Sunday, October 30, 2011

Storm Warning for Saul Alvarez

On the surface, 2011 has been an exceptional year for Saul Alvarez.  He won his first title in March, easily outpointing Matthew Hatton.  He made a successful defense against Ryan Rhodes, a top-15 junior middleweight from the U.K., where he drew an enormous crowd in Mexico, further emphasizing his star power.  Most recently, he knocked out fringe contender Alfonso Gomez.  Although this year featured plenty of smooth sailing for Alvarez, looking closer, however, he had to navigate through some choppy waters against Gomez and there could be numerous storm warnings on the horizon.

Gomez, nobody's idea of an elite opponent, was able to score fairly frequently on Alvarez, with his jab and sneaky left hook.  Gomez continued to land punches while Alvarez waited for perfect opportunities to throw his combinations.  Alvarez's combinations were beautiful and they landed, as always, at a high connect percentage, but he wasn't busy enough.  Although the judges in the contest only awarded Gomez a total of two rounds (one round each on two scorecards), there were a number of boxing observers who gave Gomez at least two rounds of the five that could be scored.  In addition, Gomez was doing well in the sixth until Alvarez exploded in a final flurry that led to the knockout (referee Wayne Hedgpeth was nice enough to provide an early stoppage).

It's clear from the Gomez bout that very active fighters could give Alvarez some trouble.  Even at Alvarez's youthful age of 21, he is very selective with his punches.  He only throws about 50 per round, not a particularly robust figure for the junior middleweight division.  Once he faces a higher class of fighter who features a better offensive skill set, work rate and defense, Alvarez's economical approach, reliant on power shots, will be tested. 

Alvarez's defense isn't exceptional; he can be hit.  Both Gomez and Jose Cotto landed some significant shots on him.  Furthermore, Alvarez has yet to face a real puncher at junior middleweight.  To this point, his chin hasn't really been tested.  He does counter very well, which reduces his opponents' output, but he also hasn't fought a boxer with the type of foot speed, defense or athleticism that can neutralize the accuracy of his counter shots.

Alvarez could face a number of stern tests at junior middleweight.  The pressure and high work rates of Pawel Wolak and Alfredo Angulo would be tough matchups for such an economical puncher.  Also, the classic, slick boxing of Austin Trout wouldn't provide Alvarez with the ability to dictate the action in the center of the ring.  For Alvarez to beat Trout, he would have to cut the ring off better and keep his activity level higher than he has in previous bouts.  Alvarez might be favored to win all three of these hypothetical matchups, but his position as the favorite would mostly be attributed to his higher name recognition in the boxing community and his ability to generate betting interest, instead of an honest assessment of his skills relative to these three opponents.

In just his brief time as a professional, Alvarez has created enormous buzz in the sport with his rabid following among Mexicans and Mexican-American fans.  In addition, he has already become a headliner on HBO, garnering impressive television ratings.  His youth, power, unconventional combinations and advanced ring intelligence have compelled more than a few experts to anoint him as a boxing prodigy.  He quickly has become one of the best ticket sellers in North America.   

He fights in an atypical manner compared to most Mexican boxers; instead of chin-first aggression, he uses a large offensive arsenal, cunning and textbook punching technique to overwhelm his opponents.  They don't know which shots to defend.  Alvarez seemingly lands his power shots at will.  In many ways (power punching, high ring I.Q. and limited foot speed), he resembles a young Miguel Cotto, but with more, well rounded offensive skills.    

Already, he has become the most important young fighter in Golden Boy's stable (Amir Khan is a close second).  Alvarez has brought HBO to Mexico at a time when most U.S.-based broadcasters are loath to venture south of the border because of security concerns.  In addition, Alvarez will end 2011 as the only fighter who received four HBO appearances (counting an HBO PPV slot as the chief support to Mayweather-Ortiz).  

Alvarez's ascension has been stunning and unforeseen.  He has already amassed a lot of power within the industry, convincing HBO to broadcast his fight against Gomez from a second site – instead of appearing beneath Mayweather in Vegas – and setting up his own promotional company with his fighters appearing on his cards.   

Alvarez will next fight in November against former welterweight titlist Kermit Cintron.  With Cintron, he will face the ultimate wild card.  Cintron, who once featured a blistering power attack, has morphed into a more conventional boxer under trainer Ronnie Shields.  In recent years, his performances have ranged from a listless effort in a loss against spoiler Carlos Molina to a sublime night in the ring against pressure fighter Alfredo Angulo.  It's virtually impossible to predict which Cintron will show up to face Alvarez, but if Cintron is on, he will be the best opponent that the young champion has faced in his career.

Certainly, Alvarez is a unique and impressive talent.  His power, combination punching and offensive technique may already be world class, but it's not yet clear if he has the conditioning, defense or dedication to ascend to the top of the junior middleweight division, let alone boxing as a whole.  The next year will reveal a lot about Alvarez.  Golden Boy and HBO won't have the ability to feed him "B+" opponents forever. 

It's also uncertain whether Alvarez is a finished product in the ring, or if he will still further develop.  While most raw talents of his age have yet to see their boxing skills catch up to their athletic ability, Alvarez looks as though he has already fully harnessed his boxing ability.  His average athleticism suggests a more limited physical upside.   

Although no one at junior middleweight would be confused with an elite talent, there are several candidates that could provide Alvarez with his first pratfall.  More than a few young champions have been defeated by self-satisfaction, money and inertia.  For Alvarez, he needs to realize that to beat the elite of the sport, he must get better.  If he doesn't improve his conditioning and work rate, his first loss will come much sooner than he (or most in the boxing community) expected.

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