There was a time when the opponent hardly mattered, when he might charge admission to watch him box his shadow, pummel a heavy bag, harrow a skipping rope. But the opponents mattered to him then, and he sought them even against the discretion of his promoter. He had his soft touches—those simulacrums whose reputations persisted when their threat did not—and, with few exceptions, butchered them appropriately. Or so memory encourages us to remember now, years past the years of unmatched ambition, past too, his best. Attach any asterisk you like, diminish any number of opponents, and there is still no denying him: He is the defining fighter of his generation. Is his generation today’s?
On Saturday, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez defended his undisputed super middleweight crown against Jermell Charlo at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Charlo, who rules the junior-middleweight division regardless of the hardware he lost to a broken hand, moved up two divisions and fourteen pounds to face a fighter he has long believed he could beat. A prizefight quickly devolved into a transaction with a result rightly decided by a series of scorecards as passionless and academic as the inaction that wrought them. All three judges scored the bout widely for Alvarez, who did very little and yet so much more than his opponent.
Oh, but Charlo was daring to be great, you say? Why was that exactly? Because he signed a contract to make a career-high payday against an opponent two divisions larger—and did so coming off a sixteen-month layoff resulting from a hand injury, stupid! And where is the daring in that?
A signature does not secure greatness, and there is little daring in scribbling one. When Charlo got up from the right hand that forced him to a knee in the seventh round—that was a call to greatness. When Alvarez settled for single shots, when he so disregarded the man across from him as to pursue him in casual stride, one foot in front of the other—that was a call to greatness. When trainer, Derrick James, told Charlo victory lay only in the knockout—that was a call to greatness. When he grasped fully his meager prospects—that is when Charlo might have dared to be great. And yet, with the first looping right hand that detonated on his shoulder, Charlo chose not greatness but self-preservation. Imagine a fighter who has just immolated himself in pursuit of a rare and venerable distinction saying something as acquiescent and sorry as “I’m proud of myself: he ain’t knock me out.” Better he had if greatness was your goal—there are honorable knockout losses. Better too for everyone who fought off slumber to watch the likely devolve into the inevitable.
Alvarez bears some responsibility for those twelve tedious rounds. For much of his run above middleweight, it seemed acceptable to posit that weight—both his and his opponents’—forced Alvarez to abandon his combinations. He sacrificed some speed and fluidity to his added bulk, but bigger opponents needed stern warnings about the dangers of bullying him. This change in style worked because Alvarez remained defensively slick, proved to have an iron chin, and because he hit hard enough to intimidate (or worse).
He employed the same style Saturday, except “Canelo” was fighting a blown-up junior middleweight who had no interest in winning—the kind of opponent Alvarez used to spark. Yet rarely did he put more than two punches together against Charlo; and rarely, if ever, did Alvarez follow up on his lead left hooks to the body or the looping right hands that panicked his overmatched opponent. Indeed, Charlo’s most inspired moment in the fight came after being dropped in the seventh, when Alvarez had half a round to conjure a stoppage but frittered away this chance for a statement. Yes, it was an easy victory, but Alvarez does not fight simply to win.
Or has that changed? Alvarez gave a postfight interview that was more animated than his performance and, for a fighter who is uninteresting for his polish, refreshingly bizarre. There was a joy to Alvarez incongruent with the fight and out of keeping with his arrogance. What satisfaction could Alvarez find in a dreary waltz against a harmless opponent? He is no stranger to the perfunctory: no fighter accumulates that many titles without a lame mandatory defense or two. But Alvarez typically treats undeserving challengers as undeserving of his mercy. And because he need never worry about the size of his next purse, need never fret over scorecards filled out in advance, Alvarez could embrace risk in ways many fighters cannot. But he didn’t on Saturday. Craft and experience separated Alvarez from Charlo—craft and experience were enough. But is it wrong to expect something sanguinary from the fight that supposedly restored Alvarez’s love for a blood sport?
We are told it with dependable regularity: Fighter X does not care who he fights, implying that any and all challengers are welcome, especially those most dangerous. This evasive and cliche answer is acceptable to all familiar with the obstructions and objections to obvious matchmaking. But the most sought-after opponent in the sport, one who, on his terms, can make most any fight he chooses, does not conduct business without a clear view of the horizon. Yet he gleefully barked “I don’t fucking care!” when asked who he would like to fight next.
Very well, we will decide for you. David Benavidez and David Morell are dangerous and deserving enough of a swing at the crimson scalp. Alvarez, however, has been cryptic in his treatment of Benavidez and silent on Morrell. He may not fucking care who he fights next, but if Alvarez is happy just being in the ring, let him fight the kind of opponent who could make him miserable in there. Let these Davids swing on Goliath.
He has earned the benefit of the doubt, so cautiously assume the next fighter to lace up against Alvarez will do so for more than the purse and the distinction of not getting knocked out. Charlo, meanwhile, can return to junior middleweight with Terence Crawford’s belts. And make arrangements to yield them.