By Terence Dooley
Nothing gets Billy “The Preacher” Graham’s blood pumping like a top-class boxer versus pressure fighter match-up. Graham also loves big fight nights in Las Vegas, and he enjoys the work of Floyd Mayweather, 44-0 (26), and Saul Alvarez, 42-0-1 (30), so the news of Mayweather’s September 14 WBC and WBA light-middleweight title fight against his Mexican rival at the MGM Grand fell like Manna from heaven into his ears and mind.
Ricky Hatton’s former trainer has been thinking about the fight a lot in recent weeks. He studied Mayweather for years ahead of Hatton’s December 2007 10th-round TKO loss to the American and has followed Alvarez’s career from the get-go, so he is the man to ask if you want some insight into the clash, which is being shown live on BoxNation here in the U.K.
“This fight is a little bit different, and it’s fascinating because of all the little problems and variations they pose for each other,” said Graham when speaking to BoxingScene. “Not least the weight issue, Alvarez is coming in a couple of pounds lighter (152lbs) and the guy’s a middleweight waiting to happen — he’ll be far more comfortable at middleweight.
“Another big thing is that Alvarez is young and getting better, so Floyd’s got him at the right time, and maybe this big contract with Showtime has something to do with that. So he’s picked the fight himself, but it was probably one that he could have turned down.”
A few years ago, Graham would have plumped for Floyd with only a few moments hesitation. Now, though, the former coach has mixed feelings when asked to pick a winner, and not just because of Floyd’s age, he is 36 and Alvarez is 23, but because of the way Alvarez handled himself in his litmus test against Austin Trout in their WBA Super World and WBC title fight in April.
“Canelo” showed latent boxing ability to defuse Trout, a solid southpaw who was coming off the win of his life, a decision victory over Cotto in December, and his performance impressed Graham, as well as shedding new light on the Mayweather match-up.
“What really fascinates me, and I’m a big fan of them both, is the way “Canelo” fought Trout, who is a big southpaw and very clever and accomplished not to mention awkward,” he said. “A lot of fighters say they don’t mind fighting southpaws, but it will always throw you, especially in the early rounds. Alvarez fought a different fight, though — something we hadn’t seen from him before.
“Alvarez moved in without rushing or bulling, he picked his punches and out-boxed a taller, slick southpaw, which is a little bit of a warning sign for Floyd. A lot of fighters make a huge mistake when they fight Mayweather, they think they can get inside Floyd, bull him around and beat him that way.”
Hatton, Victor Ortiz and Robert Guerrero tried to get inside Mayweather, only to discover that, once you’re beyond his shots, the multi-weight world champion has an unerring ability to negate your work on the inside and land his own punches as he moves out of range. Graham has always admired this aspect of Mayweather’s work, and Hatton was presented with the task of solving this conundrum during his sparring sessions ahead of their meeting.
“Listen, when we fought Floyd, we brought in a lot of slick sparring from Philadelphia though Brother Nazim [Richardson],” stated Graham. “Nazim got them to do everything we asked of them. They tried to fight Ricky on the outside and couldn’t cope. Then, on the final days of the sparring, they were sick of trying to compete with him and fight honestly, for want of a better word, and started trying to nullify Ricky’s work. They weren’t trying to get their own shots off, just trying to prevent Ricky from working, and that caused some problems. Then Floyd did it in the fight, he’s a master at that — if you get in close he’ll tie you in knots and then punish you.
“Floyd will slip, roll and block, and he’s always looking the guy in the eyes so he can see what’s coming. It’s very hard to work on the inside against the guy, so you have to do your work at medium range, as you’re coming inside. You’ve got to be able to pick your shots as you move in, and “Canelo” did that against Trout.”
Another Alvarez performance that caught Graham’s eye was his 12th-round TKO win over Sheffield’s Ryan Rhodes in June 2011. The Mexican was a prohibitive favourite going in, but he surprised Rhodes, an experience campaigner, with his ability to thread shots through.
“When Ryan [Rhodes] fought Alvarez, he said that the accuracy surprised him, not the strength, and that’s what bothered Ryan, who is a great defensive fighter with good reflexes,” argued Graham. “I don’t think he’ll just go charging in, he’s a lot smarter than I first thought and will use the right tactics.
“In Floyd’s fights, it is always a case of talking about what the other guy will try to do, but Floyd’s usually a huge favourite — I don’t think he has that luxury in this fight, so it’s a fight it could lose depending on how Alvarez approaches it. Floyd has taken it at the right time — Alvarez is on his way to his peak, but is not at his peak just yet.”
“Money” struggled with the intelligent pressure of Cotto when they met in May 2012. The Puerto Rican bloodied Mayweather’s nose and although there is always a temptation to score the blood, especially when it is a boxing god that’s bleeding, there were a few promising rounds for Cotto during the hard-fought fight.
