by David P. Greisman
The fight between Canelo Alvarez and Amir Khan was marketed as a battle pitting power against speed. That much was true, though it is never truly that simple. What also matters is how that power or speed is used. It depends on who is delivering it and who will be receiving it.
In this case, Khan needed to be quick enough with his hands and feet in order to succeed with what often is described as the purpose of boxing, though again that description tends to be an oversimplification. Against Alvarez, however, Khan truly had to attempt to hit and not get hit. His speed would be key to the doing, while Alvarez’s power would unlock Khan’s undoing.
This was a high-wire act, a precarious predicament that required the perfect balance of offense and defense. Perfection was the only option. Failing once meant falling once, and falling once is enough. There’s no getting back up.
Khan winning wasn’t impossible. His losing, however, seemed inevitable.
The expected end came in the sixth round, when a right hand landed right, a conclusive, concussive blow. The shot to the chin knocked Khan out. He fell backward, his head hitting the canvas with such speed and force that it bounced several inches back up into the air. His eyes were open, but he was otherwise unconscious, laid flat on his back with his arms at his sides, the only movement coming from his heaving breathing.
That was the result most had predicted when this fight was announced. Speed can counter power. Khan has considerable speed, with two of the fastest hands in boxing. He needed more than just his fast hands in order to win.
Most fighters have question marks hanging over their heads, flaws that will be exposed or weaknesses that will be revealed. Khan’s wasn’t over his head but in his chin. He’d been knocked out in less than a minute against Breidis Prescott back in 2008. He was badly wobbled by Marcos Maidana, surviving to win a close decision in 2010. He was put down three times and stopped by Danny Garcia in 2012. He had to get off the canvas to beat Julio Diaz in 2013.
Prescott, Maidana and Garcia all have heavy hands. There’s no shame in being hurt by a good puncher, but most fighters still seek to avoid that scenario. That’s harder for Khan. He’s vulnerable when caught by someone who can hit well, and the gaps in his defense made it easier for that to happen.
So while he worked on tightening up those gaps, he also sought to sturdy himself. A building is less likely to topple if it has a strong base. For the lanky Khan, that meant leaving the lightweight division behind soon after the Prescott loss, going from 135 and adding five pounds of leeway.
He won a world title at 140 in 2009 and then unified it with another in 2011 before losing later that year to Lamont Peterson in a controversial decision made even more controversial when it was revealed months later that Peterson had been using synthetic testosterone for what his team claimed was a legitimate medical use. Khan was given one of his belts back, then lost it for good to Garcia.
He eventually went from 140 to 147, hoping for a match with Floyd Mayweather Jr. When that didn’t happen immediately, Khan began to build his case for the fight, dominating a pair of former titleholders in Luis Collazo and Devon Alexander. A bout with Mayweather still didn’t come; Mayweather’s long-awaited fight with Manny Pacquiao happened instead. Khan went on to face Chris Algieri, winning a decision but needing to overcome a tougher than anticipated challenge to do so.
Khan hoped for a fight with Manny Pacquiao. He turned down an offer to face titleholder Kell Brook in what would’ve been a big domestic fight between two British welterweights. Khan ended up accepting an even bigger challenge.
Alvarez was the middleweight champion. Khan wasn’t going all the way up to 160, though. Alvarez has for the past two years fought slightly above the junior middleweight limit, coming in at or slightly below a contractually agreed-upon maximum of 155 pounds.
It still presented a potential disadvantage for Khan. He already had trouble handling the power of opponents his size. While Khan was slightly taller, Alvarez was otherwise the bigger man. He had enough power to trouble fighters in his own division. He had more than enough to hurt a foe coming up from a lighter weight class, an exclamation point that could punctuate with extra emphasis if it hit Khan in his question mark.
Khan understood this. “I know that one little mistake in a fight like this could get me in trouble,” he said in April, weeks before the bout. But, he added later, he would rise to this challenge rather than be felled by it.
“I've made mistakes in the past against guys my own weight because I know naturally I’m more gifted than them and I’m more skilled than them and I’m a better fighter than them, but these are ones that probably could be my worst opponents because I don't really have that fear element,” he said. “Whereas when you’re fighting someone who’s tough and who’s dangerous and it’s going to be a tough fight, then that’s what brings out the ‘A’ game in me.”
He believed that being an underdog for once meant he wouldn’t underestimate his opponent. Except he overestimated his ability to, well, use his abilities.
“My skills are what's going to win me this fight,” he’d said. “I know I’m not going to be stronger than Canelo in any way. I’m not going to be thinking I'm stronger than Canelo, but I’m going to stand with him and fight with him. I think my skills in this fight will win me the fight, and I don't know if the speed I have is something that — I don't think that Canelo's experienced speed with combinations and speed with power.”
Khan came in at 155, hoping he’d added enough power with muscle without compromising too much of his speed. Speed, after all, can counter power. It is never truly that simple, though. What also matters is how that power or speed is used.
Khan used his speed to circle around Alvarez in the opening minute, darting in with a fast jab and a straight right hand that landed well barely 30 seconds in. He dodged Alvarez’s lead left hook, then came forward with a flurry that had Alvarez backing up to get away.
