Canelo Álvarez Played Russian Roulette and Survived

LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 16: Gennady Golovkin punches Canelo Alvarez during their WBC, WBA and IBF middleweight championship bout at T-Mobile Arena on September 16, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Gennady Golovkin entered the ring first. He appeared nervous and pensive — his years-long quest to fight the best available opponent had reached its culmination. Among this era’s most avoided boxers, Golovkin had finally found his match in Mexican star Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez.

Álvarez, by contrast, looked calm; an emotion lending credence to the “No Boxing No Life” tattoo on his left bicep. For all the criticisms levied against him, no one can say Álvarez fights unprepared, either physically or mentally. Walking toward the ring to the sounds of thousands singing along to “Mexican Lindo y Querido,” Álvarez looked as if, without knowing it until then, he had devoted his entire life to defeating Golovkin—a man who likens himself to a shark in the ocean; both feeling at home and instinctively knowing just what to do.

But in the few first rounds, Golovkin was anything but a predator overpowering his prey. He mostly jabbed, cautiously stalking Álvarez, and in doing so, showed his opponent a respect he hadn’t given to earlier victims. Leading up to the fight, Golovkin warned Álvarez, “there are no survivors in my fights.” The boxers he’d demolished were never the same after losing to the Kazakhstani. But Álvarez was different. And so, Golovkin did not entirely abandon caution as he usually does, instead, measuring his aggression out of fear he’d be counter-punched. Álvarez’s true skills are defensive; they allowed him to slip and pivot away from several of Golovkin’s punches. It is from his defense that Álvarez makes his opponents miss, forcing them into small, split-second openings he exploits—this is what Golovkin guarded against. And as the third round ended, Golovkin fought on Álvarez’s terms; a boxing match based on patience and intelligence. Golovkin wanted and needed a fight rooted in sheer violence.

During moments in the middle rounds, Golovkin and Álvarez each showed what they did best. Golovkin attacked and a few times landed massive power punches. Álvarez absorbed those punches—the same ones that led Golovkin to the highest knockout percentage in the division’s history—and countered with uppercuts, body shots, and hooks that turned Golovkin’s head. At the end of the 7th round, with many of the earlier rounds having an unclear winner, Golovkin’s trainer Abel Sanchez told his fighter to listen for a signal coming from his corner, indicating only 30 seconds remained in the round. The strategy is old and common in boxing, clearly designed to steal rounds. Calling for a fighter to increase their offensive production in the last half-minute of each closely contested round gives judges the impression they did more than their opponent. As the middle rounds ended, Golovkin had turned the fight in his favor, but he also appeared tired, fighting with his mouth open and gasping deeply for air between rounds.

The draw feeds into the ever-growing perception that Álvarez is a protected fighter.

Before the 10th round, as it seemed Golovkin was dominating and about to put the fight out of reach, Álvarez’s trainer Eddie Reynoso told his fighter, “these are for all your life, son. Three more perfect rounds, son. Speed, move with defense, stop him with your left, and don’t stay on the ropes, especially with your hands low.” Álvarez, doing as told, increased his punch output but despite landing impressive punches, couldn’t keep Golovkin from coming forward. Golovkin is a suffocating fighter, cutting off the ring expertly so that no matter which way his opponent moves, he is inescapable. At times, absorbing punches from Álvarez that would have felled any other boxer, Golovkin appeared unbeatable, almost inhuman. And yet, Álvarez managed to win back a few rounds, though the knockout he sought eluded him. When the bell rang at the end of the 12th round, both fighters raised their hands, each assured they’d won.

The announcer read the scorecards, the first from Adalaide Byrd who scored the fight a ridiculous 118-110 for Álvarez. A visibly bruised Golovkin stoically listened to a score that awarded him just two rounds despite his long stretches of dominance in the ring. The second judge scored it a close but defensible 115-113 for Golovkin. The final judge scored the fight even at 114-114 which resulted in a split decision. Officially, no one won though at the end; the crowd cheered for Golovkin and booed Álvarez.

The decision was not a complete robbery, more like a gentle taking of something that likely belonged to Golovkin. But although the draw blemished his perfect record, Golovkin retained his titles. It was more damaging, at least in terms of perception, for Álvarez. Golovkin becomes the fourth fight—at least—where judges have given Álvarez the benefit of doubt in every close round and saved him from a loss (Erislandy Lara, Austin Trout, and Miguel Cotto were the previous three). The draw also continues to feed into the ever-growing perception that Álvarez is a protected fighter, which sadly, diminishes the credit he should receive.

Álvarez, like no other boxer before him, neutralized most of Golovkin’s advantages. “We found out that [Golovkin] isn’t the monster they said he is,” said Álvarez after the fight. At times, Álvarez willfully leaned his back against the ropes, tempting Golovkin into throwing punches. At other times – because Álvarez is a defensive boxer whose style is closer to Floyd Mayweather Jr. than Julio César Chávez – he backpedaled and moved away from Golovkin. Many, including the obviously biased Abel Sanchez, claimed Álvarez ran.

After the fight, Álvarez said he won 7 or 8 rounds—he did not. Golovkin said he won and the result would have been conclusive had Álvarez engaged in a fight against him—but why would Álvarez do that to ease his own beating?

Álvarez did not win but for one night, against a boxer who’d been called a “killing machine” and a “young middleweight Mike Tyson,” he played Russian roulette and survived a fight that lived up to the hype.