Thursday, October 31, 2019

Canelo-Kovalev: Keys to the Fight

Every now and then boxing provides its fans with a delightful surprise. At the beginning of 2019 much of the chatter regarding Saul "Canelo" Alvarez (52-1-2, 35 KOs) centered on a potential third fight against middleweight rival Gennadiy Golovkin. Meanwhile, Sergey Kovalev (34-3-1, 29 KOs) had recently been knocked out by Eleider Alvarez, and there was concern that the end of his career was fast approaching. 

Yet 10 months later the boxing landscape looks vastly different. Teaming with trainer Buddy McGirt, Kovalev avenged his defeat to Alvarez, turning in one of his strongest performances in recent memory. With the win Kovalev regained his light heavyweight belt. Later in the year he defeated unbeaten prospect Anthony Yarde. As for Canelo, in May he won a decision over Daniel Jacobs, one of the best fighters at middleweight, but following the fight he declined to face Golovkin for a third time. 

Canelo is in the middle of a staggering financial deal with DAZN worth over $250M and the executives at the network wanted a big fight for him in the second half of 2019. From out of the blue Alvarez floated Kovalev as a possible opponent, despite Sergey fighting two divisions north of him at 175 lbs. While few took Canelo's initial suggestion seriously, by the end of the summer this potential matchup started to gather steam. After Kovalev dispatched Yarde via 11th round stoppage, pen was soon put to paper and Canelo-Kovalev became a reality. They face each other on Saturday at the MGM Garden Arena in Las Vegas in what is one of the more compelling matchups of the year.  

Canelo and Kovalev size each other up
Photo Courtesy of Amanda Westcott

Although few boxing fans clamored for this particular fight, Canelo-Kovalev certainly contains vast amounts of intrigue: Does Canelo's punch play up at 175? Can his chin withstand the Krusher's big right hands? Is Kovalev's recent form the new normal for him, or is he still a knockout waiting to happen? And, can anybody win a close fight on the scorecards against Canelo? 

All of these factors set up what should be an engrossing fight on Saturday. Canelo features flashy shots and will have the crowd support. Kovalev's jab may be the absolute best in the sport, and he hits harder than any opponent that Canelo has faced in his career. There certainly is much to consider, but what factors are the most significant in evaluating Saturday's fight and what is merely window dressing? Read below for the keys to the fight. My prediction will be at the end of the article. 

1. Can Canelo hurt Kovalev?

In recent years Kovalev has been stopped by Andre Ward and Eleider Alvarez. Interestingly, neither was a particularly big puncher at the weight, but they did have enough power to cause damage. We've all seen Kovalev vulnerable in the ring before. He takes rounds to recover after being hurt. He loses his poise. Under duress he hasn't always made the right decisions, such as holding or buying time. 

All of the above is true, but if Canelo can't hit hard enough at light heavyweight then a major path to victory is unavailable for him. In 2018 Canelo stopped super middleweight Rocky Fielding in the third round, which was evidence that his power can play above middleweight. However, let's not confuse Fielding with a top-level guy. And also, it's another seven pounds higher from Fielding to the light heavyweight limit. It's far from certain if Canelo has enough power at 175 lbs.

In the lead up to Saturday's fight Canelo has talked about how he added significant weight training for this training camp. It will be fascinating to see whether his best power punches will be able to make a dent in Kovalev, either physically or psychologically. 

2. Canelo's chin.

One of Canelo's best strengths throughout his career has been his chin. Not only has it enabled him to stay upright against big punchers such as Golovkin and Jacobs, but it provides him with confidence in the ring. For instance, a fighter who doesn't believe in his chin would never try to slug it out for 12 rounds like Alvarez did in his second fight with Golovkin. Canelo's faith in his chin allows him to stand in the pocket and trade, to not fear big shots. 

Kovalev didn't just receive the "Krusher" moniker because of its alliterative properties; he earned it. With a heavy right hand and a spear of a jab, every punch he throws can be damaging. Sure, Canelo's chin has been sturdy throughout his career, but it may never have been tested to the degree in which it might on Saturday. If Kovalev's firepower proves to be too much for Canelo to remain in the pocket, we'll have a much different fight on our hands, and one that will tilt in Kovalev's favor.  

