What is a winning strategy in boxing? One that maximizes a fighter’s chances of victory; a calculation incorporating strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, proclivities, even considerations of popularity, geography. And risk. Because such strategies do not exist in a vacuum. They are applied by, yes, but also, to, and as Larry Merchant once remarked, “the opponent has something to say about it.” A winning strategy, then, at least in a fight that can exalt, is personally imperiling.
With one impressive win, Caleb Plant found himself in a fight that could exalt. And he fought a losing strategy. Oh, he fought to his strengths, a frustrating frontside offense, boogaloo footwork that is almost electric, but that strategy was never going lead him to victory.
You do not beat Saul Alvarez, who Plant faced at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, on Saturday, with evasion—the four-corners offense does not work when your opponent has the lead. Alvarez, by virtue of popularity and its attendant economic windfall, always has the lead. He is ahead on the scores at the opening bell, and it is his opponent’s responsibility to undo that advanced arithmetic. Moreover, every Alvarez opponent must do so without losing his head or liver. Alas Plant, who found some success against Alvarez, never managed to overcome the scoring disadvantage. Nor did he keep his head. Because Plant never fought to win.
Instead, Plant fought a losing strategy until he was no longer able to fight it. Whatever secret hope he might have placed in affecting a victim’s visage and crying foul about scorecards filled out over breakfast, whatever distinction he might have harvested from hearing the final bell— these feeble consolations were denied him too. Because Alvarez, himself mostly uninspiring on this night, does not suffer insult well. And an insult it would have been had Plant necessitated the judges. You may not share that estimation, perhaps because you have an affinity for Plant, but nothing about Alvarez says he is satisfied with winning today and looking good tomorrow.
So in the eleventh round, when Plant’s gloves drifted below his chin, (because of fatigue, because of the body punches that, as they always do, took their toll), Alvarez liquified him. A left hook, a right uppercut, a beaten ten-count, a fighter then beaten beyond the need for a second. Alvarez TKO 11 Plant.
Alvarez is now the undisputed super-middleweight champion. It is the distinction he wanted and likely the finish. But the ten rounds that preceded the kill shot he is unlikely to relish revisiting. Those rounds were tedious, they were work, a joyless toil between a fighter who seemed content to give his title away so long as it wasn’t violently taken from him and a fighter who could not take it from him that way, but who knew he would have that title regardless so long as he acted the part.
If that is too harsh (but then, unflattering is the most appropriate word, isn’t it?), why? Because Plant was doing his best? His best may return a championship to his waist whenever Alvarez tires of shepherding them all, but Plant’s best against the only world-class fighter he has faced demanded a little risk.
And yet you can count the number of power punches Plant turned over, that he threw with murderous intent, on Jason Pierre Paul’s right hand. Granted, Plant is not a puncher as his now 21-1 (12) record attests. And like Sergey Kovalev, he may have been too wary of counters to concede the vulnerability of an earnest punch. But there is no outjabbing Alvarez, not without something evil behind it, not when Alvarez is hurling his worst intentions, not when those intentions are appraised by their effect on fighter and crowd alike. No realistic opponent will beat boxing’s darling without doing more than it took to secure the fight. Alvarez is too precious, and he is far, far too good.
You might stall him some with a jab, with footspeed, as Plant did, which is to say he extended the fight without ever throwing its outcome into doubt. In the first round, Alvarez stalked Plant to the ropes without throwing a punch and Canelo had to know he’d have his range when he wanted it. Besides, a fighter who’s shared twenty-four rounds with Gennadiy Golovkin is unlikely to be deterred by punches thrown mostly in panic or escape. So Alvarez—perhaps taking what he learned from that humbling at the hands of Floyd Mayweather Jr. seventeen fights ago—solved Plant’s attempt at a shoulder roll by burying his knuckles into Plant’s body, or his elbows, or right in the kisser, the tattooed lips on Plant’s left hip. That got the commentary team talking about power punches and percentages and predictability, which was enough to convey to the audience how the fight should be understood.
Sixty fights into his professional career, Alvarez, 51-1-2 (39), understands when the moment demands more of him. On Saturday, it never did, hence the first ten rounds of that stillborn spectacle. But Alvarez is not one to let a knockout escape him: he is too arrogant for that, too well-programmed. And so whatever speed of hand and foot Plant employed in staying upright was trumped by that jolting left hook in the eleventh, by the 32-feet-per-second-per-second that accelerated him to his knees.
Perhaps that is the takeaway, then. Not that Alvarez is the first undisputed super-middleweight champion, which is a noteworthy achievement despite the fighters he beat earning it (something, it should be noted, Alvarez had no control over). But that the brightest star in the sport, one that is fixed highest in the heavens over Mexico, remains aware of what responsibilities that celestial distinction carries with it, and honors those responsibilities even if victory does not demand it, even if “the opponent has something to say about it.” That is his winning strategy.