Boxing is not a game. It's barely even a sport.
Most people forget this.
They are deceived by the spotlight, the cameras, the cheering fans and judges. By the pageantry and the prose.
They forget that professional prize fighting is, in essence, the ultimate gamble: To step into that ring, to stand opposite another man and wager you can separate him from his senses before he can separate you from yours. It's Russian roulette with fists.
The hurt business, the great Mike Tyson called boxing. You hurt and you get hurt. All aspiring fighters learn this lesson. But sometimes, over the span of a long career, even they forget. Mexican boxer Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez has seemingly forgotten as well.
But on Sunday morning, when Canelo steps into the ring with Kazakh fighter Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin aka GGG, to battle for the undisputed* middleweight championship of this world, it is a lesson he will undoubtedly find himself remembering. As the heavy hands of the Kazakh pound into his face, chin and body. Again and again. And again.
Canelo: The star
But it wasn't always this way.
Canelo, for all his movie star looks, came up the hard way. Introduced to boxing as a child by an older sibling, he made his professional debut at the age of 15. He fought in smoke-filled halls, often fighting men much older than him in fights no reputable body ought to have sanctioned. For very little money. His first bout fetched him the princely sum of $60. His family may not have been poor, but they were far from well-off.
But, somewhere along the way things changed. For the worse. Whispers of 'hype job' abounded as the once young, can't miss prospect began entering his physical prime. Confidence turned into arrogance. Desire changed into demand. Want became need.
The rot set in somewhere around 2015. Canelo, moving to solidify himself as a bonafide star, chose to fight Puerto Rican legend and sure-fire boxing hall of famer Miguel Cotto.
Cotto, a decade older than Canelo, was fresh off a win against middleweight champion Sergio Martinez. But in many ways, Cotto was done as a world-class fighter. In many ways, his end came at the hands of Filipino legend Manny Pacquaio, half a decade ago in 2009.
Pacquio gave Cotto the beat down of a lifetime. Then Floyd Mayweather Jr soundly outclassed Cotto. Austin Trout, an unheralded spoiler, beat Cotto handily. Cotto's career floundered for the next couple of years. His big return victory, against Martinez, was no victory at all. He beat a man with one good leg and the other foot in the boxing grave.
No one blamed Canelo for this. After all, he was simply doing what all young lions do: Challenge an older, aging lion to a duel and pick their bones. It is the natural order of things. When Canelo beat Cotto for the lineal middleweight championship, it was closer than it should have been, all things considering. And the whispers began.
Canelo next fought British welterweight Amir Khan, infamous for his jaw, which is not so much made of glass, but the finest of china. For five rounds, Khan, the much smaller man thoroughly, outboxed, outfought and outright befuddled Canelo. Then the Mexican hit the Brit with a perfect overhand right. And thus ended the lesson.
After the fight, Canelo and his team, in a show of Mexican Machismo (TM), invited GGG into the ring. “Mexicans don't f**k around,” Canelo said. Glowering. “I'm not scared of anyone.”
He spent the next year running from GGG. Canelo, rather than step into the ring with GGG, widely regarded as “the man” at middleweight, meekly vacated his title. He surrendered without firing a single shot. Pundits and boxing fans everywhere, were outraged. And rightly so.
His next two fights were against British journeyman Liam Smith and part-time fighter and full-time beach bum Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. He won both fights. Easily. He fattened his already swelling bank accounts. But Canelo lost something not easily recovered. Respect. And he lost chance to hone his prodigious skills. His sharp edge dulled.
Worse, immediately after that farce, Canelo announced that he would, in fact, fight GGG next. His handlers, who have arguably been fattening Canelo up for the past two years with soft touches, have done him no favours. He is a chum and GGG is a shark.
GGG: The apex predator
For all their differences now, GGG and Canelo have much in common. Like Canelo – and so many other fighters – GGG, who grew up in the mining town of Karaganda, was a child of poverty,
Like Canelo, GGG would grow up fighting much older boys and occasionally, fully grown men. But not in a boxing ring. On the streets. Fighting wasn't a hazard. It was simply the way you lived. To survive. To keep what little you have.
