Sunday, November 7, 2021

Opinions and Observations: Canelo-Plant

Saul "Canelo" Alvarez threw a leaping left hook in the 11th round on Saturday night that landed high on Caleb Plant's head. The shot hurt Plant and he bent over in obvious pain. Canelo followed up with a short right uppercut and then a left uppercut, dropping Plant to the canvas. After Plant beat the count, Canelo went for the finish. He landed a strafing left hook and then cornered Plant along the ropes and attacked him with a series of power shots at close range that put Plant through the ropes, ending the fight. 

With the victory, Canelo has now become the undisputed champion at super middleweight. The end of the fight was a thrilling display of power punching and finishing, but it was Canelo's actions earlier in the bout that led to the success of that memorable leaping left hook.

A large portion of Canelo-Plant was fought along the ropes, with Canelo pressing forward and Plant defending using the shoulder roll or "Philly Shell" style of defense. The Philly Shell, when employed correctly by an orthodox-stance fighter, creates distance between the defender and the opponent's straight right hand to the head. 

Canelo (right) about to dig in with his left hook
Photo courtesy of Amanda Westcott

Earlier in his career Canelo was befuddled by Floyd Mayweather, who used a similar type of defensive framework. Yet while he was ineffectual against Mayweather in 2013, Canelo was ultimately able to punch his way to a victory on Saturday against Plant. Let's dig into why this occurred in a little more detail. 

In my estimation there were three main differences between the Mayweather and Plant fights for Canelo. One difference was an improvement from Canelo and the other two were aspects where Plant was deficient (one strategic, one technical). 

Against Mayweather, Canelo fell into the trap of looking for a perfect, clean shot. Finding no obvious targets, Canelo mostly kept his hands at bay, waiting, and getting popped while he waited. 

Whereas on Saturday, Canelo hit everything that was available, even if he didn't always land fully flush. He peppered Plant with solid left hooks to the gut and chest. He attacked Plant's left flank with straight right hands. If Plant ducked down, Canelo threw chopping right hands to the top of the head. Canelo was causing damage and landing authoritative blows even if the first shot couldn't find its way home. And more importantly, he blasted Plant's arms and shoulders with shots, not necessarily scoring blows, but punches that can have a significant effect in reducing an opponent's agility. 

Plant made the mistake of spending too much time on the ropes. And even though many fighters can be capable of fighting off the ropes for a period of time or even a couple of rounds, eventually a capable opponent will be able to land his best shots against an immobile target. Although Plant did feature movement during parts of the fight, and successful movement, there were too many portions of the bout where he languished on the ropes, basically inviting Canelo to tee off on him. Mayweather could be great against the ropes, but he utilized the ring far more to his advantage, understanding that the real estate that the ring provided him was an inherent advantage for his athleticism. 

Caleb could have used the center of the ring more in Saturday's fight, and I'm not sure why he didn't. It's an area where he had success during parts of the bout. But perhaps Canelo's pressure and Plant's relative lack of experience was a bad combination. Plant has been hard-wired as a back-foot fighter. It's how he emerged as a prospect in the sport and that style has been paramount in his rise to the championship level. However, the best fighters need to learn multiples ways to win a fight, and on Saturday, Plant was unwilling to press forward, or even to hold his ground in the center of the ring. He ceded far too much ground to the slower-footed Canelo, which was a mistake. 

One other key difference between Plant and Mayweather was that Plant just didn't have Mayweather's right hand. Canelo couldn't throw his left hook with abandon against Mayweather because Floyd had that sharp, stinging counter right; it was one of the best shots in his arsenal. Plant doesn't have a lot of confidence with his right and even when he would throw and land the punch (which didn't really start happening until later in the fight), there wasn't enough mustard on it to dissuade Canelo. 

Canelo with his hardware
Photo courtesy of Amanda Westcott

The following may sound like a back-handed compliment, but I do mean it as a positive: For a one-handed fighter with little power and not enough championship experience, Plant fought as well as could be expected. He won a number of rounds with just his jab and movement alone. He didn't make it easy for Canelo. His defense forced Canelo to really work for the victory. He was a tricky opponent who fought close to the best of his abilities at this point of his career. 

Of course, if Plant had experienced more challenging development fights he would have been in a better position against Canelo. Perhaps he would have acquired the proficiency of how to impose himself on the front foot. Maybe he would have learned that sitting on the ropes round after round could be a detriment against a real puncher. But with that said, Plant, even with his limitations, rose to become a champion and gave Canelo a real fight. 

But let's take this back to the top to provide another example of Canelo's greatness in the ring. As Canelo cornered Plant on the ropes, he moved directly to Plant's left shoulder. This action helped Canelo in two ways. First, because he was so close to Plant, he took away Plant's left hook, which is his best power punch. There just wasn't enough room to land it in close quarters. Second, it allowed Canelo the opportunity to dig to Plant's body with his own left hook. 

Canelo's left hook to the body was his signature punch throughout the fight. And in the 11th when Canelo started to unfurl his left hand, Plant assumed that the shot was going to come to his body. Instead, Canelo went upstairs with the punch and caught Plant by surprise. It was the repeated body attack by Canelo that led to the opening to the head later in the fight. 

Ultimately, the knockout was well-earned by Canelo. Punishing Plant to the body with left hooks, he created the opportunity to go upstairs, and he executed that final deception flawlessly. In the past Canelo could have lost to a fighter with Plant's style. But on Saturday he took what was available, capitalized on a few mistakes, exploited the weaknesses of an under-experienced opponent and won the fight with a perfect combination of intelligence and technical ability. It may not have been Canelo's cleanest performance, but Saturday's victory did reveal numerous aspects of his mastery in the ring. Shorter, smaller, and slower, in the end it didn't matter; Canelo left no questions as to who was better. 

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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