CANELO ALVAREZ did what he was expected to do on Saturday night, February 27, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. The best fighter in boxing brutalized WBC mandatory challenger Avni Yildirim, forcing him to quit on his stool after three woefully one-sided rounds.
Yildirim, who came into the fight with a 21-2 (12 KOs, 1 KO by) record, is a poster boy for what’s wrong with boxing’s mandatory challenger system. The 29-year-old Turkish native, who lives in Istanbul, had never beaten a world-class fighter. The two times he stepped up in class, he was knocked out by Chris Eubank Jnr and lost a technical decision to Andre Dirrell. His most recent victory was a razor-thin majority decision over Lolenga Mock (an opponent in his mid-forties with 14 losses on his ring resume). That was 29 months ago. Two months before that, Yildirim beat a fighter with a 3-31-3 record.
But Canelo holds the WBC and WBA 168-pound belts and wants to unify the four major sanctioning body titles. To keep the WBC belt, he had to fight Yildirim.
Hard Rock Stadium seats close to 70,000 people for boxing, but attendance was capped at 15,000 because of the pandemic. In addition to being streamed live on DAZN, the card was available in the United States on traditional pay-per-view outlets.
There was the predictable chatter from Yildirim’s camp that Canelo was underestimating his foe. Trainer Joel Diaz (who was working with Yildirim in California) proclaimed, “Avni may be an underdog but he doesn’t care what anybody says. He’s fighting for his country and he’s going to shock the world.”
Canelo paid lip service to the competitive merits of the fight, saying, “He’s a strong fighter. He’s fierce. He’s always there, pressuring. At any moment, he’s dangerous. This is boxing and one punch can change everything. It’s not in me to underestimate anyone.”
But there was a reason that Canelo was a 30-to-1 betting favorite. Yildirim was a big step down in the quality of competition after Canelo’s three most recent outings (against Danny Jacobs, Sergey Kovalev, and Callum Smith).
“They’re not giving me much of a chance,” Yildirim acknowledged. “They look at me like it’s impossible because, if you look at boxing in Turkey, there are not many successful Turkish boxers. Maybe in our history you may find some successful athletes. But our country is not famous for boxing.”
Meanwhile, the always candid Tim Bradley (now an expert analyst for ESPN) put the fight in perspective, declaring, “Yildirim is a punching bag. He’s one-dimensional. He doesn’t have one-punch knockout power. He comes straight forward. His head is always in the middle. He leans forward over his front knee. Anytime he has stepped up his class of opponent, he’s been destroyed. He looks terrible. It should be a highlight-reel knockout.”
Two days before fight night, the promotion received a blow when Julio Cesar Martinez pulled out of his scheduled WBC flyweight title defense against McWilliams Arroyo because of an injury to his right hand. The WBC managed to salvage its santioning fee by approving Abraham Rodriguez as an opponent for Arroyo in a contest for its “interim” world flyweight championship. Rodriguez had one day to prepare for the bout – an ugly five-round beatdown in which Arroyo did to him what Martinez had been expected to do to Arroyo.
The most interesting undercard fight was a sloppy, inartfully fought confrontation between unbeaten 37-year-old Chinese heavyweight Zhilei Zhang and journeyman Jerry Forrest. Forrest was knocked down in round one . . . And round two . . . And round three . . . He was staggered in round four. Then Zhang (who was slow and plodding to begin with) tired, getting slower and weaker in the process.
By round eight, Zhang was exhausted. A bad cut above his right eye occasioned by an accidental head butt added to his troubles. In round nine, referee Frank Gentile took a point away from Zhang for repeatedly holding and pushing Forrest’s head down on the inside. If Forrest had been in better shape, he might have knocked Zhang out. But he wasn’t and he couldn’t. The judges ruled the fight a draw.
That set the stage for Canelo-Yildirim.
Elite athletes have an aura about them. Prior to the fight, Yildirim had proclaimed, “Canelo has never faced a true Turkish warrior.” But Canelo has the carriage of a champion. And Yildirim has the presence of a club fighter.
Michael Buffer’s ring introductions raised the energy level in the stadium. He’s still the best in the world at what he does. Yildirim had to wait for seven minutes after entering the ring while a musical tribute to Canelo played.
The fighters had weighed in on Friday (one day before the fight). There was a public weigh-in for the cameras at 2:00 PM local time. The real weigh-in had been conducted six hours earlier behind closed doors with each man tipping the scales at 167.6 pounds. By the time the faux weigh-in occurred, both Canelo and Yildirim had gained roughly eight pounds.
Weight was the only thing about them that was equal. Canelo and Yildirim represent two distinctly different classes of fighter. Indeed, Avni had served as a sparring partner for Canelo when Alvarez was preparing for his 2018 rematch against Gennady Golovkin. His chances of beating Canelo in Miami were virtually non-existent. And “virtually” disappeared when the bell rang.