It quickly became clear that Khan was seeking only to engage when necessary at the beginning, staying out of range, coming in to catch Alvarez off guard and then getting out before Alvarez could respond. It made sense. He could frustrate Alvarez, pot-shotting him with hard punches and overwhelming him with the speed of his barrages. He could make Alvarez wary of what was coming, getting him to shut down and allowing Khan to take over.
Except that’s not what happened.
Khan’s strategy meant he wasn’t throwing much, which in turn meant he wasn’t landing much. It also meant Alvarez wasn’t throwing or landing much either, given that he had a mobile target. Yet the fact that Khan wasn’t landing much meant he wasn’t putting Alvarez on the defensive, which meant Alvarez wasn’t being deterred.
It’s understandable why some who were watching thought that Khan was winning, given that Alvarez wasn’t landing much and Khan was scoring on occasion and avoiding being knocked out. Two of the three official judges agreed early on, giving Khan the first two rounds. Alvarez began to pick up the pressure with his pursuit, knowing that Khan’s feet aren’t as fast as his hands. That’s why Peterson had been able to force Khan back and why Algieri was able to land well.
Alvarez began to land with more regularity, and the smartly targeted body shots helped slow Khan’s mobility. Khan continued to circle. He wasn’t going in and out often, so when he stopped moving he would be right in front of Alvarez. Canelo liked to lead in those circumstances, not waiting for Khan to use his speed. Sometimes Khan would try to dodge the punches, though not always.
Alvarez’s trainers had noticed this while preparing for the bout. They felt that Khan didn’t use head movement to avoid punches. Instead, he tried to catch them on his gloves. Alvarez could try to punch through or around Khan’s guard.
Or he could try to remove it altogether.
That’s what Alvarez did to end the fight. With about 33 seconds remaining in the sixth, Khan threw two jabs into the air in front of both men and brought his left hand back low. Canelo feinted with a jab. Khan didn’t move away. Instead he attempted to parry the nonexistent shot, swatting to his left with both hands. Khan’s chin was unguarded as Canelo came forward with a hard right hand.
It was the expected ending, one that Khan wanted to avoid. Alvarez’s promoter, Oscar De La Hoya of Golden Boy Promotions, had tried to sell this fight by comparing it to his own loss to the smaller Manny Pacquiao. It was ingenious but disingenuous. De La Hoya was finished, at the end of his career when he fought Pacquiao and further hampered by dropping down lower in weight than he’d been in more than a decade. Pacquiao, meanwhile, was adept at dodging in the pocket and pouring forth an onslaught of blows.
Canelo was younger, in his prime and hadn’t disadvantaged himself making 155. Khan didn’t have Pacquiao’s style. Pacquiao had thrown an average of 73 punches per round against De La Hoya, landing an average of 28, according to CompuBox. Khan threw an average of 28 punches per round — the same amount Pacquiao had landed alone — and hit Alvarez just eight times every three minutes. For Khan to succeed, he’d need to box 12 perfect rounds. For Alvarez to succeed, he only needed to land the one right shot.
Khan couldn’t postpone the inevitable. And now Alvarez shouldn’t postpone the inevitable — a fight with Gennady Golovkin
Canelo is considered the lineal champion at middleweight. He beat Miguel Cotto, who beat Sergio Martinez, who beat Kelly Pavlik, who beat Jermain Taylor, who beat Bernard Hopkins. Golovkin is considered the best at 160, a rising force whom Cotto didn’t face and whom Canelo has postponed facing.
Golovkin is in the unusual position of not only having two world title belts but also being the “interim” titleholder for a third, making him the mandatory challenger to the World Boxing Council belt now held by Alvarez. Cotto had avoided the obligation. Alvarez and Golovkin had agreed to take interim fights, postponing the collision until later in 2016, at the earliest.
There’s still no guarantee that the bout will happen. Alvarez will likely try to exert his influence as a highly marketable superstar in order to get Golovkin, a popular yet lesser star than Canelo, to accept contractual terms that would leave him at a competitive disadvantage. Namely, Alvarez would want to make Golovkin lose more weight. Golovkin wants to fight at 160.
If the fighters can’t reach an agreement, the WBC could order a purse bid — allowing promoters to bid on the right to put on the fight — and in that case the bout would have to be at a 160-pound limit. Alvarez could always just drop the title instead of defending it against Golovkin, choosing perhaps a rematch with Cotto on another lucrative pay-per-view catering to their respective Mexican and Puerto Rican fanbases.
Golovkin has said he wants all of the belts at his weight class. He no doubt also wants the benefits of participating in a big fight with Alvarez. Canelo seems interested in the bout, too. He called Golovkin into the ring after the knockout over Khan. He’s spoken of wanting the fight.
Alvarez hasn’t shied away from challenges in the past. His lone loss came against Floyd Mayweather Jr., the best boxer of this generation, in 2013. Alvarez took on and outpointed the stylistically difficult Erislandy Lara in 2014. He should follow that trend and accept a fight with Golovkin — and accept it with a 160-pound weight limit. Alvarez is a proud fighter, and there’s less pride in beating a lesser version of your opponent who’s been weakened by tactics employed in negotiations rather than in the ring.
All of this is talk until there are names signed on dotted lines. Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin will have to come to terms before they can come to blows.
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. Pick up a copy of David’s book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon or internationally at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsworldwide. Send questions/comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org