All fighters grow old and some of lose their physical edge; the great fighters develop their other remaining gifts to adapt to this. Mayweather, as Bernard Hopkins did, is going through that process, swapping combinations for single counters one of the chief changes to his game. Graham believes that this has made Mayweather slightly more vulnerable.
“Personally, I like the way Floyd fights now,” he said. “It’s more entertaining — he’s nastier and has venom. People say he’s slipping a bit — he’s not, he’s adapting. It’s not just about moving around and popping shots, he’s sitting down on them a bit more and with more meaning. I prefer to watch him fight now, but it’s a riskier style of fighting for him. You can’t just let someone walk forward into you, you have to be able to plant your feet and punish him as he moves in — if Floyd can do that then it makes for a fantastic fight.
“A lot of people think Floyd will try to move around, making it easier for himself by out-boxing him, but that won’t make for an exciting fight and I’m not sure how Floyd can do that in this fight, especially after seeing how Alvarez dealt with Trout. He’s a clever, maturing fighter and a lot will depend on how Floyd plays it, but Floyd can lose.”
Still, for all the hype and anticipation, this could be a slightly more difficult retread of Mayweather’s lateral movement inspired win over Carlos Baldomir in November 2006. Graham disagrees with this assessment.
“I know what you’re saying about the comparisons, tactics and fight, but Alvarez is a lot better than Baldomir and he is improving all the time. I don’t know him personally, but he seems to be handling it OK. A lot depends on how he responds to this occasion, which is a huge one, and Floyd’s used to all that. He also appears to hold a shot, which is important. I’d actually go to this fight if I was in the U.S., but it is a tough one to call. If I had to put my Giro down on it then I’d go for Floyd.”
Floyd being Floyd, there has been some controversy, the fight has been set for 152lbs and the weight limit is viewed as yet another handicapping move from the pound-for-pound titlist. Still, Ray Leonard did the same thing to Donny Lalonde, and Alvarez didn’t do right by Matthew Hatton when hitting the scales heavier than their agreed 150lbs weight limit when they fought in 2011. Everyone tries to get themselves an advantage in the world of 24-hour weigh-ins and longer rehydration periods.
Furthermore, Leonard Ellerbe, when speaking on Mayweather's behalf, stated that Alvarez’s management had told BoxingScene that he would come down to 152 to make the fight, and has blamed the weight limit situation on the Mexican and his team. Either way, Mayweather's getting all of the heat.
Mayweather’s playing a game set down by other people, but he shoulders the majority of the ire when people talk about catchweight fights masquerading as world title encounters. Graham believes that Mayweather has always operated well within the rules, if not always the spirit, of the sport.
“That 2lbs doesn’t seem much, but you can always have a bridge too far, even in the days of day before weigh ins, so I think Floyd’s done a smart thing there,” said Graham when asked to weigh up those extra 2lbs.
“It’s alright for people to say that no one used to bother with all that years ago. Not too many people moved up in weight years ago and it’s a completely different ball game with the day before weigh-ins. I believe that weigh-ins should be the day of the fight — like they are when Russell Peltz puts a show on in Philadelphia — because I think that’s better.
“When they changed it to the day before, I had to adapt and that’s where people like [nutritionist] Kerry Kayes comes in — and Kerry’s the best as far as I’m concerned — so I relied on Kerry and we knew what could be done with the day before weigh-ins. I knew how to exploit it and don’t blame Floyd for doing it. It’s not cheating in any way shape or form because he’ll still be the smaller man on the night. As a fight fan, it pisses me off a bit, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Mayweather’s tarred with a different brush than other fighters. Lesser lights, such as Arturo Gatti, possessed greater fan affection and amore. Mayweather may bring the money, but he hasn’t always enjoyed the love. Graham puts this down to one thing, the lack of a challenger who can drag him to the brink.
He said: “It’s a funny thing with the fight public. For them to really fall in love with you then they have to see you bare your soul — taking punishment and coming back from the brink. They want to see you in really tough fights, like [Diego] Corrales against [Jose Luis] Castillo or Ali-Frazier — it takes that for them to fall in love with you.
“Floyd’s the biggest draw in the world for the TV because he’s regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world and has a complete record. It isn’t his fault that weigh-ins come the day before, he’s adapted to that — he’s also fought bigger men in his career and doesn’t get credit for that, either.
“You can’t compare the fighters from then and now because of the change in weigh-ins. Welterweights are middleweights on fight night, that’s just the way it is, and Floyd’s being penalised for it. I can see where people are coming from, but it is unfair on him. If we still had same day weigh-ins then Floyd would always make the weight. It would be seen as fair and the fact we have the opposite going on isn’t his fault.”
With that, Graham drew a line under the fight that has everyone talking and compelled him to break his brief sabbatical from interviews. He hadn’t finished, not by a long shot, but there was other business to attend to, not least David Haye’s meeting with Tyson Fury, which will be assessed by Graham in Part Two of this three-part series.
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