Sunday, September 16, 2018

Opinions and Observations: Canelo-Golovkin 2

Bear with me here, because I might go off the reservation a little bit. 

There were two moments in the 12th round of the Saul "Canelo" Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin rematch that illustrated how Golovkin could have made Saturday's fight much easier for himself. During the tense, final round, twice Golovkin backed off and started to circle away from Canelo. Both times Canelo raised his arms up and signaled to Golovkin, as if to say, "No, stay here and fight me." And like a docile pet responding to his master, Golovkin obliged, and the fight's ferocious combat continued. 

That Golovkin was compliant to Canelo's wishes reinforced a major strategic error made by both Golovkin and his trainer, Abel Sanchez. The reasons why Alvarez demanded that Golovkin fight him in the center of the ring were simple: he couldn't move laterally or push off with his back foot. 

Canelo, who had arthroscopic knee surgery prior to the fight, entered the bout wearing a sleeve on his right knee, the one used for planting and pushing off. It was clear from watching the fight, although unremarked by the HBO announce team (which generally had an awful night), that Canelo was dragging his right leg. Almost all of Canelo's weight was on his front foot. This is not his traditional boxing stance; he usually has perfect balance in the ring.

Photo Courtesy of Ed Mullholland/HBO

Much was said about how Canelo changed his approach from the first fight, and he certainly did. Instead of countering off the ropes for large portions of a round, Canelo inched forward in the center of the ring and let combinations go. Gone were the big shots from the outside; the longer punches require more shifting in weight from the back to the front foot. Canelo fought entirely in the pocket and in close range. I'm sure that these changes in part could be attributed to a strategic decision – to be viewed as more of the aggressor in the fight. But I think mostly he fought in that style out of necessity. 

Let's examine fighting off the ropes for a moment. When a boxer has his back to the ropes, he uses his back leg to push off, steer and counter. The back leg bears almost all of the weight. Canelo spent no time in Saturday's fight doing this, again, partially because the optics of fighting off the ropes are bad for judges; it makes the other boxer look like the one initiating the action, irrespective of his success. But most importantly, one can't fight off the ropes if the back leg doesn't provide adequate stability. And to me, it was clear that that was the case. 

It wasn't just me who noticed Canelo's knee issue. I received a number of tweets throughout and after the fight about Canelo's knee (partly because I highlighted this factor in my preview article). I watched the fight with my brother-in-law who said without any prompting from me in the third round, "Look, he's dragging his leg." 

Between rounds when HBO's cameras focused on Golovkin's corner, Sanchez kept telling Golovkin to hold his ground and go for the knockout. Unfortunately for Sanchez, he got too caught up in the battle of machismo and didn't consider other options for winning the match. Ultimately, Sanchez (and by extension, Golovkin) was goaded into Canelo's fight. Sure, they may have wanted an all-out brawl in their first match last September. They might have thought that a slugfest favored them, but on Saturday, a different, clearer and perhaps less punishing avenue was available for the win. 

More than anyone else, Sanchez was constricted by the notion of "Mexican Style." He should have adapted, perhaps even planned for a less mobile version of Canelo, and instructed his charge to fight in a way that could have provided a much easier road for victory. Although it's not Golovkin's preferred style, it's not as if Golovkin can't box and move; he did so beautifully against David Lemieux, using his jab and moving around the ring to win rounds easily before scoring a decisive stoppage.  

What Golovkin needed on Saturday was more of an "American Style” – that of the boxer-puncher. Once it became clear that Canelo couldn't move laterally, Golovkin should have circled Canelo with his jab and used angles to force Canelo to reset, which would have been exceedingly difficult for him because of his knee. 

The problem with any fighter who places too much weight on his front foot is that he can only move in straight lines. Try standing up and shuffling side-to-side with your weight equally distributed among both feet. Now shift you weight to the front foot and the movement becomes much more ponderous and far less fluid. 

Had Golovkin incorporated more elements of traditional boxing into Saturday's fight, in all likelihood the event would have turned out to be far less enjoyable than it was. But you know what, a boxer's first duty is to win. If the crowd boos, then so be it. Truly versatile fighters and trainers pick the style that affords them the best chance to win. Talents such as Mayweather, Crawford and Lomachenko could beat an opponent any which way. Unfortunately for Golovkin, he and his team suffered from a lack of imagination and remained captive to their notion of machismo and "Mexican Style".

As a reminder, Golovkin was an Olympic silver medalist and possesses one of the best jabs in the sport. He illustrated on Saturday that he could certainly be successful boxing off the back foot. What was missing was the right instruction from his corner and the recognition that something different might be better. 

Nevertheless, I still thought that Golovkin won, even fighting Canelo's fight. I had him winning seven rounds to five, or 115-113, but certainly there were enough swing rounds in the bout that the official scores (114-114, 115-113 Canelo and 115-113 Canelo) were defensible. Overall, it was an excellent, close, and well-contested fight. Perhaps the right man didn't win, but it's hard to argue that the judges' cards weren't within an acceptable range of conceivable scores.

Photo Courtesy of Ed Mullholland/HBO

None of the above is meant to diminish Canelo's accomplishments on Saturday. Fighting with what I believed was a real handicap, he won the battle of ring generalship. In terms of geography, the action was right where he wanted it. Often controlling the center of the ring, he threw blistering left hooks, punishing right uppercuts, a number of dazzling combinations and some nifty counter jabs. 

Despite the surgery and the resulting post-operative physical therapy, his conditioning was far improved in the second fight. Perhaps by the ninth round his gas tank started to deplete ever so slightly, but he was having problems as early as the fourth in the first bout. In addition, Saturday's fight was contested in a far more grueling manner than their match last year. His conditioning was very impressive on Saturday. 

Credit also needs to be given to Canelo's head trainer, Eddy Reynoso. Years ago, Reynoso took a boatload of criticism, and justifiably so, for Alvarez's listless performance against Mayweather, where it was clear that the trainer had no "Plan B". However, as Canelo has developed as a fighter and Reynoso has gained additional experience against top opposition, Eddy's improvement has been vast. Canelo is now a fighter who can win a fight in close range or on the outside, with short single punches or free-flowing combinations, along the ropes or in the center of the ring, by cutting off the ring or by moving to evade pressure, leading or countering. In short, Reynoso has helped create one of the sport's more versatile fighters. 

In my final estimation of Saturday's fight, Golovkin and Sanchez helped to beat themselves. Against a slightly diminished fighter, they played into his hands. Perhaps they still should have won. Maybe three different judges could very well have given them the verdict. However, the type of fight that they chose to engage in left reasonable doubt as to which boxer was the rightful victor. As great as Sanchez has been throughout his career, Saturday's performance was a major failing and highlights his limitations. What was needed on Saturday was an out-of-the box thinker, a cornerman comfortable with making significant changes on the fly. 

As for Golovkin, he fought valiantly, if not necessarily intelligently. Saturday might have been his last big stage to shine. He proved his mettle and beat back those pesky whispers that he was somehow an old fighter. But what missing was some cunning, some cleverness, some craft. Golovkin will be remembered as one of true shining stars from his era, but he was so close to being something even more. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.

1 comment:

  1. I am yet to rewatch the bout, I still have Canelo winning but will respond once I run through further analysis. In addition to this which you share I must admit that you analysis is spot on, GGG corner lost this one and allowed themselves to be manipulated into fighting in manner that was not optimal. Canelo won the chess match and it leveraged his effectiveness and the illusion borne on Saturday night.