Sunday, December 20, 2020

Opinions and Observations: Canelo-Smith

By the second round of his fight against Saul "Canelo" Alvarez on Saturday, super middleweight champion Callum Smith was already in serious trouble. Despite having significant height and reach advantages, Smith neglected to use them. He wasn't pumping out a consistent jab and failed to establish a foothold at range. Some early left hooks from Canelo had already made an impression and Smith quickly gave up the center of the ring. As the round closed, Smith inched back slowly towards the ropes in a straight line, the beginning of a pattern that would provide numerous opportunities for Canelo throughout the fight. 

It's understandable for Smith to have wanted more distance to throw his shots, but this action, this gradual retreat, wasn't representative of that strategy. He wasn't moving his legs, creating angles or boxing to hold off the advancing Canelo; no, he essentially lost his composure. Canelo possesses a number of punches that cause damage from distance: his jab, overhand right, and hooks from either hand. And with Smith inching slowly away from Canelo, Callum was never out of harm's way. His linear and gradual retreat invited even more aggression from Canelo.

Canelo (left) shooting a jab
Photo Courtesy of Ed Mulholland

Throughout Canelo's career he has fought and mastered a number of styles in the ring. As he has taken on larger opponents in his most recent fights, he has adopted the role of the patient stalker. But unlike his performance against Sergey Kovalev last year, Canelo on Saturday displayed no conditioning issues and his work rate remained consistent throughout the fight. Although he didn't burn off a lot of energy getting into position to throw, he expertly maneuvered his body to land shots to Smith's head and body. And during the rare instances where Smith used his legs to try to create different angles, Canelo cut off the ring with aplomb. There were few moments of the fight where Smith wasn't facing an imminent threat. 

Canelo possesses a number of crucial attributes for his stalking style to be successful. As already mentioned, his footwork is superb. He's almost always in a position to punch and his balance is exemplary. Rarely is he out of position or off-balance, which could lead to natural countering opportunities for his opponents. In addition, he has made significant defensive improvements over the last few years. He incorporates both head and upper body movement into his attack. He also uses his gloves to parry and block punches. Even more subtle is that he's so competent with his defensive shape that he doesn't have to over-move to avoid shots. He can use his gloves or make a quick head movement to thwart incoming fire while he continues to march forward. 

A final attribute needed to fight in this style is a quality chin. Canelo has shared the ring with some big hitters in his career: from Golovkin to Kovalev to Jacobs to Cotto to Lara to Kirkland. Not once has Canelo been betrayed by his chin from this collection of power punchers. As he has improved as a fighter he has taken fewer of these bombs, but still, some big shots do get through. Callum Smith can punch, with a solid right hand and left hook, but his power wasn't enough to make Canelo recalibrate his attack. 

Of course, Canelo has significant punching power of his own, but what's just as important is his delivery system. He seems to land on every opponent because of his creativity and deception. Canelo repeatedly had success against Smith with an unusual combination from an orthodox fighter: a right hook around the gloves followed by a right uppercut. This combination has a couple of atypical attributes. First, it's uncommon to start combinations with rear hooks, and especially from distance. If you miss a rear-hand hook from range, in theory you can be a sitting duck to be countered (for some trainers, a rear hook is a no-no for this reason). You will see a number of fighters, especially some Mexican fighters, throw a rear hand hook, but usually when they are in close, and it is part of an exchange. (Orlando Salido was another fighter who, like Canelo, was successful in throwing a rear hand hook from range.) 

Second, it's rare to see a fighter switch from a hook to the head to an uppercut with the same hand as part of a combination, let alone with the rear hand. It's an unnatural movement and it requires tremendous coordination, balance, timing and technique. Smith couldn't defend this combination all fight and the results were devastating. 

Canelo also features significant deception with his left hook. He starts the punch a little below his shoulder and an opponent cannot anticipate whether it will go to the head or body. Furthermore, he incorporates so many feints and subtle delay tactics that opponents aren't exactly ready for his power punches even though he always looks like he's ready to throw. 

Canelo's uppercut was a weapon all fight
Photo Courtesy of Ed Mulholland

Callum Smith isn't a bad fighter. He had a memorable knockout of George Groves to win the Super Middleweight World Boxing Super Series and has dispatched a number of capable opponents, such as Rocky Fielding, with relative ease. However, he couldn't adjust to Canelo's multiplicity of talents in the ring. He often resembled a deer in the headlights on Saturday. At no point did he try to rough Canelo up on the inside or run around the ring to change the trajectory of the fight. He didn't have the ability to make adjustments while enduring Canelo's pressure. After a few rounds the bout had an inevitability about it; the only pressing question was whether Callum could make it to the final bell. 

Canelo would wind up winning by a wide unanimous decision. In a few years, perhaps Callum Smith may be just another name on his boxrec ledger, a former champ and a distant memory. But Canelo's performance in this fight deserves to be celebrated. This was one of those outings where he put it all together. It was a truly complete performance.  

Canelo now has a different aura in the ring. It's no longer that opponents are worried about getting fair decisions on the cards. Now it's will they be able to make it to the final bell? Canelo has become a menace in the ring, an intimidator. Golovkin, one of the best pressure fighters of his era, was forced to go on his back foot in their rematch. Jacobs wouldn't let his hands go with consistency. Kovalev, an enormous puncher, refused to trade. Callum Smith seemed completely befuddled. Canelo's recent opponents have done very strange things in the ring; they beat themselves; and they burn up a ton of energy while not having a lot of success. That speaks to Canelo's success in applying physical and psychological pressure. 

We're watching a great fighter hitting his apex. Now peaks can vary: some can be narrow, and some wide, but let's enjoy this moment of Canelo at the summit. Seldom do fighters reach such rarified air. 

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. A complete fighter is exactly as how I would describe him. Good article.