Thursday, July 10, 2014

Alvarez-Lara: Keys to the Fight

One of the most intriguing matchups in the junior middleweight division occurs on Saturday at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas between Mexican star Saul "Canelo" Alvarez (43-1-1, 31 KOs) and Cuban sharpshooter Erislandy Lara (19-1-2, 12 KOs). The winner of this fight will undoubtedly be acknowledged as the best junior middleweight in the world after Floyd Mayweather. For Alvarez, a victory over the tricky Lara would be the best win of his career and would further reinforce has status as one of the elite young fighters in the sport. Beating Alvarez would give Lara the opportunity to emerge as a real player in boxing, something more substantial than a "B-side." 

Alvarez and Lara have two recent opponents in common. Both beat Austin Trout and Alfredo Angulo. However, Alvarez struggled with Trout while Lara dominated him and Lara went down to the canvas twice against Angulo, who wasn't competitive against Alvarez. In analyzing past performances, I'm not sure how much those outings will inform us about Saturday's outcome. Although Trout, like Lara, was also a crafty southpaw, the two lefties have significantly different styles. Trout didn't have much power and stayed in the pocket, winning early rounds against Alvarez with his jab. Lara uses his legs a lot more than Trout does and rarely relies on his jab; his left hand counter is a real weapon. Perhaps Lara, similar to Trout, will be able to reduce Alvarez's punch volume, but he will attempt to do so by different means: limited engagement, movement and hard counters. 

Meanwhile, the version of Angulo that Alvarez beat was a far less active and energetic one than Lara faced. Lara was only up one point on two of the scorecards and down on the third before he ended that fight with a straight left hand. Angulo pressured Lara relentlessly and did a very good job of cutting off the ring. However, Canelo isn't a pressure fighter. Although he features a high punch volume, he's actually best at mid-range, where his combinations can flow. It may be instructive for Canelo that Angulo had success in dropping Lara while he was trying to escape with his hands down, but I expect that Saturday's fight will play out much differently than Lara-Angulo did. 

With no shortage of bad blood between the fighters, the lead up to Saturday's match has been filled with interesting subplots. But which narrative will take shape in the ring? Will Alvarez's flashy combinations carry the day or will Lara's excellent ring generalship and hard left hands be enough to secure the win? Read below for the keys to the fight. My prediction will be at the end of the article.

1. Punch Volume.

Even when Lara is at his best, he rarely lets his hands go. Studying his opponent and waiting for the opportunity to land his counter left hand, Lara can be frustrating to watch. When he throws that shot, it's a surgical strike, a missile that detonates on impact. Between counter lefts, there often can be a lot of circling, feinting and posing. 

Canelo is a far more active fighter. Often throwing between 60-80 punches a round, he features practically every punch in the book and unleashes devastating combinations. When he is at his best, punches flow freely and land with precision. Lara will look to reduce Canelo's punch output throughout the fight. He'll tie up during combinations and take steps back as Alvarez approaches. He wants to get Alvarez down to just one punch at a time. 

In my estimation, the activity battle will be the biggest factor in determining who wins rounds and puts his stamp on the fight. If there is a slow pace, Lara's hard lefts will have more of an impact on the judges. However, if Canelo can fire off 50+ shots a round, Lara won't be able to match that activity. At that pace, even if Lara connects with a few hard counters each round, he won't win them. 

2. Who will be first? 

As we saw during Alvarez's fight with Floyd Mayweather, he struggled mightily against the pound-for-pound king's tactical style. By the middle rounds, Alvarez was reticent to throw punches. In a similar vein, Lara will look to frustrate Canelo throughout the fight with a series of tactics aimed at slowing down the action. But Alvarez must stick with his game plan and fire off shots. Even though he might not have his customary accuracy against Lara, he can't get dissuaded. Alvarez's key to winning the fight is letting his hands go. Even if he takes a few hard left counters, he must continue to get off. 

For Lara, he can't get trapped into thinking that a few good shots a round will be enough for him to win the fight. I'm sure that his trainer, Ronnie Shields, has impressed upon him the urgency of staying busy for the judges. It will be up to Lara to find time during the dead spaces to initiate offense. Throwing a counter after three of Canelo's shots just won't do it. Although a reduction in action will help Lara, a menu of primarily defense and ring generalship won't be enough for victory. 

