Sunday, November 3, 2019

Opinions and Observations: Canelo-Kovalev

Five punches in the 11th round ended Canelo-Kovalev: Canelo ripped a left hook to the side of the upper rib cage. He followed with a right to the body (this punch only partially landed). Canelo then cracked Kovalev with an overhand right that staggered Kovalev. Immediately after feeling that shot, Kovalev tried to evade danger by moving to his right, away from Canelo's right hand. Canelo reset and followed Kovalev. He then landed with a blistering left hook to the head, which scrambled Kovalev's senses and left him unable to defend himself properly. 

Canelo now had his golden opportunity, a free shot, and he connected with a powerful short right hand; the punch was so vicious that it turned Kovalev 180 degrees. Kovalev collapsed to the canvas, his body facing the crowd, slung through the ropes. Referee Russell Mora didn't even initiate a count. It was all over. Saul "Canelo" Alvarez had moved up two weight classes to become a light heavyweight champion. And with that thrilling finish, with that masterful five-punch sequence, the mediocrity of the previous ten rounds was almost forgotten. 

Photo Courtesy of Amanda Westcott

Until that final sequence, Canelo-Kovalev was a poor advertisement for top-class prizefighting. Certainly those from broadcaster DAZN, who had delayed the main event by more than 90 minutes as they waited for a UFC fight in New York to finish, couldn't have been pleased with the display. Canelo was after all their signature boxer, and Canelo-Kovalev in the ring was the opposite of compelling sports entertainment. 

Most of the fight played out as an exercise in futility. It was Kovalev generally missing jabs against Canelo's ineffective aggression. Scoring the bout was essentially academic; neither was performing at a particularly high level. Few real risks were taken. Little was memorable prior to the exhilarating finish. 

Although one could make the argument that Canelo was gradually wearing down Kovalev throughout the fight, he had landed so little of substance. Yes, there were a couple of significant hooks and straight right hands, but the pace was so deliberate and the punches landed were so sparse. Perhaps a better argument could be made that Kovalev wore himself down. He hadn't faced a lot of menacing fire throughout the fight and Canelo's pressure was often more theoretical than actualized. 

It was unsettling to see Kovalev, formerly one of the most devastating punchers in the sport, fight in safety-first mode, reluctant to exchange. His offensive output mostly consisted of hundreds of jabs thrown half-heartedly. Kovalev does possess one of the most damaging sticks in the sport, but those punches were left at home on Saturday. He pawed with his jab instead of snapping it. Kovalev's main objective it seemed was to use his reach advantage to keep Canelo at bay, not necessarily to hurt him or impose himself physically on the fight. 

Photo courtesy of Amanda Westcott

The ending of the bout helped to explain Kovalev's cautious performance during the match. He could no longer trust his chin or defensive reflexes. Kovalev's damage control started in round one, long before any actual damage had occurred. There were some moments in the seventh, ninth and tenth rounds where he did unfurl additional elements of his offensive arsenal – uppercuts, left hooks and jabs to the body, but those sequences were exceptions. Even after having success, he returned to his undercooked jabs, careful to avoid exchanges.  

It's never easy to defeat a competent fighter who is in safety-first mode. As a result Canelo had difficulty in establishing a sustained offense. Certainly it's a difficult proposition moving up two weight classes to beat a guy with numerous physical advantages. That proposition becomes even more complicated when the opponent provides so few openings, but Canelo was finally able to make his own luck in the 11th.  

After the match, Canelo admitted that the fight played out similarly to his intended game plan, although it may have taken a few more rounds than anticipated. And I believe him. From the opening bell his approach was crystal clear: slowly get into range; don't get caught up in a blistering pace; land enough varieties of power punches to keep Kovalev guessing; and take Kovalev into the second half of the fight, where his energy level and defensive responsibility would wane. Although it wasn't pretty to watch, the game plan would eventually work to perfection. 

Canelo might not get credit from all boxing corners for Saturday's victory, but make no mistake, it was a significant accomplishment, and perhaps the signature moment of his career. Yes, perhaps Kovalev was there for the taking, but Canelo actually had to do the taking, and he executed.  

