by David P. Greisman
Canelo Alvarez was a star long before he even had a chance to prove his place among the best in the sport.
He was a precocious prospect who turned pro at 15 years old and had won 33 fights before his teenage years ended. He had a charismatic personality and a fan-friendly approach, plus he was a good-looking, red-haired fighter from Mexico. Fans flocked to him. He brought huge numbers on television in his home country and drew some of the better ratings for boxing on HBO and Showtime in the United States.
He was 19 when he was featured in the chief supporting bout on a Floyd Mayweather pay-per-view in 2010, was headlining on HBO the next year, and had grown so big that he was once the main event in Los Angeles on the same night and the same broadcast as a Mayweather pay-per-view otherwise airing from Las Vegas, all so that Alvarez could be paid well while bringing more sales for Mayweather’s show. He also drew nearly 40,000 people to his fight against Austin Trout in early 2013.
All of that, plus the pair of world titles he had already won, brought him into a fight later in 2013 with the best boxer of this era, Mayweather, before Alvarez had even truly proven himself against the best in his division. It was as much a business transaction as a boxing match, the pairing of the most popular active fighters in their respective countries.
Alvarez, now months away from his 25th birthday, is an entrenched star and budding superstar. His lone loss came against an all-time great who has never been defeated and likely never will be. And yet he still is fighting doubts. Every win should bring him closer to being accepted, rather than still being seen as just another bout away from being exposed. But each win seems to come with caveats.
After losing to Mayweather, Alvarez battered Alfredo Angulo. Yet Angulo appeared battle-worn, a shell of his past form, a faded fighter who would lose in an upset six months later and who has not returned to the ring since.
After beating Angulo, Alvarez edged Erislandy Lara. Yet Lara’s emphasis on moving his feet instead of moving his hands may have been what cost him the win. Alvarez was fortunate to be the one in pursuit, sending shots at Lara’s body and picking up enough points on two of the three judges’ scorecards.
And after Lara, Alvarez faced James Kirkland this past Saturday, weathering an early onslaught before scoring one knockdown in the first round, then two more in the third, including a devastating right hand that ended the fight emphatically in front of another large crowd, with an announced 31,588 people in attendance in the stands and on the field at Minute Maid Park, the Major League baseball stadium in Houston, Texas.
The right cross that spun Kirkland around should also bring a star turn for Alvarez, demonstrating that he continues to improve, that he has enough skill and technique, along with power, to keep him among the top of a pool of titleholders and contenders at 154 pounds.
Of course, there are caveats.
Kirkland had not fought in nearly a year and a half. His last appearance had been a sixth-round stoppage of Glen Tapia back in December 2013. That was his lone performance from the past three years. Before then, his previous outing was a disqualification victory over Carlos Molina back in March 2012. Molina was winning that fight at the time.
Kirkland’s multiple periods of inactivity — brought about by promotional disagreements, by issues with his management and trainer, and by stints behind bars — would be problem enough on their own. But then there were the demonstrated defensive flaws for which his offensive output couldn’t always counterbalance. His chin could be hit. And when he got hit, he got hurt.
He came out aggressively against Allen Conyers in late 2007, only to be wobbled by a counterpunch and then knocked down. Kirkland rose and scored a technical knockout in the first round.
He came out aggressively against Nobuhiro Ishida in early 2011, only to be dropped three times and stopped less than two minutes into the first round by a relatively light-hitting fighter.
He came out aggressively against Alfredo Angulo in late 2011, only to be dropped hard with a counter. Kirkland rose, recovered, battered Angulo throughout the remainder of the first round before scoring a knockdown of his own, then beat Angulo up for the rest of the fight before the referee waved things off in the sixth.
Kirkland had not worked with longtime trainer Ann Wolfe, a fantastic and ferocious former fighter, for the Ishida bout. It was reasonable to wonder whether he’d been prepared properly or made weight healthily, if the work put in — or not put in — had led to the loss.
Kirkland and Wolfe reunited, but then Kirkland parted ways with her again prior to this fight with Canelo Alvarez. He went with a lesser-known trainer and added a conditioning coach who had worked with professional basketball and football players. Kirkland felt he could improve under this new team in ways he couldn’t under Wolfe. Others wondered if he could succeed at a high level when he’d never done so without her.
Boxing writer Tim Starks of The Queensberry Rules blog saw several flaws that Kirkland would need to work on, if he could even do away with traits that had become so characteristic of him.
“Kirkland struggles early, getting dropped often — even without Wolfe, how did he get stopped by Nobuhiro Ishida? — and has a ton of bad habits, like pulling back from an exchange with his hands down,” Starks wrote before Alvarez vs. Kirkland. “For all his athletic qualities, he’s a horrible defensive fighter, easy to catch by anyone who even bothers, especially when he’s exchanging on the inside.
“To be successful, Kirkland has to let his hands go in combination,” Starks wrote. “He can do damage with one punch, to be sure, but he is no one-punch knockout artist. He can also jab his way inside, where he’s more comfortable letting his big multi-punch salvos go. Despite how he can fight off the ropes, he can still be put there easily, and it’s not like he’s better off there, either. What this boils down to is [that] Kirkland needs to survive the early rounds and establish at some point that he can hurt Canelo. I’m not convinced he can do either.”