3. 10-8 rounds.

In a match that could be very competitive, a 10-8 round would be a huge swing. Angulo showed just how vulnerable Lara could be to a well-placed shot. What Angulo did magnificently in that fight was throwing punches in anticipation of Lara's movements. For Alvarez, this means making sure to finish off combinations with left hooks and straight right hands, hoping to catch Lara pulling straight back or moving with his hands down. It may not be the first or second punch that does the most damage, but perhaps the third or fourth. Lara can get careless stepping out of the pocket and moving along the ropes. Elongating punch sequences could do wonders for Canelo in this fight. 

Alvarez has shown a very good chin at 154 pounds but it wasn't that long ago (2010 to be exact) when he was stunned badly by light-punching Jose Cotto. In addition, Mayweather, Josesito Lopez and Alfonso Gomez had little trouble landing on him. Although Alvarez's defense has improved, he still leaves a lot of space in between his gloves and I'm not sure if he's ever faced a puncher of Lara's caliber; if Lara lands enough of his left hands, or even just the perfectly placed one, he certainly could send Alvarez to the canvas. In my estimation, both fighters have the potential to go down in this match.

4. "Plan B."

Alvarez was rightly mocked after the Mayweather fight for failing to make adjustments. His trainer, Eddy Reynoso, seemed out of his depth and Alvarez spent most of the fight's second half following Mayweather around without moving his hands or just landing meekly on Mayweather's arms. Alvarez wasn't merely outfought, he was also out-thought. Against a difficult boxer like Lara, will Alvarez and his team have a Plan B that works? Will the fighter be able to execute it? If Alvarez is down to single shots against Lara, what punch should he be throwing? How will he get Lara to open up? These considerations may prove to be very important in the fight. 

Like clockwork, there is a moment in practically every Lara bout where Ronnie Shields yells at his fighter to let his hands go. Often these entreaties go ignored and Lara retains his cerebral style, which can often feature a stunning lack of urgency. If Lara falls behind Alvarez early in the fight, what is his recourse? What will he do to change the dynamic? Will he take the types of risks needed to swing the bout in his favor or is he captive to his one style? It will be fascinating to see which corner has the better blueprint for adjustments and which fighter can implement the necessary changes. 

5. The judges. 

Let's face it: judges have not liked Erislandy Lara throughout his career. He was robbed against Paul Williams and should have beaten Vanes Martirosyan on the scorecards instead of getting a draw. The judge who somehow had Martirosyan ahead in that fight, Jerry Roth, will be one of the arbiters for Saturday's match. But these results are not solely to blame on the judges. Lara often has a mentality to do just enough to take a round. It's a calculation that has come back to haunt him. Judges, especially Vegas ones, like activity and aggression, and Lara isn't that guy. 

Conversely, Alvarez has fared well with judges. He beat Trout on the scorecards much wider than most had it and he also secured at least three rounds from every judge against Mayweather when two would have been considered overly generous. His punches are very flashy and his combinations can batter around opponents like a piƱata. 

The other two judges in this contest, Dave Moretti and Levi Martinez, are both fine officials. Roth is the one to watch here. He has slight biases for both "name" fighters and aggressors (irrespective of how effective they are). His horrendous 116-112 card for Brandon Rios over Richar Abril highlighted his dual weaknesses. He could prove to be a very decisive factor in the fight. 


I see this fight as being very competitive with a lot of rounds playing out very similarly. Alvarez will be marginally busier while Lara will land a couple of telling blows each round. I think that action will be very contained in the fight, with just a couple of meaningful skirmishes a round. The match will be difficult to score. 

However, I'm banking that with the similar characteristics of the rounds that the judges pick a fighter and run with him instead of splitting up the swing rounds. And within those parameters, I believe that the busier fighter will get the benefit of the doubt. I think that Alvarez will prevail by a unanimous decision but the judges will disagree, perhaps significantly, on how many rounds that he actually won.

Saul Alvarez defeats Erislandy Lara by a competitive unanimous decision.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
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