Monday, July 14, 2014

Opinions and Observations: Alvarez-Lara

So who really won on Saturday? Saul "Canelo" Alvarez and Erislandy Lara essentially matched each other on punch volume (Lara had an ever-so-slight advantage). Alvarez had rounds where he couldn't connect; Lara had rounds where he wouldn't throw. In terms of landed blows, the match boiled down to Lara's straight left hands against Alvarez's left hooks to the body. There were some other punches mixed in on occasion – Lara’s jab and counter right hook, Alvarez's jab and right hands (as well as one uppercut of note) – but to my eyes each fighter was only consistently successful with one offering.
Judge Jerry Roth had it 115-113 for Lara. Dave Moretti had it 115-113 for Alvarez. Levi Martinez had it 117-111 for Alvarez. The media and fans seemed to be split as well. I had it 115-113 for Alvarez but a draw or a two-point Lara win were certainly reasonable tallies in my estimation.
There were slight points of differentiation that shaded my scorecard towards Alvarez. In many of the close rounds, I felt that Alvarez's body shots were more damaging than Lara's left hands. There also were a few rounds where I just couldn't give Lara the nod in that he didn't meet my minimum threshold for initiating offense. Lara was masterful at using his legs to evade incoming fire and reduce Alvarez's punch output, but too often he refused to let his hands go. It's the same trap that Bernard Hopkins fell into against faster opponents like Joe Calzaghe or Jermain Taylor. He did a great job neutralizing but he just didn't do enough on offense at certain points; there were opportunities missed.
In thinking about Saturday's fight, I believe that Alvarez took more risks and fought at a level closer to his best than Lara did. Perhaps Lara has a higher ceiling than Alvarez does. It looked like he had enough left in the tank to circle the ring for 20 rounds. But ultimately, boxing is not just about a collection of skills; it's a combination of athleticism and technical gifts coupled with intangible factors, such as the willingness to win, risk-taking, intelligence, self-belief, poise and the desire to be great.
Lara wants to have it both ways. He desires to be recognized as one of the elite talents in the sport without taking the chances necessary to attain greatness. He's had the opportunities, and he's squandered them. Yes, I thought he did enough to beat Vanes Martirosyan, but two of the judges didn't think so and his punch output in that fight was paltry. He was lucky to muster a draw against Carlos Molina.
There have been times, such as against Alfredo Angulo and Austin Trout, where Lara really planted his feet and threw devastating shots. Those were definitive victories for him. On Saturday, even when he was landing his left hand, he seemed to be throwing the shot at 70% of its full force. His offense often felt like intermittent rest stops along the highway.
What's so frustrating about Lara is that no one in the division can match his combination of speed and power; however, he can be so obtuse about the realities of boxing. He had faced judges' wrath before in boxing but there was no acknowledgement from him on Saturday that his past fighting style wasn't good enough. He retains a stubbornness that continues to hold back his career.
After the fight, he clearly believed that he had beaten Alvarez, yet he seemed to have had learned so little from his past experience. Professional boxing judges, especially those in a jurisdiction like Nevada, favor aggression. Defense and ring generalship are often downplayed. There he was, fighting in the biggest moment of his career, and he was unwilling to lay it on the line to secure the win. The bout was there for the taking but he didn't feel compelled to do more. Although we so often like arrogance in fighters, Lara's particular brand is not appealing. I'd advise him to make sure he gets the win first and then he can be as arrogant as he wants.
If I'm being particularly harsh on Lara it's because I believe that there was a large gap between his best and what he was on Saturday. Lara had several other gears he could have gone to yet he remained stuck in second. Lara is still a perfectly capable fighter who will beat many of the best junior middleweights in the world. But in his moment of glory, he was something far removed from his best because of his intransigence and arrogance, not on account of any deficiency in talent or skill.
At a certain point, truly great fighters, regardless of their athletic ability, have to adjust their styles when the situation calls for it. It's how Mayweather was able to beat Marcos Maidana and Pernell Whitaker defeated Diosbelys Hurtado. Even Roy Jones slugged it out to victory in the first fight over Antonio Tarver when his legs weren't truly there. Lara, in his athletic prime, won the battle of foot and hand speed on Saturday but he refused to make any adjustments that would have ensured victory. It was perhaps his most frustrating performance in an often baffling career. I hope that when he returns he will have finally learned something about how to win close fights at the sport's highest level.
As for Alvarez, I believe that he has matured a lot since his Mayweather wipeout in 2013. On Saturday, he was willing to miss and not wait for the perfect shot. His drop in accuracy didn't dissuade him from trying to win. He hit what was available, often Lara's arms and shoulders as he was moving away. Most importantly, he didn't let Lara's tricky style force him into despondency or mistakes. Although he tried for more, he realized that he could connect with his left hook to the body. And he dug those shots into Lara as hard as he possibly could. Those blows affected Lara throughout the fight and often stopped him in his tracks. Alvarez's power has really come into its own over the last two years. In my estimation, that facet of Canelo forced Lara to keep moving. Against a light puncher like Trout, Lara stayed in the pocket and flung hard shots. Facing Alvarez, Lara thought that the better strategy was to get on his bike. Again, this decision by Lara was telling as to the tenor of the fight.
There's a lot to like about Alvarez's progression in the professional ranks. Admittedly, I wasn't a huge fan of his during his initial forays on the world-level boxing scene. Served up a collection of undersized or older opponents, Alvarez's "development" could be mistaken as the latest boxing hype du jour, a Mexican Berto. Even his tentative performance against Austin Trout failed to impress me, although I do think he won that fight. To my eyes, Alvarez finally arrived during the Angulo fight. He now understood the big moment and boxed decisively against a good opponent. In his last two matches, he has fought with more confidence and maturity.
Having now defeated three top fighters at 154, Alvarez is much more than one of biggest superstars in the sport; he's also one of its better practitioners. There are still potential risks ahead. Matchups against Demetrius Andrade or the Charlo brothers would test his lack of foot speed and short reach. Miguel Cotto also looms and is now fighting more confidently than he has at any point in his career.
But Alvarez has continued to refine his mental approach in the ring. He no longer needs to be perfect. He has enough patience and the type of varied punch arsenal to overcome difficult opponents. He's beaten faster guys, taller ones, crafty southpaws, pressure fighters and runners. There is still much to learn but he seems intent on not just being a superstar but becoming one of the best in the sport. His choice of opponents suggests a complete confidence in his abilities and a lack of fear. Yet he acknowledges, as the greats do, that he can always get better. There doesn't seem to be any resting on laurels here. To Alvarez, he still hasn't reached his goals in the sport. I'd bet on his future.

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