Both Mexican superstar Canelo Alvarez and super-middleweight champion Callum Smith will believe their fight is coming at the right time for very different reasons, writes Elliot Worsell
WHEN Floyd Mayweather outboxed Saul “Canelo” Alvarez for every one of the 12 rounds they shared back in 2013, the lesson in timing he taught the Mexican was about more than just punches landed. In beating into Canelo a part of him, Mayweather revealed to the Mexican the importance of timing fights – when and when not to take them – and the importance, moreover, of becoming so powerful within your sport that the sport has no option but to run according to the time showing on your watch.
Essentially, Mayweather taught him the art of control, both in the ring and beyond, and now Canelo, having that night played bull to Mayweather’s matador, has switched roles to enjoy the same luxuries his master once enjoyed. As matador, he waits for others to do the softening up and the reconnaissance missions on his behalf, then delivers the coup de grâce with the bull weakened and the timing right. As matador, he is celebrated like a hero, regardless of his transgressions, with trumpets heralding his arrival and rivals begging to make his acquaintance.
It’s not a rigged game, just one with odds stacked in his favour. For if you fight Canelo Alvarez, know you are fighting not just one Mexican and two fists but a machine – that is, an entire industry. You are fighting a brand. You are fighting someone whose popularity boosts their sport and whose fights makes large amounts of money for the people within this sport. You are fighting a man backed by many others. This dynamic, witnessed only in the sport’s biggest stars, grants Canelo, 30, a level of protection and also gives him the same kind of freedom Mayweather exploited when active. It allows him to call the shots, work on his own time, and pick and choose who, where and when he fights.
Of course, the fear when offering a fighter this kind of power is that it will be abused. The fear is that the fighter will become bigger than the sport and the sport element will then lose all relevance, becoming secondary to their popularity and desire to pursue further riches. Yet, in Canelo’s case, this scenario has still to materialise. So far, he has, despite the power at his disposal, kept his ego in check and, for the most part, taken fights people have wanted to see and finished them in ways people tend to appreciate. He has, in recent years, defeated Gennady Golovkin, his great middleweight rival, as well as Danny Jacobs, his other middleweight rival, and he has also even ventured to light-heavyweight to snatch the WBO title from Russia’s Sergey Kovalev.
And yet, if it’s possible to dissect Mayweather’s power plays, you can do the same with Alvarez, aware the devil is always in the detail. If that way inclined, you could say Kovalev was badly hurt by Britain’s Anthony Yarde in a title defence just two months prior to facing Alvarez and had also been stopped by Eleider Alvarez (no relation) the year before. Jacobs, meanwhile, had scraped through a gruelling 12-rounder against Sergiy Derevyanchenko, winning a split decision at the bout’s conclusion, before facing Alvarez.
As for Golovkin, the primary knock with that fight is not a lack of sharpness – though, at 36, some would argue the Kazakh had seen better days – but rather the fact the fight happened during the same year in which Alvarez, the victor, failed a performance-enhancing drug test for clenbuterol. That, irrespective of the excuse (contaminated meat) or the length of ban (just six months), smacked of privilege and a need to get the Canelo train moving again, as did the majority decision verdict Alvarez, 53-1-2 (36), received at the end of the fight. That was as contentious as the drug drama, as well as the pair’s drawn first fight, and was another example of how Canelo’s power in the sport, if not literally swaying things in his favour, will certainly have you sensing he is about to get the benefit of any doubt when standing beside an opponent with a referee between them.
This, by the way, is not an attempt to tear apart Canelo’s record, or even an attempt to make out he has had an easy time of things. It is instead an attempt to show how power, in a non-punching sense, is often what enables a superstar like Alvarez to leap from middleweight to light-heavyweight and fight a champion six weeks after their last fight; and why he falls on the right side of close decisions against Golovkin and Jacobs; and why he can also saunter to super-middleweight and take the WBA ‘regular’ title from Rocky Fielding, a fight deemed a bad idea the moment it was mooted. Canelo does great things with his privilege, no question, but it is privilege nonetheless.
England’s Callum Smith, Canelo’s next opponent (on December 19 in San Antonio, Texas), will loath to think he has been cherry-picked for the occasion but won’t be naïve enough to think that is not the case, either. Though far from a soft opponent, this is still a fight with which Canelo has been toying for some time and one he has decided to take now, at this time, for a reason.
