There will not be a fourth fight. Indeed there was barely a third. Saul Alvarez and Gennadiy Golovkin renewed frustrations at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Saturday, where Alvarez won a unanimous decision in a fight that above all else revealed the decline of both fighters. A supposed grudge match (because calling it a comeback fight would have been too callous) devolved quickly into a transaction between a fighter drained by his trips around the sun and a fighter unable to capitalize on what those revolutions proffered to him.
But a comeback fight it was: a palliative for Alvarez’s wounded pride. The set of bleary but lustful eyes you lock on when the lights go up at last call, as “Home, Sweet Home” plays and you are left scouring the space between departing couples for a suitor to salvage the evening—that was Alvarez-Golovkin III. At least it appeared that way considering each fighter’s recent form. The victim of Dmitrii Bivol’s tactical irreverence in May, Alvarez needed an opponent who would generate maximum interest at acceptable risk. Enter Golovkin, who, in his mid-thirties, fought Alvarez to a disputed draw and decision loss. With Golovkin, there was still some interest to harvest. A beloved fighter, one (apparently) resembling closely enough the mythological monster he’d been when he wore the term “avoided” like a crown, Golovkin had the reputation to offset public reservations about the risk the former middleweight champion represented. Moreover, with their shared history, Golovkin was an ideal opponent for Alvarez to hold a grudge against (it is easier to back up a malicious promise against a diminished threat).
The fight was good business. But it was only that.
When he signed a six-fight deal with DAZN, Golovkin expected one of those eight-figure paydays to be against Alvarez. But it was years before that fight came to fruition. Instead, Alvarez and spent the interim disposing of a rotten super middleweight division. Golovkin, meanwhile, bided his time, less active than ever, preserving his aging body and thus the retirement package he collected Saturday. For those who failed to subscribe to the notion that Golovkin retained the fire of even his late thirties, what transpired in the winding path to a third fight with Alvarez was proof that the two fighters were on different trajectories. For these observers, at least there would be some closure, a definitive winner after twenty-four inconclusive rounds.
That was Alvarez, though he proved it somnambulistically, doing nothing to erase the memory of those meek moments under fire from Bivol. Golovkin performed as a pressure fighter in his fourth decade might be expected to. His tireless jab was gone, almost reluctant, no longer the lynchpin of his pulverizing attack. His body punching, once the defining characteristic of his arsenal—gone, completing a departure that quietly announced itself in the first Alvarez fight. His chin, impossibly sturdy, will never leave him, nor will the defensive craft that mitigated the toll on that chin. But now the aged simulacrum of a once-marauding force, Golovkin had nothing for Alvarez save for a few stretches around the ninth round where he teased an activity and aggression befitting the billing. So why was he even upright at that point?
Alvarez knows the answer. Because (A) Golovkin is made of iron, his superhuman capacity to absorb punishment might be his only universally recognized merit; and because (B) Alvarez knows Golovkin’s ruggedness exceeds Alvarez’s capacity for mayhem. If a fight were to break out Saturday it would be because Alvarez willed it. Golovkin was going to approximate his best self as desperately as he could, if Alvarez accepted the challenge, something worth celebrating would ensue.
A pressure fighter without volume and vigor should be butchered—time spent in striking range without striking should bring the ultimate penalty. The Alvarez of the second fight, what might he have done to Golovkin Saturday? Certainly not decline an opportunity to exorcise his grudge. In consecutive fights now, when greatness has courted him Alvarez has remained coy. He might have gone out on his shield against Bivol, but was content to leave his fate in the hands of men armed with pens. And against Golovkin, who came alive only after the outcome was obvious, his most eye-catching moments were made conspicuous by a bland backdrop.
Stripping away the ambient adoration that illuminates Alvarez like a benevolent sun, signs of decline appear. He is a different fighter at super middleweight and above. Less reliant on his wonderful combinations, Alvarez uses well-placed power punches—each a threat of more of the same—and a confounding defense to instill timidity, to confine the violence of his fights to his most willing moments. It was a winning strategy. But was it the only one available to him?
A professional fighter since he was fifteen and with sixty-four fights to his name, Alvarez, thirty-two, may now be confronted by the outlay of his successes. A style that minimizes exchanges, that turns a fight one-sided not with action but with the threat of it, can slow his decline—against the right opponents, even mask it. Bivol was the wrong opponent, and Golovkin—even this version—was too.
There is consolation for both men there if you squint: Golovkin managing what none of the super middleweight champions Alvarez scalped could; Alvarez, even past his prime, nullifying his nemesis once and for all. But that is a paltry harvest. Such consolations belong not to the fighters but to those who in adoration can overlook Saturday’s inaction, and to those who were left uneasy by it.
The first fight was tentative, uneventful; a cautious act of reconnaissance between a fighter not yet confident he could win and one unnerved by both the first world-class opponent of his career and the magnitude of the event. The second was scintillating, a bloody affair fought at the highest level, with a bitterness neither man displayed before or since. The third was not Mayweather–Pacquiao, not a farce, because both Alvarez and Golovkin (and by extension, their corners) were wrestling with limitations only the hot lights reveal. Could either man have done more, they would have. Thus, the absence of any ill will in the aftermath, the relief that marked their reaction to the final bell. Perhaps each realized how wrong it could have gone had the man across from him not been forced to the same realization.
And perhaps they shared another realization: that if either fighter wants to determine how he leaves the ring for good, it would be wise to start planning.