It wasn’t very good, and it wasn’t a fix, either. It may have seemed like one for ten rounds, but how then to explain the eleventh? That sudden razing that nearly justified giving a Saturday fight too much of your Sunday morning. What fighter of considerable means would agree to that kind of trauma—the kind that can add years to him?
You get the sense that both men got what they wanted, however; that sometimes happens when dollars are involved, even if daylights are attached to them. Saul Alvarez got what he wanted at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday night, rigging a senseless Sergey Kovalev in the ropes like a parachutist crash-landed in a tree. Alvarez, 53-1-2 (36), has now won titles in four divisions, or something like that, depending on who you ask. Leaving aside the legitimacy of Alvarez’s titles, he deboned the defending WBO light-heavyweight champion, which is achievement enough for the best middleweight in the world. Kovalev got what he wanted, too: the kind of life-changing payday that justifies the humiliation of being haywired by a man who built up a 64 percent knockout ratio harrowing junior middleweights.
The difference between the two is that Alvarez had to wait until the fight’s end to get what he wanted, while Kovalev got his with the opening bell. Put another way, Alvarez had to secure his desire, which explains why Kovalev was left a mangled marionette; Kovalev, meanwhile, knew that hands up or face down he was millions richer, and he fought like a man so satisfied. Fine, to soothe your conspiratorial itch, Alvarez needn’t have stopped Kovalev because it’s been six years since anyone stood a chance against him on the cards (he is that good, of course, but also that precious). Even with the scorecards set to shine on him, Alvarez pursued a knockout because, if nothing else, the man who holds the distinction of being the face of boxing believes he should be.
For years, that belief wasn’t sufficient to make Alvarez boxing’s current icon; but, then, it’s been years since anyone launched a convincing argument that he wasn’t. For a half-hour or an hour or so, it seemed like Kovalev might.
The fight was little more than a ten-round sparring session, a reeking transaction, though it will be remembered more charitably for its ferocious end. Kovalev’s path to victory lay in his ability to jab Alvarez open enough to dial in his right hand. He and trainer Buddy McGirt planned accordingly, and Kovalev jabbed ceaselessly at the fight’s outset. Kovalev landed very little, but the constant leather on Alvarez’s guard kept “Canelo” from investing in counters. What was notable early wasn’t the counters Alvarez missed but those he holstered. Against men he thought might hurt him—Alfredo Angulo, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., and Gennady Golovkin—Alvarez looked to land something discouraging early. But he pulled back several counters against Kovalev, a sign that size and distance were conspiring to decalibrate his offense.
But there was nothing on Kovalev’s punches, which meant that his volume was little more than an accelerated playing of his hand. Kovalev was controlling the early rounds, but if all a “Krusher” is daring to do is sprinkle punches on his opponent’s arms and gloves, he is trading an auspicious start for a disastrous end.
Why the toothless assault? Was it because committing fully to his jab, to the two-one combination, to the right hand to the belly, all of his trademark tortures, would have left Kovalev open to the counters he didn’t trust his chin to endure? Perhaps. That is a charitable interpretation of Kovalev’s reticence, one corresponding with McGirt’s prefight comments. What gave the fight its sparring quality, however, was not Kovalev’s tactical caution but his complete lack of malice, something evident in his chumminess with Alvarez through the promotion. Kovalev, 34-4-1 (29), looked like a fighter working with instead of against his opponent, a mentality, it’s worth noting, that assumes little harm will come if little is given. Kovalev might as well have been helping the best counterpuncher in the sport crack his style. Ostensibly, he was.
Some might see proof of intrigue here; others, a man satisfied with making a career-high payday as looming legal issues threatened his livelihood. Whatever Kovalev’s (lack of) motivation, one of the decade’s most frightening punchers showed no interest in upholding that reputation against Alvarez. That’s one of the reasons why, as the action did little more than percolate, the DAZN commentary team was reduced to fabricating the effect of the punches landed—all those hard and harder punches landing with hardly any effect. Alvarez learned what he needed from Kovalev even as the commentators fed us nonsense: that Kovalev was there for the taking. And so he took him out.
In the eleventh round, Alvarez cracked Kovalev with a right hand behind the ear, penalizing the Russian for a feeble clinch. With Kovalev on the ropes, Alvarez dropped his left shoulder, selling the body shot he rerouted upstairs. Then came the right hand that will forever remain a fixture in Alvarez highlight reels.
Could Alvarez do the same to Dmitry Bivol or Artur Beterbiev? Whether this is asking too much of him depends on how long he chooses to keep Kovalev’s belt. At some point, a light-heavyweight titlist has to act like one. Could he do the same to David Benavidez or Caleb Plant? That’s a more realistic question, one Alvarez is likely to answer in some capacity before too long. Because he always gets what he wants, doesn’t he? And when he wants it.