“You have to be cruel to be kind.”—Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow
The celebration tempered once Saul “Canelo” Alvarez was announced the winner. As the ring cleared Alvarez removed his red and white hat, returned the belts draped over his shoulders. Wrapping a perfunctory embrace around a weary Callum Smith, Alvarez offered him a few gracious words. Smith would be his opponent that night. Opponent. A strange thing to call him considering what followed; it implies an antagonism that proved almost wholly absent from the woebegone young man.
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Smith sunk into that embrace, as if relieved to begin whatever process was about to unfold. This was a beginning, but of what? If Alvarez was already the winner, what would be expected of him now?
A bell rang three times, longitudinal waves sucked back into a single silent point. Then something remarkable happened.
The effect on Smith was immediate. There was a youthful visage hidden under all that trauma, one easier to discern as Alvarez sculpted some semblance of order out of the chaos daubed onto Smith’s skull. Each well-placed stroke of white leather undid the bruising and swelling. The crimson creek that poured from Smith’s nose dried up, retreated quickly into its veins after an Alvarez right hand. Even that grotesquery on Smith’s biceps—a tumor, a hematoma?—whatever it was, that angry tissue was redistributed under the forging force of Alvarez’s overhand smashes.
Yes, that crestfallen diaphanous fellow—Alvarez was going to fix him. Perhaps that was what the cheers were for, the spectacle of a broken man repaired.
Bowed like a penitent only minutes earlier, Smith regained his height courtesy of Alvarez’s careful work. There was a demon tormenting Smith—that much was clear. No man adopts such a posture freely, no man of such height abandons its impression unless under duress. Alvarez knew the demon’s precise location and tore it from Smith’s lanky torso with verve. The rib cage, liver, solar plexus, that internal malady seemed to possess them all, but Alvarez was undeterred. He sought it with purpose and strategy, hunting it, trapping it, wrenching it from its intestinal recesses. It was a little like watching those catfish hunters who return the slippery creatures to their muddy lairs using nothing but experience, feel, and a deep breath.
Often, the two men would nod to each other before one of Alvarez’s particularly deft applications, as though Alvarez was trying to instill some trust in Smith, who strangely became less open to help the more he benefited from it. Faced with the odd recalcitrant fit from Smith, Alvarez softened his approach. In the beginning, he was far more direct: he would smile now and then, nod before allowing Smith to lash out with a punch or two, but no longer. Perhaps it was the severity of Smith’s injuries that demanded Alvarez work so purposefully? After all, there was little time for niceties with a battered man in his care.
Alvarez was required to employ greater trickery lest Smith escape before being brought to full health. So he started to distract Smith as he cleaned him up. He would lighten the red around Smith’s eyes with his left hand, maybe force down the swelling on Smith’s cheek with his right, and then distract Smith with a dip of the shoulder, a feint, some lightning gesture that would capture Smith’s focus, diverting it from the fists undoing that damage.
Fitness was also returning to Smith. Was Alvarez to thank for that as well? It was as though he were conducting Smith through a series of exercises. There was a choreography at work, an inscrutable one. But Alvarez had shown himself the orchestrator of all that transpired. If he was helping Smith, and there could be no denying he was, what he asked of him must have been part of the therapy. Alvarez would steady his head before dipping it to either the right or left, at which point Smith would tentatively send his hand into the void left by Alvarez’s movement. Or Alvarez would roll a split second before Smith looped a hook, as if instructing Smith on where to put his fists, training his reflexes.
Smith had no stomach for what was asked of him, he retreated often from Alvarez’s invitations. The bravery he showed earlier in moving clumsily about the ring acquiescing to every Alvarez act, was gone. Alvarez, however, would not let Smith down.
But he refused to let Smith touch him. Why decline the benefit of the other man’s hands? That there was nothing about Alvarez that needed such attention could be one answer. Maybe he didn’t trust Smith’s feeble efforts to do any good.
The work was taking more from Alvarez, though. It must be harder to bring a man to his best than save him from his worst. That work is more precise, cautious, and slow, and that must wear on the agent. How else to explain Alvarez sitting between rounds after standing for so long? How grateful Smith must have been for the opportunity to be reworked by someone so caring and capable. He looked like a new man. A little unsure of himself, sure, in disbelief of what was unfolding, but worlds better for having submitted himself to the procedure.
Another three dings of the bell brought the spectacle to a close. Both men returned their corners, each the picture of health. They put on robes and strode about the ring a bit before Alvarez, smiling from a job well done, took his leave of all in attendance, striding backward through the din of appreciation, into the bowels of the Alamodome in San Antonio. And time’s arrow returned with quivering tension to its bow.