previously even realize he spoke…for so seldom do Mexican flag carriers seem to make that effort. Canelo shrugged off the residual controversy during his interview, rightly annoyed that it overshadowed his excellent performance, then sauntered out of the ring to resume smiling and waving, sign autographs, shake hands, and manage his brand, which is now once again trending up.
Through it all, a booming cascade of boos rained down on the ring for several unbroken minutes. Maybe not quite ten, but that’s what it felt like.
Angulo’s broken English interview afterward with the never more useless Jim Gray (whose line of questioning seemed to subtly evolve as the interview progressed and the crowd’s mood darkened; he eventually asked Angulo point blank whether he was upset that the fight was decided on an “incorrect call” by the ref) was its own desperate and piteous thing. He made appeals, not excuses, and your heart kind of went out to him. He’d gotten his butt thoroughly kicked and was now vehemently protesting how the affair had ended, though not that it had happened. It wasn’t revisionist history. He had merely wanted to control his own destiny in that decisive moment, but was denied. I think he should’ve been able to, for that moment at least, and I still do. That sometimes happens in boxing, which is the only sport I know of (though I guess in MMA, too) where the referee wields that kind of unilateral, game changing and decisive power.
Every technical knockout – which differs from a traditional KO in that it is called at the referee’s discretion, whereas a KO is the fighter being unable to answer a ten count following a knockdown – is by definition subject to scrutiny by the fans, the media and the fighters themselves. That’s part of the deal, and most of the time it’s also part of the fun…until it isn’t, and somebody gets seriously hurt. Did Richard Steele improperly stop 1990’s Chavez-Taylor I and thus rob Taylor of a title belt and an all-time legacy? Did Weeks himself not give Jose Luis Castillo the proper chance to fight back in 2005’s Corrales-Castillo I, even if that decision contributed to it being the best fight of the last 20 years? Why wasn’t last fall’s Perez-Abdusalamov stopped before its lingering effects landed the brave Magumed in a medically induced coma? Why wasn’t 1982’s tragic Mancini-Kim fight stopped before its lingering effects landed the entirely too brave Korean fighter in an early grave? I use these examples not to equate them, most certainly, but rather to inadequately illustrate the breadth and seriousness of what a referee must contend with. And those are only matters of finality, of life, death, injury and well-being, not more standard, and nagging, bell to bell issues (like whether or not 2-time Gold medalist Vasyl Lomanchenko would have won a title in his second pro fight, or at least got the tie I thought he deserved anyway, had selectively blind referee Laurence Cole actually called/enforced penalties on more than one of the approx. 718 low blows thrown by Orlando Salido last weekend). I shudder to think of the focused public outcry over matters of referee propriety if boxing was as popular now as it was in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The referee has an obligation to safeguard fighter health to the best of his ability within the agreed upon, and admittedly extraordinary, strictures of a boxing match. Tonight’s crowd, and I, and many people watching in the moment, all jumped to the conclusion that Weeks overreacted. We liked watching Canelo’s power and skill vs. Angulo’s grit and pluck, however one-sided it had been up to then, and wanted to see the match end “naturally”, either by traditional KO, a wide Canelo decision victory, or, even more likely, a sudden TKO based on Alvarez breaking through definitively with a punch barrage that finally rendered Angulo defenseless and forced Weeks’ hand. Instead, Weeks saw one punch he didn’t like and used it as what still to me seems an arbitrary excuse to suddenly stop the fight. I’m not saying the fight didn’t need to be stopped, or wouldn’t have been before long, merely that this is not the sort of “natural” end provided by the majority of TKO victories (including Corrales-Castillo I, which in my opinion Weeks got exactly right), and therefore grumble, grumble, grumble says the audience, and also boo.
Showtime’s Paulie Malignaggi, who it must be said has spent his first couple years as a broadcaster turning into the business’ best in ring analyst, said he thought Weeks was looking to stop the fight from the moment the round started. Weeks had apparently been in regular consultation with the ringside physician, which is something I don’t remember anybody mentioning until after the fight, and I agree he seemed to spend the tenth operating on a hair trigger. Not the most neutral disposition in a big fight, though someone with Weeks’ reputation has earned the benefit of the doubt, especially when erring on the side of fighter safety. Showtime’s Al Bernstein, who is the sport’s best big picture analyst, said that, in the end, discussion of the Angulo stoppage hinges on what you want a ref to be more aware of: 1) punches from an aggressor that endanger a fighter by rendering him unable to protect himself or 2) accumulation of punches over the course of a fight to a potentially dangerous level. #1 is what fight fans are conditioned to believe constitutes a legitimate TKO, hence the temporary outrage when Weeks jumped the gun. #2, however, is the sort of concern that put Abdusalamov in that coma. It should not and cannot be discounted.
I worry that Weeks, normally so steady a hand, got it in his head that the fight had to end that moment, or at least that round, and overstepped his bounds a little. It was bad timing on a good call, and an unsatisfying ending for the fans, for Alvarez, and, especially, Angulo, whose identity as a blood & guts Mexican warrior both precedes and is highly important to him. Even Weeks seemed somewhat unnerved in each of his 14 close-ups as the ring announcer and Showtime team sorted out the main event’s aftermath. It was a clipped and unexpected finale to what had already been a mammoth and fairly exhausting PPV, stuffed with Showtime’s typical promotional bloat and featuring three unanimous decisions, including impressive performances from Jorge Linares and Leo Santa Cruz, that were all entertaining and some degree of compelling despite never being particularly competitive. It’s the rare PPV nowadays where the boxers acquit themselves so well that I want to see six out of eight of them again (I need to stop singing the praises of Nihito Arakawa quite so loudly, I admit, since all he is really great at is throwing 700+ largely ineffective arm punches as he walks through inhuman punishment…still, he’s never boring!). Saul “Canelo” Alvarez was focused, explosive and commanding in his return to the spotlight, and looked fairly masterful against a game but overmatched opponent who was handpicked, let’s face it, to make him look masterful. And if the evening sent us home with a little controversy, that’s the boxing way. The sun will still rise tomorrow. So will Alfredo Angulo, which is a very good thing. It was touch and go there for a moment.