3. The pace of the fight. 

Kovalev needs a Goldilocks pace to win the fight in my opinion. If he's not busy enough Canelo can flurry a couple of times a round, have the crowd ooh and aah, and win one of his patented close and debatable decisions. But if Kovalev is too busy, he runs the risk of burning himself out in the second half of the fight; his endurance hasn't been his strongest attribute. In addition, a high activity level for Kovalev might provide Canelo, a master counterpuncher, with perhaps too many opportunities to hurt him. Kovalev will have a difficult assignment in setting his preferred pace. My guess is that somewhere between 40-50 punches a round will do the trick, but above that range would not be ideal. 

As for Canelo, he has fought with almost relentless urgency against Golovkin in their second fight and at other times he has turned in almost lethargic performances in close victories over Daniel Jacobs and Austin Trout. Canelo often fights with the assumption that the close rounds will go his way. And while events have supported his belief to this point of his career, it's a fine line that he walks. Kovalev will be busy; he'll be sticking a jab in Canelo's face. Taking a leisurely stroll in the park will not be enough for Canelo to win this fight; one can't always assume that the judges will be generous. 

4. Kovalev's jab. 

The best punch in the fight will be Kovalev's jab. At the advanced age of 36 Kovalev has now realized that he can win a lot of rounds with essentially just his jab. The punch is fast, accurate and hard. In addition, Kovalev does seem a little more patient and relaxed in the ring under McGirt; instead of trying to decapitate opponents with every punch Kovalev has started to understand the philosophy of putting points on the board. Setting aside some of his machismo from his earlier years, Kovalev now seems comfortable winning rounds by keeping it simple. If the opponent can't adjust, then he'll continue to land with the stick, and perhaps most importantly, Kovalev has accepted this style of fighting. 

There of course runs a real risk of Kovalev jabbing too much against Canelo. If one provides a great counterpuncher with the same look too often, the counterpuncher will find a way to punish. No doubt that Kovalev's jab will be a factor early in the fight, but a fighter as skilled as Alvarez will be able to get around it at points in the fight. He can time it, counter it, leave the pocket, move to his left toward Kovalev's right hand – there are a number of ways to neutralize a jab. So, yes, Kovalev will need to jab, but if he relies on the punch too frequently, that could lead to additional problems. Kovalev must incorporate his entire arsenal, even if sparingly. That will go a long way to keeping Alvarez honest in the fight.  

5. Kovalev's kryptonite. (And it's not what you think.)

The conventional wisdom suggests that the way to beat Kovalev is to break him down to the body. And since Canelo can be such a great body puncher...1 + 1 has to equal 2, doesn't it? Well, yes, to a degree. Certainly Kovalev doesn't react to body shots particularly well. His comportment at times can be awful after body shots and perhaps most importantly he stops being offensive after an opponent has success with him downstairs. 

But consider that in the two times Kovalev has been knocked out it's been the overhand right, or the right hand over the top, that has caused him the most trouble. Remember that Ward's punishing right hand in the second fight was the punch that started the real problems for Kovalev. The body shots might have been the icing, but the cake was Ward's pulverizing right. In the first Eleider Alvarez fight, Kovalev was caught by surprise from a lead overhand right. This shot caused the first knockdown of the fight and was essentially the beginning of the end for Kovalev that night. 

Fortunately for Canelo, he possesses such a right hand. That was the punch that knocked down Austin Trout. He also landed the shot memorably against James Kirkland and Amir Khan. In truth Canelo's body punching could very well lead to the opening for the right hand. A concerted body attack might cause Kovalev to drop his hands ever so slightly, making opportunities to land to the head more readily available. 


Make no mistake: Canelo is going to have to earn this one. Kovalev will win the early rounds of the fight. He will get off first with his jab and use his legs to avoid prolonged exchanges. His decisive jabs and one-two combos will give him a comfortable lead on the scorecards. 

But my guess is that Canelo will be willing to sacrifice some rounds to get his range. Although Kovalev can dominate opponents with his jab, eventually top fighters have been able to overcome that punch, either on the inside or the outside. It will be a matter of time before Canelo makes adjustments and starts to land his power shots. 

I believe that this fight will resemble the second Andre Ward fight, where Kovalev built an early lead with his considerable boxing skills, and like Ward, Alvarez will eventually turn the tide with something hard that catches Kovalev off guard. My guess is that a lead overhand right or a left hook to the body/overhand right combo will start the damage. Once Kovalev is hurt, Alvarez will move in for the finish and will unload with his best body shots and combinations. And he will have enough firepower to get the stoppage. 

Saul "Canelo" Alvarez KO 10 Sergey Kovalev 

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. 

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