By any measure, junior middleweight champion Saul “Canelo” Alvarez is a boxing prodigy. Undefeated in 44 fights, the 23-year-old Mexican is a precocious boxer and a vicious puncher. And when he enters the ring at the MGM Grand to face Floyd “Money” Mayweather Saturday night, he’ll be the bigger man and younger than his opponent by 13 years.
For the legion of Mayweather haters, who have been waiting with baited breath for years for the abrasive pugilist to suffer his first defeat, Alvarez could provide the answer to their dreams.
But don’t get too excited.
If Alvarez is a prodigy, he has indeed breezed through weak competition and the equivalent of boxing high school and community college. Against Mayweather, the best pound-for-pound fighter of this generation, Canelo is going to receive a crash course graduate and a doctoral education.
And these are courses that he is not ready to pass.
Mayweather is simply one of the best fighters to ever put on a pair of gloves – and I say this begrudgingly as someone who is turned off by his constant, uncouth bleating. Technically, his defense is nearly impregnable. He has mastered the art of slipping and avoiding punches to vital parts of his anatomy to such a degree that his opponents have to be satisfied with punching his arms or his shoulders.
Even though he’s 36 Mayweather and is quicker than nearly any fighter in the game, it is his brain where he holds the real advantage. He’s just smarter, and uses his intellect to control the geography of the ring, which is crucially important against an opponent as potent as Alvarez.
Mayweather has faced nearly every type of style and he can change his own style effortlessly.
He can face his opponent orthodox, or switch to southpaw.
He can stand flat-footed in front of his opponent, he can dance and move, or he can fight inside.
If an opponent wants to get dirty, Mayweather can mix it up that way, too. He is simply more versed in the technical aspects of boxing than any of his contemporaries.
Experts and critics are still looking for signs of physical slippage from Mayweather, but they are so slight as to be imperceptible. Unlike an aging Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson or Sugar Ray Leonard—the man he is most often compared to—Mayweather is never out-of-shape. He is never fatigued.
He has all the advantages over Alvarez, except youth and size. But as the late trainer Eddie Futch once told me, “Proper technique negates size, strength, speed and youth.”
That said, is Mayweather capable of losing?
Actually, he can. There is a battle plan, I believe, that Alvarez can adopt that could work. Again, I defer Futch, who trained Montell Griffith for his March 1997 fight against another slick boxer, Roy Jones, Jr. Jones enjoyed many of the same advantages over Griffith that Mayweather will enjoy against Alvarez. But as Futch told me, he used Jones strengths as a counter-puncher to frustrate him all night and inflict his first defeat as a professional.
Against Jones, Futch instructed Griffith to crowd Jones close to the ropes, but not to start exchanges. He told Griffith to make Jones punch first, then counter to the body, then to the head. Jones became frustrated and in each passing round, he began to leap with his punches, exposing himself to counterpunches. The fight ended on a disqualification in the 9th round on a late blow, but the scorecards were dead even. And that was something dramatically different for Jones, who usually pitched a shutout on scorecards – like Mayweather.
Drawing Mayweather into this type of fight gives Canelo—who is regarded as a heavy puncher— his best shot at victory. He cannot hope to outbox Mayweather or win a decision. He must hurt Mayweather, but first he must get close to him. Hitting Mayweather on this chin will not be easy. But, with the right game plan, it’s possible.
Three years ago, Shane Mosley staggered Mayweather with a right hand to the head in the second round of their title bout. But Money quickly recovered and dominated the rest of the fight by gradually surgically taking away every bit of offense Mosley had.
The only complaint from that Mosley fight – a frequent complaint by critics – is that Mayweather did not try to knock him out. That is what sets Robinson, Joe Louis, Leonard and others apart is that they had the ability and desire to finish opponents when they were hurt. While Mayweather has stopped 26 of his 44 opponents, he has not displayed the same instincts. He prefers not to take any chances. He doesn’t want to get hit.
The only drama Saturday night may occur when, or if, Alvarez is hurt. Like Mayweather, he has never been to the canvas. But if he is hurt, it may give Alvarez the desire to mix it up with Mayweather. And to force Mayweather into the type of rough, toe-to-toe fight he’s not accustomed to.
If that happens, how does Mayweather respond?
Perhaps a tough win in a slugfest would give Mayweather the signature victory that would define his legacy.