When the light-heavyweight title fight between WBO champion Sergey Kovalev 34-3-1 (29) and unified middleweight champion Saul “Canelo” Alvarez 51-1-2 (34) was announced, two thoughts immediately stood out. The first is that this won’t be a mismatch like the welterweight title fight between WBC lightweight champion Mikey Garcia (who jumped up two divisions) and IBF welterweight champion Errol Spence. And the second is that Kovalev‒Alvarez looks unmistakably like “Mayweather matchmaking.” That is, Alvarez is fighting a dangerous opponent at the most opportune time, as with Mayweather‒Mosley (Mosley was a threat previously, but was in significant decline at the time of the fight).
What’s more, Alvarez asked for the fight and he did so without a catchweight stipulation. Kovalev didn’t seek him out, but couldn’t turn down the biggest purse of his career. And this lottery fight is coming at a time when it’s been reported that Kovalev really likes his beer; isn’t crazy about training; may need the money for some upcoming legal entanglements; and, most of all, has been stopped by two different opponents since decisioning Bernard Hopkins in 2014.
And if all that isn’t enough, why is Kovalev (depending on the book) between a 3-1 or 4-1 underdog? That says that Kovalev is vulnerable because if it wasn’t a Mayweather-type gimme they wouldn’t be fighting. And is there a sophisticated boxing fan on earth who believes Kovalev can win a decision if the fight is remotely competitive? Concerning the business side of things, here’s something else to consider: If Alvarez wins conclusively he’ll be considered “Fighter of the Decade.” Think of the money involved in that. And in two years when Artur Beterbiev is the same age as Kovalev (thirty-six), Alvarez will be ready to push him off the cliff, which he’s likely to do to Kovalev. And with that said—and by contrasting what Mikey Garcia faced against Errol Spence—here’s why the style matchup actually works for Alvarez.
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To start, and with the exception of the Golovkin rematch, Alvarez is at his best when his opponent carries the fight to him (which Kovalev will do) and Alvarez is countering and cutting loose with a perfect mix of shots to the head and body—and the perception of Kovalev is that he especially doesn’t like to get hit downstairs. Yes, Kovalev has a great jab and he’ll double it up; but, over the last two or three years, Alvarez has developed good upper-body and head movement and can ride or roll when jabs are sent his way. If Alvarez can get Kovalev to lunge or reach, moreover, Alvarez can engage him on the inside This favors Alvarez because Kovalev is not a strong in-fighter and is usually at his best from a distance or at mid-range. In addition, for Kovalev to deliver his big right-hand power he must establish his jab; but if he is getting countered he’ll become a little more cautious with it and leave holes for Alvarez to fill with his faster hands and more explosive combinations.
Aside from being a bigger man and a harder (but not more effective) puncher, the older Kovalev isn’t clearly better than Alvarez in any respect. And that’s often the case when a lighter fighter moves up in weight—and the gulf becomes even wider when the lighter fighter is peaking and the older, bigger man is declining. The issue the smaller fighter often has is what happens when the bigger fighter lands a hard shot? Amir Khan was boxing Alvarez’s ears off but his chin couldn’t withstand the impact of Alvarez’s Sunday best and their fight ended with one punch.
Also, think about why James Toney was so successful moving up from middleweight to heavyweight. As a middleweight, Toney, as gifted as he was, had some struggles at 160 and 175 pounds. In his signature fight at 160 versus Michael Nunn, he was being completely out-thought and out-fought by Nunn, but landed a lottery-type shot and ended the fight. In reality, Toney looked his best at cruiserweight and heavyweight where his speed and skills were pronounced. And because of his cast-iron chin, he was never erased or seldom shook with a single bomb delivered by the men he fought between 195 and 250 pounds. Yes, his boxing skill won those fights but his great chin helped him to stay upright so he could be around to out-box Vassiliy Jirov and hang with John Ruiz, Samuel Peter, and Hasim Rahman.
In many ways the same applies to Alvarez fighting Kovalev. No one would ever dispute that Alvarez is smarter, quicker, harder to hit, and more well-rounded than Kovalev. In fact, all he has to worry about is getting careless or caught by the pressing Kovalev. And that’s where his superior chin will come into play. And keep in mind that this isn’t the same Kovalev who fought Hopkins or the confident Kovalev who fought Andre Ward the first time. The Kovalev who will confront Alvarez no longer believes he can’t be defeated or knocked out. And you can’t help thinking that if Kovalev lands a finishing punch and Alvarez answers back like he did in both fights against Golovkin, Kovalev will start doubting himself with each passing exchange and round. Once that happens—and if it does—Alvarez will sense it and feed off of it. And like Golovkin, Kovalev looks to ride out the storm and waits to reload when he’s being attacked.
With all that said, we’ve seen both Alvarez and Kovalev tire. And if that happens it could be a biggeer issue for Kovalev because we’ve seen his chin fail before. And when you add that Alvarez is a more accurate puncher than either Golovkin or Ward, if Kovalev gets winded or shook Alvarez will jump on him and perhaps force the referee to stop it. Punching accuracy makes up for what some might consider Alvarez’s shortage of brute power. It’s the clean shots that fighters don’t see that hurt them more than a lone haymaker. And Alvarez will be landing cleaner shots once the fight progresses and his chin and confidence have held up. And last, the two fights and twenty-four rounds that Alvarez spent in the trenches with Golovkin have surely hardened him and he’ll no doubt draw from that experience. In his mind he must think he’s already defeated a better technician and more resolute fighter in Golovkin than he’ll see in Kovalev.
If you’ve been around for boxing for years and know the sport well, the Mayweather stench of this fight overwhelms your boxing aptitude. This fight is happening because those on the inside believe the timing and opponent is right. If this were Kovalev between 2014 and 2016, Alvarez wouldn’t be fighting him. In addition to that, it’s doubtful Kovalev can win a decision and it’s not clear that he can stop Alvarez.
So how can Alvarez be a nearly 4-1 favorite? With those odds the initial thought must be to make a play on Kovalev and the public is usually wrong. Sure, Kovalev is a dangerous fighter but this is a well-thought-out and calculated risk for Team Alvarez. Boxing is star-driven and Alvarez is best suited to become this era’s Mayweather, and the Mayweather template is definitely in play here and, for that reason, Alvarez will win by a somewhat-contested decision or a late-round stoppage after, say, the tenth round.