Only he and his team will be privy to that reason, of course, but it’s clear a fight against Smith, for Smith’s WBA super-middleweight title (and the vacant WBC belt), makes more sense to Canelo today, in 2020, than it did last year or even the year before when Smith won his current title against George Groves. For now, not only has Smith been inactive for 13 months (through no fault of his own), but he is also coming off arguably the toughest fight of his career: a split decision win over John Ryder last November. That fight was one some believed Ryder deserved to win and was doubtless a fight Canelo and his team viewed as the impetus to pull the trigger on a title challenge they had previously been cautious to entertain. Both the worst fight of Smith’s career and potentially the most important, the Ryder struggle may well have been the key to Smith unlocking a door he had once been unable to open. Such is the way of things in boxing.
Certainly, whether it rings true this weekend or not, there is no better time for Canelo Alvarez to face Callum Smith, 27-0 (19), than right now. Ryder issue aside, Smith has, since defeating Groves in 2018, only managed to defend his belt against Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam, a natural middleweight he brushed aside in three rounds, which screams wasted momentum no matter what way you look at it. The Groves performance, as good as any Smith has produced, should have set him up for further glories but, sadly, did nothing of the sort, with the low-key nature of the fight – held in Saudi Arabia and hardly acknowledged outside the hardcore fraternity – both in keeping with Smith’s personality and ensuring it was an occasion easy to forget.
Two years on, unification fights should by now have happened and Smith should, given his talent, have claimed greater scalps than that of George Groves. But for one reason or another – the main one being a global pandemic – Smith has found his career stuttering and thus become susceptible to underperforming, as was evident against Ryder, in fights people presume are beneath him.
The problem with judging a fighter on a subpar last performance – in order to then reward them with the fight they want – is that you are assuming, or hoping, they are not the type to rise to the occasion. With Smith, though, this is risky. It’s risky because we know his best performances tend to come when there is an element of danger involved and, conversely, that he never looks more beatable than in fights we are told there is no chance of him being beaten. Against Groves, for instance, he was punch perfect in what most considered a 50/50 fight, and years before that, when making his way against the likes of Rocky Fielding and Hadillah Mohoumadi, Smith was explosive in his efforts to finish fights we were led to believe would be somewhat competitive. But then, on the flipside, you have fights against the likes of Ryder and kickboxer Nieky Holzken, fights in which Smith struggled to see a threat and therefore struggled to get going or make any kind of statement. Those performances were not so much about his inadequacies as his impatience. His boredom, even.
Perhaps, for Smith, it was always going to be this way. A fighter easier to ignore than to fight, the Liverpudlian is a VHS tape in the Netflix era who has never once broken character or actively chased something he didn’t believe would eventually come to him. He has, for better or worse, kept faith in his ability and stayed true to his quiet, old-school approach to a sport bordering on pantomime, despite opportunities passing him by and the realisation that other fighters, far less talented fighters, have gained the attention he has deserved. He has played the long game and will argue, because of this, it is he and not Canelo who has got their timing spot on. He will argue that, at 30 years of age, and with a year in which to mentally prepare for Canelo behind him, the time has never been better for him, Callum Smith, to embark on the biggest challenge of his eight-year pro career. And he could be right.
It could be argued, too, that Smith knows more about Alvarez than Alvarez knows about Smith. Alvarez, after all, has long been the end goal for Smith – the finish line not just in terms of wealth but also achievement – and he has no doubt had him somewhere in his mind every time he has set foot inside a gym for the past two years. Canelo, in contrast, has during this same period of time had countless other names on his mind and far bigger names than Smith to boot. If complacency is a factor, then, it will for this fight lead to his undoing, not Smith’s.
Better yet, Smith has an insight into Canelo Alvarez by virtue of the fact his brother, Liam, has already shared a ring with the Mexican (in a WBO super-welterweight title fight in 2016). This is a leg-up and luxury no other Alvarez opponent has boasted and must have some bearing on Smith’s preparation, if not his performance on the night. In effect, he and his brothers, as well as his coach, Joe Gallagher, have had Canelo on the brain, on and off, for the best part of four years and will in that time have watched him, studied him, and, using four Smith legs and four Smith arms, tried to hypothesise which of their respective attributes could be used to bring about his downfall. Undoubtedly, in the form of Callum, both the youngest and largest of four fighting Smith brothers, they now have the best chance of putting into practice all they have for four years been working on.
Even so, if Smith’s privilege is preparation, Canelo’s privilege is something considerably greater than that. His position is a privileged one and, because this is boxing, you can be sure it is one he has also earned.
Rather than a handout, or something gifted to him because of the way he looks, walks or talks, Canelo Alvarez’s privilege is the result of turning professional at 15 years of age, accumulating 56 fights in 15 years, and winning six world titles in three weight divisions. It is the privilege a fighter receives as reward for knowing and overcoming hardship. It is the privilege a fighter receives when brave enough to face Floyd Mayweather at the tender age of 23 and take all he was that night given.
It is the privilege a fighter receives when having taken over.