Maybe they thought him too green, too inexperienced, susceptible to the pressure of the moment and its greater expectations. Maybe they looked at his record, the paltry eleven knockouts in nineteen fights, and thought him sufficiently harmless; or they saw in the simplicity of his style a rudimentary riddle, one less dynamic, less dangerous than others their fighter had solved. He had a title though, this inexperienced, somewhat simple fighter, and a reputation for inaction that offset his success. Maybe that is all the justification they needed: such was the strength of their belief in their fighter, their devotion to him. Maybe it blinded them.
Dmitrii Bivol defeated Saul Alvarez by unanimous decision Saturday, the scores better reflecting Alvarez’s industry muscle than the action. As those scores were read to the disheartened throng in T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas—the bafflingly close tally of 115-113 somehow tabulated thrice by judges entrusted to some degree with shaping the careers of men many times their betters—a desperate hope impregnated the silence. Could it be? Could Alvarez, neutralized as never before, really escape with a victory? “Imagine!” those morose devotees of boxing’s most precious idol must have thought, “We might only need to reverse engineer our impressions of the fight to corroborate the bogus math!” Alas, Bivol beat Alvarez and every benefit of the doubt.
It started with the Golovkin rematch. That night Alvarez planted himself at arm’s length of a marauder and learned what their first fight failed to teach him: that monsters are not real. His annexing of super middleweight followed soon after (a nightmare of a division for being grossly void of monsters), a feat that only reiterated the lesson from the Golovkin rematch. As did Alvarez’s first experiment with light heavyweight, that destruction of former champion Sergey Kovalev. With his almost precognitive defensive prowess, deceptive quickness and power, and suffocating arrogance, Alvarez, a former welterweight, was butchering men who years prior would have been considered too big for him. What Alvarez did not need in correcting the collective appraisals of fighters like Callum Smith, Billy Joe Saunders, and Caleb Plant was an alternative strategy. Success taught Alvarez that his style made even larger men skittish; it cowed them, then broke them. He had no reason to expect otherwise. Success did not prepare him for otherwise.
When Alvarez is in control, he tortures opponents with his defense. With the threat of his launching a ruinous counterpunch ever-present, Alvarez lingers insolently within range, parrying, slipping, rolling the anxious punches of demoralized opponents. This peacocking behavior is often punctuated by a single blistering punch, usually to the body (because little speaks to control like a left hook to the liver launched without a setup). Not once did this version of Alvarez appear against Bivol. When Alvarez went defensive, Bivol surged forward, breaking through Alvarez’s guard with crisp jabs and crosses, forcing him to fight through what was ostensibly supposed to be a chance to rest. There were no cute defensive displays against Bivol. Bivol caught Alvarez backing up, sent him in retreat, and demanded Alvarez call on his elusive wizardry out of self-preservation. Much should be made of Bivol’s defensive prowess; how he, with a half step backward, a well-timed jab, and proper guard, was able to nullify one of boxing’s most electric combination punchers. But emphasizing Bivol’s defense distracts from an uncomfortable truth for those who have circled the beaten fighter like a herd of oxen: Bivol didn’t win because he evaded Alvarez—he won because he outfought him.
The seventh round was a telling one. Bivol spent stretches of that round with his back to the ropes—and won it anyway. He drove a stalking Alvarez back with the kind of combinations Alvarez hasn’t endured in years: those hurtful in intent and effect. Bivol seemed either oblivious or indifferent to the magnitude of the event, the popularity of his opponent. What he was doing in the seventh, what he would do with shocking ease for the remainder of the fight, was get the best of Alvarez in the very moments “Canelo” needed were he to have any chance at victory.
Defensively too, Bivol showed he had parsed his opponent. Alvarez had scored with right uppercuts earlier in the fight and, with Bivol on the ropes, tried the punch again. But Bivol side-stepped it, and the uppercut sailed harmlessly off the mark. Alvarez tried his deceptive hook too, where he drops his left shoulder as if going to the body before rerouting the punch to the head. Bivol caught it on his glove. Just as he did the right hook to the body Alvarez throws as an intimidation tactic as much as he does with the intent to land. In the seventh round, Alvarez had the fight he wanted and couldn’t win it. Much of what followed reiterated that. And what didn’t boded no better for his chances.
Eddy Reynoso was in tears. Less than an hour earlier, Alvarez had liquified Kovalev, and Reynoso stood overcome with emotion. As his trainer’s chin trembled, his shoulders shook, Alvarez reminded Reynoso of a promise the fighter made: that Alvarez would be with Reynoso for as long as he fought and that opponents would have to kill him to beat him. Alvarez had an opportunity to prove the more dramatic component of his commitment Saturday. Not with his life, but with his consciousness. In boxing, there are times when victory is secured only by courting defeat, when your own destruction is made more likely by the only strategy that offers any hope. Most every fighter will tell you he is willing to take that risk. Many are. Callum Smith was not. His consolation for losing his title to Alvarez was hearing the final bell. Nor was Caleb Plant, but his passivity was too tempting, and Alvarez took his title by force anyway. Nor was Alvarez.
Fatigue made its notorious mischief with Alvarez, to be sure, and Bivol, who had established his superiority in building an early deficit on the scorecards, proved that a firefight was far more likely to end at his hands. But these are the very conditions that lead some fighters to decide against what those outside the ropes might call better judgment. Alvarez faced such a decision in the middle rounds against Bivol and let Bivol’s discipline, his fixity of temperament, determine the outcome. It was a wise decision in a sport that deifies the reckless. There is no shame in that, none, but likewise no glory.
A rematch awaits, one likely no more entertaining than its predecessor and no more competitive. What changes Alvarez might make are mitigated by size and skill: Bivol remains a mostly dull fighter but a world-class one nevertheless. Still, Alvarez fights who he wants when he wants, a loss does nothing to weaken his control over most any fighter who can eat or starve himself to whatever weight Alvarez wants him at. And he wants Bivol again. As a palliative, that, and perhaps a second, more gruesome victory over Golovkin, will have to be enough for now.