Monday, May 9, 2022

Opinions and Observations: Canelo-Bivol

Light heavyweight Dmitry Bivol sent shockwaves throughout boxing on Saturday by defeating Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, the biggest star in the sport and one of its best practitioners. Yet, despite the enormity of the result, the fight offered few heroics or magical moments. It was essentially the same round after round. Bivol's high-energy work rate, dazzling left hand and sublime movement didn't allow Canelo to have many periods of sustained success. Bivol won 115-113 on all three cards, but those tallies flattered Canelo, who more likely won two or three rounds in the contest. 

Bivol's victory was comprehensive. He boxed 12 rounds without facing much duress and he seemed fresh as a daisy at the end of the fight. Although he never seriously hurt Canelo, his hand speed, mastery of distance and punch accuracy defanged Alvarez, who struggled to put punches together and had few answers in the center of the ring, where most of the fight was contested. 

That Bivol won a number of rounds against Canelo wasn't necessarily a surprise, but his chin held up better than many anticipated. Although Alvarez didn't land often throughout the fight, he did connect with a number of signature shots. He landed a scorching right uppercut at the end of the fourth round and a monster left hook at the beginning of the 12th, yet Bivol was unfazed by them. Canelo also got through with a number of hard left hooks to the body, but Bivol didn't wither. 

Bivol's left hand was dominant throughout the fight
Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland

Canelo's most recent ring style has been predicated on physically intimidating his opponents and scoring knockouts. Ignoring the importance of punch volume, he banked on his pressure and punching power to get the job done. It's a high-risk style when the knockout doesn't come.

Although Canelo had moved up from 168 to 175 lbs. for the fight, it wasn't Bivol's physicality or punching power that proved to be insurmountable; it was his length and control of distance. Bivol, mostly sticking to the outside, fired a piston left jab. And as successful as that punch was, his left hook was even better. His hook, tight and thrown with a lot of deception, came from the exact same arm slot and trajectory as his jab. Only at the last moment did he turn the punch over, and he consistently befuddled Canelo with the shot. And it's not just the mechanics of the punch, it's how he utilized it: lead shots, in combination off the jab and as a counter. In addition, he never fell in with the punch. His balance and distance were perfect, which enabled him to limit Canelo's counters. 

But Bivol wasn't a one-handed fighter. He mixed in a number of rapid-fire right hands, usually as part of a combination after a left. The speed of his right was disarming and there were numerous occasions where he hit a completely defenseless Canelo with it. 

Canelo had two plans throughout the fight, and neither worked well. He started off as the stalker, trying to push Bivol back. But Bivol's great feet and punching range didn't allow Canelo to apply successful pressure. Far too often Canelo was following Bivol and getting popped in the mouth. After struggling with Bivol's athleticism, Canelo tried his luck with his back to the ropes, specifically in the fifth, eighth and ninth rounds. And although Bivol complied by coming forward, he maintained appropriate distance, didn't smother his shots and didn't make the types of mistakes that would allow Canelo to counter successfully. Everything was contained and clean.  

Bivol's game plan was masterful and even though it appeared that he was well ahead in the championship rounds, he wisely refused to take his foot off the gas. Even after getting hit with a few menacing shots to begin the 12th, he wouldn't yield or give up the round. He dug in and turned it around. He wound up sweeping the final frame on the judges' cards; and sadly, that was needed to give him the victory. (It shouldn't have been that close.) 

Bivol was well-advised in his preparation for the bout and in the corner throughout the fight. He had a perfect blueprint to beat Canelo and his ability to win rounds cleanly, without getting greedy or sloppy, was laudable. He stayed switched on the whole fight and understood that as the foreign fighter (Russia) going up against the cash king he would be given no favors. Bivol competed all 12 rounds, but did so without succumbing to recklessness, machismo or desperation. He kept a cool head and stayed within himself all fight. And his success led to the quietest Canelo crowd in recent memory. 

Bivol confident before the final scores were announced
Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland

As for Canelo, many skills that he had displayed in the past could have come in handy against Bivol. Where were the long lead right hands from distance – the ones that dropped Austin Trout and led to the stoppage of Sergey Kovalev? What happened to the guy who used to be able to counter in combination in the center of the ring? For the most part, everything against Bivol was one shot at a time. And when all else failed, why didn't he try to rough Bivol up? Where was the grappling, the hitting in the clinch – the dark arts that can help swing a fight? Canelo seemed convinced that the one-shot knockout would come, and yet he spent so much of the night waiting.  

Bivol has now been a world champion for over four years, defending his title eight times. He has transitioned from an aggressive search-and-destroy fighter to a responsible boxer who doesn't allow many opportunities for his opponents. In his title defenses, only one foe (Craig Richards) has had more than fleeting success.

Bivol no longer cares about knockouts or looking good. He's a perfectionist who wants to win 120-108. Although his style might not create the next generation of boxing fans, his technical mastery is among the best in the sport. And while aesthetics may be great at the box office, Bivol is more concerned about winning. His mastery on Saturday was so complete that he was able to overcome not just the sport's biggest star, but the machinery of the boxing industry. For many years, Bivol has been considered inconvenient, but he will now have to be dealt with, and I bet that few fighters are celebrating that reality.  

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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