Watching Saul “Canelo” Alvarez doggedly pursue Erislandy Lara around the MGM Grand Garden ring tonight, I could not help but reflect there are some things that, as a boxing fan, you just innately know.
If indeed the axiom that “styles make fights” holds, then a matchup between two brawlers – say the late Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward – is going to produce a solid matchup regardless of the eventual winner. The same is generally true for the classic puncher vs. counterpuncher fight – think Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez. These are not deep thoughts. The two pairings I just used as shorthand examples produced a total of seven fights for a reason. Far trickier is the standard boxer vs. puncher fight. Because the two styles (elusive/outside vs. straight ahead/inside) do not naturally complement one another, the will of the fighter tends to become even more of a determining factor. Think back to one of the mega-fights of the 1980s, when “Sugar” Ray Leonard used lateral movement (and guile, as well as supreme boxing skill) to frustrate Marvelous Marvin Hagler, who at numerous points famously derided Leonard as a female dog and, ahem, barked at him to stop running and “fight like a man”. It didn’t work.
Tonight, while attempting to analyze Canelo/Lara mid-fight, the Showtime announce team invoked another famous boxer/puncher summit, when in 1993 Pernell Whitaker used his supernatural defense and footwork to confound Julio Cesar Chavez, the greatest Mexican wrecking ball in boxing history. Boxing is a sport that requires action to satisfy the thirst of the masses, but by definition it is also the art of hitting without getting hit, a fact often lost on the layman, or at least sorely discounted by him. No, no. Any boxing fan worth his salt takes a matchup between a classic boxer, in this case Cuban stick-and-mover Erislandy Lara, and a classic puncher, in this case Mexican cash register Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, as at best a 50-50 proposition. He or she can predict with eerie prescience how the match might look, but not whether it will be a good fight (though it should be), or the least bit aesthetically pleasing (usually dependent on whose will is imposed more emphatically), and is hard pressed to predict who will emerge victorious. I scored the fight 115-113 for Lara, even though I’m not a fan of his style. My scorecard was unofficial, though it matched one of the three paid judges in Vegas tonight. One thing I knew innately: as soon as Jimmy Lennon, Jr. announced the decision was split, I was certain Canelo had won.
Nobody knew quite what to make of Canelo/Lara going in, and that uneasy feeling followed the two into the ring. First of all, the fight was a comparative rarity in boxing: the two top fighters in a given weight division (154 pounds) actually squaring off in the ring instead of in a fantasy hypothetical. Lara, a Cuban defector nicknamed “The American Dream”, is a 1 to 4 mixture of hard luck and superb boxing talent, assuming you care about that sort of thing. He made his name in 2011 by comprehensively outboxing Paul Williams only to lose a razor thin majority decision, then spent the next three years building a reputation as the Junior Middleweight division’s toughest out. Tonight’s fight against Alvarez was largely his own creation, so thoroughly did he goad the proud but still young Mexican in social media and as a press conference party crasher. Alvarez, by virtue of being the most popular boxer in Mexico, is already one of the top five North American attractions in the sport. He inspires frenzied support from members of both sexes, respectively, by looking like a red-haired Iowa farm boy and by channeling the sainted, aforementioned Chavez in the ring (at times even more than Mexico’s #2 boxer, the authentic Chavez, Jr.). As Golden Boy Promotions’ top remaining monetary draw, Alvarez was advised against matching with Lara by every stakeholder in his area code, but, to his credit, pushed for the fight anyway. He must’ve known what he was getting into.
Lara owned the early going, using his footwork to outpace the plodding Alvarez while easily hitting him with enough shots to carry the round. The casual fan could be forgiven for thinking Lara less inclined to fight than his opponent. For a rapturous, predominantly Mexican live crowd that cheered Alvarez’s every exhalation, Lara’s slick boxing and constant circling movement was a personal affront. Canelo is an above average combination puncher with good hand speed, but sometimes has issues getting punches off before his adversary. He also generally struggles against non-stationary targets (part of why he mopped the floor with face first brawler Alfredo Angulo earlier this year). Lara seemed to befuddle him for the better part of the first three rounds, all according to the script we’d written in our heads. Boo if you must, but Lara was landing solid shots, mostly jabs. Also following suit was Canelo’s subsequent surge in the second three rounds, where he began to more successfully head off Lara’s escape routes and dig to his body with a steady accumulation of thudding punches. Lara slowed a bit under the barrage, but the minor reversal in fortune was largely attributable to increased effort on Canelo’s part. At times, Lara attempted to clinch but Alvarez wrestled him into a position where he could continue throwing punches. Once, Lara tried to skirt by him, and Alvarez physically caught him with one arm and muscled him back into firing range. In the sixth round, Alvarez tagged Lara with a fearsome uppercut that opened a significant cut on his eyelid. The cut didn’t end up being a determining factor (if his corner hadn’t been able to control it, it might have paved the way to an Alvarez TKO), but the blood did inject additional drama into the proceedings, particularly in the late rounds when both men, having taken the other’s measure, steeled themselves for a final rally or finishing flourish.
