His nose, that bulbous bullseye stuffed with gauze, secured by tape, bled determinedly into his mouth; a handkerchief wrinkled and spattered returned rhythmically to dab the claret trickle. With a voice warped by the carnage in his sinuses, John Ryder declared that Saul Alvarez, the man who so roughly pulped him at the Estadio Akron in Zapopan, Mexico, was past his best.
What might be the evidence of that decline? It seems Ryder surviving to hear the final bell and his success in landing enough punches to force Alvarez behind a pair of sunglasses at the post-fight press conference. Were Ryder a less honest fighter—and no one endures the beating he admitted to suffering without giving entirely of himself—his suggestion would be an odd one, a self-aggrandizing claim that achieves the opposite, one that amounts to admitting your success depended on a diminished opponent, that your success surprised even you.
If Alvarez is indeed on the decline, Ryder should be grateful. Because if that assessment is as accurate as it is curious coming from a man beaten purple, Ryder got off easy. Against a prime Alvarez, he might have had his breathing compromised not by a broken nose but by a liver traumatically removed. Ryder might have been spared a round or three, the opportunity to lean so heavily on his preternatural toughness, and thus denied the reward of his futile challenge. Instead, Ryder had his nose broken in round two, survived a knockdown in round five, and won four rounds total in the eyes of three judges—and for that, a hero’s welcome awaits him in England.
Is Alvarez on the decline? The short answer is, “obviously”: he has sixty-three fights and has been a professional for eighteen of his thirty-two years; he has suffered numerous injuries and even an embarrassing exposure to tainted beef. The degree of that decline and its consequences are less apparent, which is why the question is at all interesting.
That half-inch of loose flesh on his back—a subtle spillover that was impossible to unsee. The pounds Alvarez has added over the years he has molded impressively onto his stocky frame; indeed, it is this history of flawless sculpture that made this imperfection so conspicuous. Something similar was evident when Roy Jones Jr. weighed in for his first fight against Antonio Tarver, a little slack in the pectorals where before there was only tension. Granted, unlike Jones, Alvarez did not need to lose twenty-five pounds of muscle before his fight, and he did not have an opponent of Tarver’s quality to push him physically, but the pouted lip was undeniable.
It may mean nothing because, despite the years the hardest game has added to his body, Alvarez is still relatively young. That little roll, however, might be the physical manifestation of a mind growing weary of the sport. “No Boxing No Life”: Alvarez has worn that slogan for years and lived it for decades. It is perhaps his most admirable trait: that a fighter of Alvarez’s otherworldly success continued to commit himself wholly to his craft, working to improve where others might be content to rest. Without boxing he would have no life—if Alvarez believes that, it has certainly served him through the years. But perhaps the life boxing has given him has started to tug at his ear, whispering little messages about how much life now exists, how boxing impedes his living it.
Alvarez would never admit as much, which means there are only his performances to go by. A typically deft defensive fighter, Alvarez was, by his standards, tagged routinely by Ryder. At super middleweight, Alvarez has abandoned the combination punching that set him apart in favor of a more frugal, stalking style. He cows opponents with power shots, often delivered as counters that force would-be tormentors to holster their weapons. That style worked until Dmitrii Bivol recognized that after Alvarez unloaded he was there to be hit. So Bivol hit him and hit him again until Alvarez became that deft defensive fighter—and little else. Ryder applied a similar strategy, responding to every Alvarez attack with punches of his own, especially his southpaw jab. So is it decline that explains Alvarez’s vulnerability in his fights with Bivol and Ryder, or did it take one fighter to show the rest where a pound of flesh might be had?
It is sometimes the case with boxers that their primes go unrecognized until those primes are over, until the expectations they condition us to have, expectations we look forward to having fulfilled, are unmet. Perhaps that is the case with Alvarez, who maintained a level of excellence and ambition that went largely unrivaled for years. But Alvarez’s last three fights have failed to meet the standard he set. Bivol beat him handily—there is no other way to win a decision against Alvarez. Former nemesis, Gennadiy Golovkin, followed; the once-marauding middleweight looked primed for execution, and yet Alvarez, who has rarely tolerated an affront to his greatness, was content to usher Golovkin to the final bell. And now Ryder, whose worthiness as an opponent is revealed in how he is being lionized for his grit. The Bivol fight was the ratification of a champion, but are the efforts to explain Alvarez’s performance against Golovkin and Ryder proof that something is amiss?
We should not be alarmist. Too often, boxing fans overreact to the first sign of vulnerability. This response may be born of affection, a desire to see the fighters we cherish spared the ending that awaits them all; perhaps there is some ego at work here as well, a need to preserve the fighting embodiment of values and traits we associate with. Whatever the reason, it is likely irrational and, in that respect, also charming: this deep connection with strangers helps keep our sport alive.
Thomas Hauser recently suggested Anthony Joshua retire, rightly noting that “there comes a time when—no matter how much money a fighter can make—the risk-reward calculus shifts against him continuing to fight.” In one sense, Alvarez should retire—just as any athlete who no longer needs to imperil his brain to provide comfortably for himself and his family should. But Alvarez is not going to, and he is nowhere near the point in his career where his safety is especially concerning. That moment can arrive with the speed of a hook, but Alvarez is neither as fragile as Joshua nor as bereft of answers to the riddles of his profession. For all the discussion of how Alvarez has slipped, only two or three realistic opponents remain who stand a chance to beat him: David Benavidez, David Morrell, and Bivol.
It says something of Alvarez’s ambition that he is seeking his conqueror next (we might also ask at this point what it says of his delusion). Still, it is not yet time to wring hands over Alvarez, not when he is winning, not when so many hands that would wring most tightly for him—like the fifty thousand pairs of them in that bullring in Mexico—were beaten raw from applause on Saturday.
It is, however, time Alvarez considers how he intends to leave boxing. John Banville writes that “to make a happy ending one must stop short of the end.” Alvarez can see the end. Will he allow himself to stop short of it?