Mike Alvarado's game plan on Saturday was not a trade secret: use his legs, box more, make Brandon Rios work to get off shots. With the exception of Teddy Atlas of ESPN, who suggested that Alvarado not box from the outside, pretty much everyone in the sport realized that Alvarado couldn't stand and trade with Rios, whether at close range in the center of the ring or along the ropes. The burning questions were if Alvarado knew this, and if he did, could he execute a game plan that differed so significantly from his past style.
Alvarado was originally a wrestler growing up. As he transitioned to boxing, there was no questioning his physique or toughness in the ring. He was not necessarily a one-punch knockout artist but had good power. Alvarado featured a nice arsenal of offensive weapons but was limited defensively and would rather take two shots flush than take a step back. He scored knockouts with a combination of pressure, physicality, volume and heavy hands. His aggressive, brawling style had suited him well in the ring until he was stopped last October by Rios, who essentially bested Alvarado at his own game of power shots, pressure and relentless combat.
Coming into Saturday's fight, Alvarado, 32 with 34 pro fights, was no spring chicken. Although he had had been a pro for nine years, he had yet to establish himself in the top reaches of the junior welterweight division. Throughout his time in the professional ranks, he had remained faithful to his aggressive, brawling style.
How many pros in their 30s successfully change their approach in the ring? For recent examples, certainly Marquez did. Mayweather. Barrera, to a degree. Hopkins. These fighters transitioned into a second or third act, but they were all either elite talents or once had been. Alvarado had never been considered an elite guy. He hadn't even won a championship belt.
Thus, the cards were stacked against him in the rematch. Not known as being particularly adaptable in the ring or crafty, Alvarado would attempt to show the world that he had the discipline, aptitude and skill to beat Rios with a reliance on boxing. Going into the fight, the public wasn't buying it and Rios was a decided favorite.
But Alvarado proved most of us wrong. Even after getting rocked by a pounding jab in round two and some right hands towards the end of the frame, even after getting caught with some vicious shots in the third round, especially with a couple of Rios' left hooks, even after Rios applied hellacious pressure and connected with pulverizing punches during the 11th, Alvarado stuck to his game plan and boxed his way to a unanimous victory.
His performance was a wonderful surprise and a perfect example of "why they fight the fights." After attending the first bout, I didn't have the urge to see the second one in person. I predicted an eventual Rios win on account of his grinding pressure and superior infighting. Frankly, I didn't expect Alvarado to make so many meaningful changes, and have the ability to execute on them; it was a pleasure to be so mistaken.
Perhaps what struck me the most was Alvarado's reduction in punch volume. After averaging over 100 punches a round in the first bout, Alvarado brought his total in the second fight down closer to 70. This served multiple purposes. Most importantly, it limited Rios' opportunities to trade. By throwing punches more selectively, Alvarado was better able to control the flow of the action. He didn't get tagged nearly as much as he did in the first fight and as a result he could initiate offense more to his liking.
When Alvarado wasn't throwing, he used the time effectively. He didn't just stand and stare at Rios just out of range; he worked the ring, circling the perimeter and going side to side. He made Rios try to track him down. His superior foot speed proved to be an advantage throughout the entire fight.
In addition, Alvarado kept his combination sequences shorter. I counted his lengthiest combination at four punches; most were two or three shots. Again breaking from his past style, he wasn't trying to wear down his opponent with power and volume. He got his work in and left. He was still very effective with his right hand (more on that later) and at times with his left hook and jab. In fact, he did more damage in this fight than he did in the first one – perhaps because Rios was less certain where and when the punches would arrive.
Alvarado made two technical adjustments for the rematch that really paid off throughout the fight. First, he changed his stance significantly. When fighting in close range, he got much lower, almost in a crouch. This made him less of a target for Rios overhand right hand. In addition, this enabled him to throw shorter shots.
In particular, Alvarado shortened up his right hand. No longer winging it from his shoulder or his waste, Alvarado kept his right hand positioned in front of him. This led to the punch coming at Rios from a different trajectory than he was used to seeing; he had problems making an adjustment to it. The shorter right hand was extremely effective and it was thrown with a ton of snap on it. I had been somewhat unimpressed with Alvarado's right hand in past fights. It looked menacing and it was thrown with so much force, but I believe that the distance it had to travel to reach its target took some of the sting off of the shot. On Saturday, this wasn't the case.
There were also other meaningful changes that led to Alvarado's victory. His team brought in Rudy Hernandez full time as a cut man and assistant trainer. On fight night, Hernandez, not lead trainer Shann Vilhauer, was the one giving primary instructions in the corner and his experience in ring wars was clearly a factor that benefited Alvarado. He consistently reinforced the need to box and he remained calm and clear during the minute breaks. (Hernandez also did a great job on Alvarado's face. It was really cut up early in the fight but the cuts didn't play a meaningful role in the outcome of the fight.)
Ultimately, most of these changes were worked on at the gym, but Alvarado deserves all of the credit for executing them against one of the most relentless pressure fighters in the sport. He was cut, badly hurt and facing a guy who wouldn't quit. However, Alvarado didn't deviate from the plan. In the fight's second half, when opponents typically wilt against Rios, Alvarado doubled down on his legs and his selectivity to effectively neutralize Rios. From the outside, it may appear easy for fighters to nullify Rios' aggression, but to date, Alvarado is the only one who has beaten him (Richar Abril should also be on this list but two Vegas judges decided not to watch his performance in the ring).
Saturday was Alvarado's moment. He demonstrated that he wasn't a one-dimensional banger. He took it upon himself to let the boxing world know that he wasn't just a fun B-side fighter who lacked the ability to get to another level. Instead, he showed intelligence, poise, discipline, cunning and ring awareness. Mike Alvarado will never be confused with a ring expert like Floyd Mayweather, but he no longer will be seen as the former "Mike Alvarado" either. The perception of him as a fighter has changed; he now has more weapons in his arsenal, more tools in his toolbox and different ways to win.
Alvarado's career has new life and it will be interesting to see if his ousting of Rios was the first step in his ascendance in the sport or just a betterment of a familiar opponent. The real fun starts now for Alvarado's career – more money, more opportunities and an ability to momentarily set the terms for his immediate future. Right now, he's no longer a guy to fill out an undercard or a pay per view slot. He's not functioning to make another Top Rank guy look good. If he's going to have a real future in the sport, his next two fights will be his most important.
Perhaps what Saturday illustrated more than anything is how hard it is to speculate on an unproven fighter's intangibles. Prior to Rios, Alvarado never really had to work the outside of the ring to secure a victory. He didn't have to rely on getting in and out of the pocket unscathed. Because he had not exhibited these skills in prior fights, the assumption was the he was unable to incorporate these skills into his repertoire. Surely, he had learned these skills, the thought went. If he hadn't been able to demonstrate these abilities by now, why would he suddenly be able to incorporate them?
Alvarado had success with a particular style throughout his career. When it failed him, he changed his approach, and changed it fundamentally. On Saturday, he demonstrated a solid understanding of his strengths and weaknesses, exhibited a firm grasp of ring generalship and altered his technique in order to give him a better chance to win. Alvarado's numerous adaptations all occurred in just one fight, a stunning achievement when you think about it.
Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org
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