Alvarez had fought his way onto the scorecards by the halfway point but could never break all the way through, despite his focus, forward momentum, and increasingly withering body attack. Lara used his feet judiciously, springing out of the way of dramatic would be haymakers and making Canelo swing and miss more often than he was used to. Alvarez continued to dig to the body and carried another couple of rounds, but Lara, having appreciably slowed under the Mexican’s barrage in the middle rounds, rebounded in the fight’s final third, and the rabid crowd grew increasingly quiet. It was give and take action throughout, with Lara’s movement and educated jab attempting to hold Canelo’s determined body work and intermittent flurries at bay, the fight’s early awkwardness smoothed out somewhat and replaced by the requisite contest of wills. At least half the rounds were perilously close, with very little to distinguish winner from loser, and the task of the official judges seemed daunting. As the final bell rang, Lara was jubilant, and gave every appearance of the victor, finally breaking through after being so long denied. Alvarez raised his hands in token celebration but did not seem confident. He may have a killer smile and matinee idol looks, but he also has a pronounced robotic quality, it seems to me, every second that he is not actively throwing punches.
The best ring announcers – your Lennons, your Michael Buffers – know how to milk all the drama out of a moment they can. Before announcing the individual scores, Jimmy Lennon, Jr. informed the crowd the fight would have a split decision, and an audible wave of dread passed through them. Nevada judge Jerry Roth scored the fight 115-113 for Lara, as I had. In my view, Lara controlled the action to the extent that either of them did, and landed and threw more punches. He made his punches count, though Alvarez’s seemed more impactful, and, of course, his movement was excessive. Alvarez bored ahead constantly, digging to the body and trying to land at all times, even when Lara wasn’t available for consultation. I could certainly understand differences of opinion (ESPN’s Dan Rafael scored it 116-112 for Alvarez, SI’s Chris Mannix had it a draw), and judge Dave Moretti’s score of 115-113 Alvarez seemed reasonable, albeit not what I saw. There was much handwringing, both during the Showtime telecast (where host Brian Kenney and analyst Paulie Malignaggi drew battle lines on air) and on social media, regarding judge Levi Martinez’s 117-111 score, the weight that tipped the scales in Canelo’s favor. Neither Malignaggi nor I was sure what fight Martinez was watching to think that Lara – who clearly at least won the first two rounds as punch after punch whizzed ineffectually past the general vicinity of his head – won only three rounds total. I think that is absurd. I don’t love Lara’s style, but I’d like to think I can appreciate it. Capital “B” Boxing. It can be really effective, provided you have judges who just inherently prefer Leonard to Hagler, Pernell to Chavez, Willie Pep to everyone, and so on.
Erislandy Lara is none of those people, just so we’re clear. I thought he fought well enough to win tonight, albeit in a style and with a game plan that is going to have its vocal detractors, some of whom happen to be official judges. That’s the chance Capital B Boxers take when they get in the ring, unless they happen to be named Floyd Mayweather*. Controversy doesn’t have to enter into it, even though I innately knew Alvarez had pulled out the victory as soon as Lennon announced the split (and found my foresight suitably depressing). Canelo fought well enough to win. I just don’t particularly think he deserved to. He has one speed, and is easy enough to impede, though his skills are real and his spirit is undeniable. Regardless of my opinion, his gravy train chugs ahead undaunted, having narrowly missed an unscheduled derailment. Lara was an especially dangerous bullet to dodge, as the Golden Boy brain trust knew going in. I’d say it’s doubtful we see a rematch, although I’d like to see how Canelo would adjust to such a difficult opponent given a do-over. Though he’s already an attraction, these kinds of tests are crucial to his development as a world class boxer. I’d also be interested in how Lara would react if he were to be somehow gifted the rematch he’s already clamoring for. I tend to think he wouldn’t change his style at all, just out of stubbornness and self-satisfaction. Maybe then, with tonight serving as hindsight, scores like 117-111 Alvarez would be merited.
*Of course the last (and only?) judge’s card that went against Floyd, during his 2007 coming out party against Oscar De La Hoya, also contributed to a famous split decision. I always hated how Oscar ran out of gas in the late rounds just as his attack was starting to pay real dividends. Then, as tonight, Jerry Roth preferred the slick boxer to the pressuring fighter, 115-113. Two little rounds. Flip those numbers and boxing history is altered forever. It’s all subjective, see?