“His legacy is secure.”

We’ve heard that ad nauseam just about every time someone talks about Saul “Canelo” Alvarez refusing to fight David Benavidez. And it’s true: Canelo has spent the best part of 15 years taking on tough opposition in a variety of weight classes, almost always coming out on top. He is already a lock for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. 

But a secure legacy shouldn’t make a fighter immune to deserved criticism, even if their accolades outweigh their flaws. Today, at this moment, Canelo is avoiding Benavidez for no apparent good reason. He has not taken on a meaningful challenge since he lost to Dmitry Bivol at light heavyweight in 2022. That is worth talking about.

The Bivol loss was Canelo’s first defeat since he fell to Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2013. That night in 2022 is seen as the night Canelo hit his ceiling – he had been daring to be great for a long time, and finally he was a little too daring. 

But in hindsight, perhaps Canelo significantly underestimated the challenge in front of him.

Canelo had gone up to 175 once before and knocked out an aging Sergey Kovalev. He won that fight by waiting for opportunities to counter and throwing big single shots. He had complete faith that his power would be enough to drop and stop a bigger man, and though he lost several rounds, in the 11th he was proven right. 

Bivol was a different beast. He threw stiffer jabs and combinations against Canelo, sitting down on his punches in a way that Kovalev never did. And, crucially, he took Alvarez’s power comfortably. 

Yet if you watch the way Canelo fought Bivol, he essentially used the same style he did against Kovalev. Again, Canelo threw a bunch of big punches, mostly one at a time, and tried to knock Bivol out. He hit Bivol’s arms in the hopes that Bivol would drop them. When that didn’t work, Canelo had no Plan B. He looked deflated long before the end of the fight.

We have seen Canelo’s preparation shine in the ring before. Just watch the way he made Gennady Golovkin miss his big right hands in their contentious 2017 fight, and how he marched forward for most of their 2018 rematch. He flashed expert head movement to get inside the long jabs of Callum Smith and Danny Jacobs. 

Canelo clearly didn’t do the same level of prep against Bivol. All the judges scored the fight 115-113 for Bivol, but most media members thought Canelo won no more than four rounds. Many thought he won as few as one or two.

Before fighting Canelo, Bivol had shown little to indicate he was capable of such an airtight performance. He wasn’t seen as the boogeyman at 175 – that distinction went to Artur Beterbiev, whom Canelo has shown little interest in fighting. Bivol was a clear betting underdog going into the Canelo fight. Some sharp boxing fans and writers recognized the true talent that he was, but to say it was evident to everyone is incorrect. 

In the weeks before the loss to Bivol, Canelo spoke about one day moving up to cruiserweight. He had just unified all the belts at 168, fighting an admirable four times in 2021. He hadn’t lost since 2013. He probably felt invincible – and for good reason. 

With all that in mind, here’s what seems to have happened: Canelo wanted another belt at 175 and saw a fighter in Bivol who, given his lack of recent knockout wins and exclamation-point-worthy performances, was ripe for the picking. 

Canelo got in the ring, realized he was wrong, and failed to adjust because it had been so long since he needed to. He lost more handily than he thought was possible.

With his aura of invincibility cracked, Canelo got spooked. He thought about a rematch, realized it would probably be an uphill battle even if he performed better, and decided he didn’t want one. 

Canelo realized that, unlike when he lost to Mayweather, he had nothing to prove anymore and didn’t need to rebound from the loss to make the Hall of Fame. So he decided that not only did he not want the rematch, he was done taking fights he had a decent chance of losing, period. Hence him leaving Benavidez out in the cold.

Bivol had a substantial reach advantage over Canelo, showed a good chin, and threw combinations consistently. Can you think of another opponent Canelo could fight who has those same attributes, shares the initials “D.B.”, and has even more pop in his punches? 

It would be one thing if Canelo defended his belts at 168 against the top challengers instead of taking another crack at Bivol. That was the tension in late 2022 and early 2023: would Canelo try to avenge his first loss in forever, which he was supposedly hell-bent on, or take on Benavidez? Instead, Canelo has chosen option C: winning easy unanimous decisions over opponents no one wanted him to fight. His last three opponents have been a 40-year-old Golovkin, an overmatched John Ryder, and a completely uninterested Jermell Charlo. Next up for Canelo is Jaime Munguia, which the boxing world is tolerating only because he first teased a fight with Edgar Berlanga. 

This does not seem like the opposition of a fighter who remains interested in taking on the toughest possible challengers. 

Benavidez has spent the last two years putting himself in position as Canelo’s clear primary challenger at 168. Years ago, Canelo said that he wanted the contenders in the division to battle it out to earn a shot at him. Benavidez earned that shot by beating Caleb Plant and Demetrius Andrade. Canelo still won’t fight him. 

What makes this hard to stomach is that Canelo appears to have quite a bit left. Plenty still think he would beat Benavidez. He’s no longer at his peak, sure, and hasn’t scored a knockout since late 2021. And there’s no sense in fighting a killer like Benavidez when you’re washed. But against Charlo, whom Canelo essentially shut out, Alvarez showed that he isn’t washed. In fact, he’s still pretty damn good. He’s so good that ESPN ranks him fourth pound-for-pound, even above the very same Bivol who beat him comfortably two years ago. There’s no one else remotely as compelling as Benavidez for Canelo to fight, but Alvarez has treated the idea of the bout as beneath his attention. He’s also mentioned how big Benavidez is. What happened to those aspirations to fight as cruiserweight?

This, my friends, is what we call a “duck.”

If Canelo takes on Benavidez, many will be pleasantly surprised and give him props for fighting the man who has been his No. 1 contender at 168 for multiple years. But it feels silly and, frankly, desperate to keep hoping for a fight that Canelo has expressed all of zero interest in. 

It’s possible, of course, that Canelo will have a change of heart. Maybe a fourth straight fight against an opponent a full level below him will reawaken his appetite to push himself. Maybe he’s saving Benavidez for the final fight of his career. Until that hypothetical point, perhaps it’s time to temper the “this man has never shied away from a challenge” talk, recall how Canelo waited until Golovkin showed signs of decline before fighting him, and finally criticize boxing’s longtime golden boy. 

Is Canelo’s legacy secure? Of course. But you’re kidding yourself if you think he’s currently interested in adding to it.