Friday, May 11, 2012

Musings on Canelo and Huck

Saul "Canelo" Alvarez has boxed on the international scene for two years. He has fought eight times since his American debut against Jose Cotto and he has received coveted slots headlining HBO broadcasts and serving as the chief support to two of Floyd Mayweather's pay-per-view events.

A look at the list of his recently vanquished foes reveals some impressive names, but ones that did not necessarily represent tough challenges. Most of these opponents were fighters on the downsides of good careers and/or ones who had distinguished themselves in other weight classes. His highest-profile win was last weekend's victory against an ancient Shane Mosley. That fight reinforced a pattern of Alvarez defeating former champions from smaller weight classes, including Kermit Cintron, Lovemore Ndou and Carlos Baldomir. His other victories were against B-listers such as Ryan Rhodes, Alfonso Gomez and Matthew Hatton.

To date, his competition has not been all that stiff and he has not yet fought some of the more interesting names at junior middleweight (Erislandy Lara, James Kirkland, and Austin Trout). Golden Boy has wisely ignored Alvarez's championship belt and has  used these early title fights for his further development. In essence, they have treated Alvarez more like a regular 21-year-old prospect, and not as an established titleholder. HBO has been a steady underwriter of Alvarez's ascent in the sport (and because Canelo draws fine TV ratings, they should be), but at a certain point, all parties involved want the training wheels to come off and see what the kid really has.

To project Alvarez's future in the sport, it's important to affirm what we have learned about him over the last two years.  He clearly is a great combination puncher. His use of uppercuts from the outside to start combinations is a rarity in the sport. He relies far more on power punches than his jab. He has excellent punch technique and accuracy. His ring generalship is superb. It's amazing to see a 21-year-old control the action and pacing of a fight the way in which he does. So far, he has not let big crowds, the limelight or his opponents dictate the way in which he fights.

Canelo does have some areas for improvement. He doesn't fight three minutes a round and conceivably can be outworked by a good jabber (Gomez had some success in this area). His defense is merely adequate. He doesn't feature a lot of head movement and Cotto, Gomez and Cintron were able to land some hard shots on him. Alvarez's power is good, but it's not exceptional. He's less of a one-punch knockout artist than a boxer who gets stoppages because of an accumulation of punishment from his accurate shots.

The rumored plan floated by Golden Boy is to match Canelo next with Kirkland. That fight should be a shootout and at the very least it will tell us about Alvarez's chin and his ability to survive a pressure fighter. I favor Alvarez's clean punching in that fight. If feather-fisted Carlos Molina was able to damage Kirkland, Alvarez should be able to do the same. However, Alvarez doesn't feature the lateral movement of someone like Molina. It will be fascinating to see if Alvarez can best Kirkland without leaving the pocket.

Ultimately, Canelo Alvarez is no normal 21-year old. His ring maturity and technique belie his age. However, I get the sneaking suspicion that his road to boxing's elite will be bumpy. His shortcomings (especially his work rate) are real and he's yet to face a true puncher at junior middleweight.

Nevertheless, as boxing observers, we should be in for a fun ride. Canelo has a rare gift of composure and maturity during big moments in the ring. He also has a natural affinity for the spotlight. Even with a loss or two, he will remain in demand as one of the true attractions in boxing.

Marco Huck finds himself in a truly unique situation. Earlier in the year, the longtime cruiserweight champion moved up to heavyweight and fought on virtually even terms against Alexander Povetkin, a top-10 boxer in the sport's glamor division. Throughout the fight, Huck landed the harder shots and proved he had the ability and chin to stay at heavyweight. He lost a very close fight and in an interesting twist, his promoter and manager, Sauerland Event (in Germany, one entity can wear both hats), convinced him to drop back to cruiserweight to defend his title.

Huck initially wanted to stay at heavyweight but Sauerland's financial guarantee was enough for the fighter to return to his old division. Needless to say, Huck, who had previously defended his title five times, only earned a draw against Ola Afolabi last weekend. The fight was a rematch of a thin decision victory for Huck in 2009. Huck-Afolabi II was an outright war, with Afolabi outworking Huck in the opening rounds and Huck coming on strong with massive power shots in the fight's second half. The 12th round featured unbelievable action from both fighters and was easily a round-of-the-year candidate.

Now the most interesting question is where Huck goes from here. One important facet of the Afolabi fight, which was not reported heavily, was that Huck had to drop 30 pounds to make the cruiserweight limit. Often, fighters who move down significantly in weight lose their power and energy (e.g. Roy Jones, Oscar de la Hoya). Through that prism, it's remarkable how effective Huck was against Afolabi. He was the fresher fighter and the one who imposed his will as the bout progressed.

Despite Huck's crowd-pleasing effort on Saturday, I still think that the proper move for him is to return to heavyweight. Afolabi illustrated how Huck could be particularly vulnerable in that division. Huck does not have a high punch output and it often takes him a few rounds to find his way into a fight (this also happened against Povetkin). Huck will fare much better against fighters who throw 40 punches a round, instead of those who throw 60 or more. In short, the slower pace of heavyweight action suits Huck's style better.

In addition, Huck was a real heavyweight against Povetkin, not a cruiserweight masquerading as one. Against Povetkin, he landed the harder shots and his chin held up fine. Also, his body at 229 wasn't soft and he moved well at the higher weight.  Huck won't beat a Klitschko, but he will be able to handle himself against the rest of the division.

It will be interesting to see how supportive Sauerland is of Huck's desire to go back to heavyweight. They control most of the top cruiserweights in the division and have built up Huck into one of the big attractions in Germany. At heavyweight, the best fighters are from all over the world and Huck will not be the house fighter in those contests.

Understandably, Sauerland is reluctant to lose one of its guaranteed cash cows who fills arenas and generates excellent TV ratings. That risk is most likely one that they are not keen on taking. However, what they might not realize is that there is significant risk for Huck should he stay at cruiserweight. He very well might physically be too big for the division and Afolabi already demonstrated Huck's vulnerabilities against athletic boxers who feature high punch outputs.  

Ultimately, I think the play is for Huck to go to heavyweight. His power punches and fighting spirit will be a welcome addition to the division. He may not win all his fights but he will earn good money. Also, his style is extremely TV friendly and he has the real possibility of expanding his existing fanbase beyond central Europe. It will be interesting to see what Huck's next moves will be, but either way, he has quickly become one of the better crowd-pleasing fighters in the sport.

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