Photo Courtesy of Amanda Westcott

Throughout his career Sergey Kovalev hasn't always been given appropriate credit for his high Ring IQ, which is a notable oversight from those who cover the sport (myself included). At his best he wasn't just knocking fighters out; he controlled them. He disciplined them in the ring. He rarely lost rounds or had competitive fights. He featured tremendous power and had a fantastic understanding of ring generalship. 

He gave Canelo very little to work with on Saturday, and that was by design. He drained almost all excitement from the fight, a credit to him and trainer Buddy McGirt. They were there to stink out the fight. Sure, it's an awful style to watch, but it was effective enough for the official scorecards to be very close going into the championship rounds (Canelo was up by two rounds on two cards and even on the third, many scoring at home had Kovalev up.)  

Despite Kovalev's competitiveness on Saturday, he should now be considering retirement. Knocked out three times in recent years by two non-punchers and a fighter coming up from middleweight, the writing's on the wall. He's had a notable career, perhaps one that will lead him to the Hall of Fame. For a while he was one of boxing's supreme destroyers and ranked high on pound-for-pound lists. He was able to regain title belts after devastating defeats, a reminder to those who insist that he is mentally fragile. In his last run he confidently outboxed a fighter (Eleider Alvarez) who had wrecked him in his previous fight. That was a high-character performance in the ring. But now it's time, and I hope that he makes the right decision to hang it up. 

Although it's easy to fixate on Canelo's baggage, such as generous hometown scorecards, his utilization of catchweights, waiting out opponents and failing drug tests (and these issues shouldn't be ignored), his talents and positive contributions to boxing are manifold. Those who object to his status in the sport may have legitimate reasons to do so, but in the ring there should no longer be any question about his considerable abilities. He has faced many of the best talents in the sport and with only one exception (Mayweather) he has fought them all on at least close-to-equal terms or better. He continues to improve and has demonstrated a robust boxing aptitude. 

Canelo's versatility and adaptability are special characteristics. He's defeated supposedly faster fighters like Austin Trout and Daniel Jacobs in the center of the ring. He was able to track down a runner like Erislandy Lara. His countering off the ropes was enough to give Gennadiy Golovkin pause in their first fight. He slugged it out with Golovkin during the rematch. He toppled Kovalev as a pressure fighter.

Comfortable leading or countering, stationary or using his legs, in the center of the ring or along the ropes, Canelo has succeeded using all of these modalities, a feat that so few in boxing could claim. Lead trainer Eddy Reynoso has developed Canelo into a complete fighter, And imagine how difficult it must be for opponents to prepare for him. Which Canelo? And what style? 

Furthermore, Canelo isn't even necessarily an exceptional athlete. He doesn't have the hand or foot speed of Crawford or Lomachenko. Although powerful, he lacks the one-punch destructiveness of Inoue. Yet here he is making a claim as the top fighter in the sport with so few of the physical dimensions that many elites possess. That he is even in the conversation speaks to his incredible Ring IQ, his ability to follow and execute vastly different game plans, his large punch arsenal and his all-around skill set as a fighter.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Westcott

What's next for Canelo will be the ultimate parlor game during the next few months. He has three divisions to work with and drives the bus in the sport. Any top fighter from 160 to 175 lbs. could be in play. And while it's an absurd thought that he would take on a killer such as Artur Beterbiev, who would have predicted earlier this year that he would be challenging and knocking out titlists at light heavyweight? 

In an era where so many fighters seem perfectly comfortable with their marginal place in the sport – hey, I have a belt; hey, I make six-figures a fight – it’s refreshing that Canelo rejects the notion of stasis and complacency. He wants to push the bounds of what's possible for him. He believes in the concept of risk. He understands that he plays a large role in pushing the sport forward. And although this can be a large burden, he not only accepts this responsibility, but wants it. This is now the Canelo Era of boxing, and he has earned the distinction.

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. 
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