Canelo would also need to survive early, as Kirkland came out in the same fashion he often does. Kirkland quickly pressed Alvarez to the ropes, digging shots to the body and head. Alvarez covered up, ducked or blocked a few punches, sent out some of his own when opportune, yet was grabbing ahold of Kirkland’s arms before a minute had passed in order to buy a breather.
Kirkland dug his head into Canelo’s, then soon went back on the attack. However, the additional room brought by the break in action allowed Alvarez to land a good left hook counter that wobbled Kirkland’s legs. Soon Canelo’s crosses and uppercuts were splitting Kirkland’s porous guard, and a left hook to the body near the round’s halfway point had Kirkland walking to a corner, hurt and waving Alvarez in. Canelo patiently picked spots for hard shots.
Alvarez feinted with a right hand just in front of Kirkland’s face, then dug with a left hook to the body that sent Kirkland moving in the opposite direction — directly into a right cross that left Kirkland’s legs staggering until his rear end hit the canvas. Like with Conyers and Angulo, Kirkland’s initial aggression wound up working against him.
But unlike those bouts, Kirkland never fully recovered.
Alvarez mixed short, hard shots upstairs and downstairs for the remaining minute of the first round. Kirkland’s legs at times resembled a deer’s on ice, though his eyes weren’t quite those of the same creature in headlights. Alvarez poured on more punishment until the bell rang.
Kirkland had recovered during rounds before and retaliated. He now had nearly a full minute to rest. It wouldn’t be enough.
A right hand to the body and a left hook upstairs from Canelo had Kirkland back on the ropes quickly in the second round. Kirkland withstood the heavy artillery that came next until Alvarez stepped away, saving energy for later. Kirkland saw his opportunity, coming forth with volume, though not with enough snap. His legs weren’t anywhere near back yet. Canelo parried and blocked some punches, ducked under and weaved away from others, and absorbed the rest.
For all of Kirkland’s activity in the second, CompuBox credited him with landing only 16 of 90, or 18 percent, including 15 of 77 power shots, or 19 percent. Alvarez threw fewer but landed more, and more often, hitting Kirkland more than half the time, including additional thudding blows to the body.
It got worse for Kirkland in the third.
Kirkland expended more energy to open the round. Canelo protected himself well again. He stemmed Kirkland’s assault and pummeled him with damaging shots. Kirkland stepped away, waving Alvarez in, though this time Alvarez didn’t oblige. Kirkland responded by coming back forward with two jabs and a southpaw left cross that fell short.
Alvarez saw his opponent bulling forward, head down, with inaccurate punches. He stepped back and threw a right uppercut that hit Kirkland’s chin and dropped him forward onto all fours with a little more than a minute to go.
Kirkland rose once more. Alvarez closed in with a right hand upstairs, forcing Kirkland toward the ropes, where he lifted his gloves to his temples. Alvarez sent a jab to the right side of Kirkland’s stomach. Kirkland used his right arm to swat Alvarez’s left away. Then Kirkland cocked his left hand and began to throw it. But his back was on the ropes and the shot had a looping trajectory. Alvarez threw a right hand that was straighter and quicker. It hit Kirkland in the jaw as Kirkland followed through with his own shot, spinning around, unconscious before his head hit the mat.
It had been expected that Kirkland would test Alvarez early. The question was how well Alvarez would respond.
Canelo handled Kirkland with composure, then manhandled him with well-placed power, using both his offense and his defense to take away Kirkland’s stamina, dropping him and stopping him.
There often are caveats when a fighter wins. For many rising prospects and contenders, it’s not just whom they beat, but rather how they defeat the assortment of designated opponents, veterans, and former contenders lined up in front of them while they develop.
Kirkland had been knocked down before. He’d been knocked down three times in one fight before. But while Ishida’s win felt like a fluke, Alvarez’s performance seemed to demonstrate tools and techniques he’d picked up and improved on after nearly a decade as a pro fighter. His punches seemed faster, shorter and put in the right places. He showed defensive nuances that protected him against heavy hands.
Of course, there are caveats.
Kirkland has not been in the rankings at junior middleweight in some time. And while this bout was the third in a row for Alvarez to be held with a contractual limit of 155 pounds, Canelo still considers himself a part of the 154-pound division. There are many at 154 who Alvarez still needs to face to see how he fares.
That’s unless he gets a fight with Miguel Cotto first.
Cotto, a former titleholder at 140, 147 and 154, became the 160-pound champion when he took out the damaged goods of Sergio Martinez last year. He’s still not a full-fledged 160-pounder, however. Cotto’s first defense, against Daniel Geale, will be on June 6 at a contractual catch-weight of 157 pounds.
Cotto is a big star among boxing fans from Puerto Rico or of Puerto Rican heritage. Alvarez remains the most popular active boxer from his own home country, both among Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Each is known well by fans of the sport worldwide.
If Canelo beats Cotto, then he would be a superstar gone supernova.
The 10 Count will return soon.
“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 [email protected]