By Cliff Rold
In the US, it was the most attended fight of the year and one of the least interesting major pay-per-view cards in memory. In Japan, it was perhaps the fight of the year and maybe the best fight at bantamweight since the last time (the only time) that division hosted a consensus choice for those honors.
Japan got the better end of the deal, also playing host to a thrilling undercard contest between Hozumi Hasegawa and Hugo Ruiz. Hasegawa, presumed well past it, notched a title win in his third weight class. As good as Hasegawa-Ruiz was, it couldn’t sniff the main event.
Saturday in Texas, at least we got a solid scrap in the headliner. The undercard was your average mid-week basic cable show featuring a couple guys on the way up and a pair of former title challengers who mixed like oil and water.
But when you put over 50,000 butts in the seats, all that matters is that people get what they came to see. The fans in Texas got Saul Alvarez winning big.
Let’s go to the report cards.
Pre-Fight: Speed – Shinsuke Yamanaka B; Anselmo Moreno B+/Post: B+; B+?
Pre-Fight: Power – Yamanaka B+; Moreno B-/Post: A; B?
Pre-Fight: Defense – Yamanaka B; Moreno A-/Post: B; B ?
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Yamanaka A; Moreno A/Post: Same
Legacy is a word that gets thrown around a lot in boxing, and in general pop culture, these days. Its use is typically worthless, an ego appeaser to people whose legacy is to be forgotten into the mists of time.
Friday’s bantamweight showdown really was about legacy, at least within the confines of the bantamweight division. Yamanaka and Moreno have been the two most accomplished men at 118 lbs. this decade, Moreno carrying his time near the top of the division over from the late 2000s. But for a cut-shortened title defense loss to Juan Carlos Payano in 2014, Moreno arguably hadn’t ever clearly lost a fight in the division.
Their first fight last year was the sort of split decision that settles nothing. Friday settled everything.
Both men fought with great fire from the opening bell. Moreno, usually a more cerebral sort, recalled the slow start that hampered him last year. He jumped in with an offensive mindset and rocked Yamanaka in the very first round. His aggression would cost him before the frame was done, Yamanaka scoring a knockdown.
Moreno boxed well in the next two rounds while Yamanaka looked for his vaunted left hand. In the fourth, it was Moreno scoring perhaps the finest right hook of his career. Never a huge puncher, it wasn’t enough. Yamanaka got up, shook off the cobwebs, and survived. He survived again in the fifth when Moreno nearly ducked him again.
These were not men looking to win on points. They came with a kill or be killed approach and we got a classic.
In the sixth, Yamanaka landed a mammoth left to drop Moreno again and added two more knockdowns in the seventh to end the rivalry and the question of who the best bantamweight of this decade has been. Moreno, seated in the corner after the final knockdown, looked more exhausted than hurt. He wore an expression familiar to fans of Alexis Arguello and Erik Morales after their last fights with Aaron Pryor and Manny Pacquiao respectively.
It was, considering the skill and accomplishment level of the fighters, the wild swings of momentum, and the finality of its conclusion, the finest prizefight contested thus far in 2016.
For Yamanaka, it was also a true legacy win. The Japanese titlist notches his 11th defense of the WBC belt against Moreno who defended the WBA title 12 times before the loss to Payano. Yamanaka is arguably having the best title run in the class since Orlando Canizales, if not Jeff Chandler when looking at the quality of his contenders. He’s 12-0 in title fights with 8 KOs, seven of those defenses against former title holders from or around the bantamweight limit.
With this win over Moreno, Yamanaka makes a case for a Hall of Fame consideration, the lineal crown in the class, and has room to embellish his credentials. The only thing missing from his ledger is an attempt at unification. Let’s hope he gets a chance to add that feather in his cap before he’s done.
For Moreno, his defensive reflexes aren’t what they were a few years ago and that could make his career hard going as he continues. Considering his frame, his best chances for new accomplishment will be in moving up and taking his chances at Jr. featherweight. If his best days are truly behind him, he can hold his head high with a long title run and some memorable encounters with the likes of Vic Darchinyan, Abner Mares, and now Yamanaka.
For those who didn’t see this fight, go out of your way to do so. You won’t be sorry.
On to Jerry World…
Pre-Fight: Speed – Saul Alvarez B; Liam Smith B/Post: B+; B
Pre-Fight: Power – Alvarez B+; Smith B/Post: A-; B
Pre-Fight: Defense – Alvarez B-; Smith B/Post: B; C+
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Alvarez A-; Smith B+/Post: Same
Liam Smith didn’t come to lose Saturday night and fans can be happy he didn’t. While he never really threatened to win the fight, little was known about how much Smith would add to the main event this weekend based on his career to date.
He added plenty. Smith was guts galore, giving everything he had before the body attack of Alvarez finally broke him down. Smith did a decent job defending to the head through the first six rounds, picking off lots of shots on the gloves and arms. His body was always wide open and Alvarez punished him there.
Alvarez had to take his share to do it. Smith appeared to briefly stun Alvarez early on with an uppercut and landed a lot of flush right hands. Alvarez went to the ropes often, and when he was there Smith did a good job landing. Alvarez slipped his share as well, but credit to Smith for working in combination to create chances.
The UK native didn’t have the power to make those shots turn the tide. He might have won a couple of rounds, but even when he was doing good work he was eroding. He wasn’t brought in to win and he didn’t but he should have won some new fans.
Alvarez wins another belt at154 lbs. but isn’t long for the class. Everything is building to an eventual showdown with Gennady Golovkin. Some are breathless about it. The wiser course is probably to forget it for a bit. Alvarez and his team have made clear that they are open to the fight in September 2017.
The innuendo about an offer for the fight being on the table? It’s still pointed at September 2017. This fight isn’t likely to happen before then no matter how much folks gnash their teeth and stomp their feet. Nothing on Saturday indicated that Alvarez is really all that live against Golovkin and hoping the Kazakh at least gets older before he faces him seems to be the hope from Team Canelo.
Is that a good thing? Well, if Saturday was any clue, an Alvarez-Golovkin fight in Dallas might produce the sort of crowd that hasn’t been seen in the US in a long time. From a business sense, it all makes perfect sense. From a fistic sense, it’s an annoying part of being a fight follower.
The advice from here? Find other fights to talk about and enjoy for now. Ignore Alvarez-Golovkin until it’s realistic. That will be sometime next year. They’ve already told everyone that. All the complaining in the world isn’t going to change it.
Report Card and Staff Picks 2016: 34-11
While there wasn’t enough time for the big cruiserweight fight this weekend, a tip of the cap to Oleksandr Usyk for capturing a cruiserweight title in only his 10th pro fight. He put on a master class in outboxing tough Krzysztof Glowacki and is only going to improve in the pro game. Usyk might be a cruiserweight now, but one of these days he’s going to make noise at heavyweight.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]