Like Canelo, GGG – and his twin brother Max – was introduced to boxing at an early age by older siblings. The twins were standout amateurs. In fact, GGG claims that Max was the more talented of the two.
The moment of truth came when both were selected for the Kazakh Olympic team. GGG, being 15 minutes older than his brother, was given the green light. Max stepped back and became the breadwinner for the family. From then, he's been content to stay in his brother's corner, offering him words of encouragement and guidance.
While Canelo was identified as a star early, GGG languished in anonymity after he turned professional. He spent many fruitless years in Germany, knocking out one hapless opponent after the other as the top fighters refused to fight him.
Frustrated, GGG took his career to the United States and signed with a new promoter. An executive with HBO openly pondered what he could do with a fighter from Kazakhstan. After all, much like pro-wrestling, boxing is based on a my-nation-can-kick-your-nation's-ass mentality. And how many Kazakh fans were there?
But GGG persisted. He built his legend painstakingly. One knockout after the other. He learnt English. He charmed the pants off reporters and fans with his idiosyncratic turns of phrase. Knockouts were described as “big drama show.” Hapless opponents lying on the canvas were called “good boys.”
He played to the gallery, describing himself as a “Mexican-style fighter.” The fans lapped it up. Here was a throwback. An old school fighter who would literally step into the ring with anyone. He became the fighter's fighter. The fan favourite.
All the while top fighters continued to look the other way. Forgot how to sign their names on contracts when GGG's name came up. Their managers became “unavailable” to discuss terms. The trainer of middleweight champion and all-around marvel Sergio Martinez reportedly said, “I'm not putting my guy in there with that animal.”
Cotto, who was eager to fight Canelo, didn't want none either. So GGG did what he could: Played the executioner to a string of capable, but hardly top-flight fighters. While it was enough to make him a cult favourite and swell his purse, it wasn't enough to bolster his legacy.
Not much can be gleaned from those bouts. Only the last two fights are somewhat instructive. In late 2016, pretty much out of opponents, GGG travelled to the UK to fight welterweight Kell Brook. GGG didn't seem like himself. He seemed surly. Withdrawn. The rumours were that he was down with the flu days before the fight.
GGG didn't seem like himself when he stepped between the ropes either. His movements looked slow. Stilted. His punches didn't seem to have that life-taking force in them. But even a less than stellar performance was enough to put Brook away in five rounds. Oh, and he broke Brook's face. The Brit has never been the same.
GGG next fought Daniel Jacobs. The American, nicknamed 'The Miracle Man', almost lived up to his name against the Kazakh. Almost. Jacobs, although he tasted the canvas early against GGG, showed no absolutely no fear. He'd seen worse. Jacobs is a survivor. He fought bone cancer and won. Then he returned to the ring.
Jacobs remained calm under fire, even traded shots with the Kazakh. Some ringside observers had the fight a draw. Others had Jacobs nicking the fight. This writer had GGG squeaking a close decision. Most agreed that all three outcomes could be described as “fair.”
Canelo's managers, who had so carefully kept their cash cow away from the GGG, had finally seen enough. They took one last opportunity to milk the said cow (against Chavez Jr), then matched it up against the butcher. And now, the bill comes due.
Boxer puncher vs the Puncher boxer
Styles make fights is the oldest adage in boxing. Here, we have a clash that makes boxing purists salivate. Canelo, the classic boxer puncher meets GGG, the ultimate puncher boxer.
Forget the hypejob that was Mayweather-Conor McGregor. This is the fight that the fans have been waiting for. The fight boxing needs. The one it deserves.
Both can box. Both can brawl. Both can fight. Both rely on their chin to take what the other man can dish out. Both rely on their power to change the nature of the fight. Canelo is a consummate counterpuncher. GGG is a swarming pressure fighter.
Canelo is a textbook and technically sound fighter. He has blindingly fast hands. He dazzles the eye with combinations. He uses upper body movement to stay in the pocket and if needed, lays on the ropes, catching opponents as they step into his range.
But Canelo has a problem. His fists, marvellous though they may be, are handcuffed by feet made of concrete. Canelo can punch effectively only when he plants his feet.
While Jacobs lay out the blueprint to beat Golovkin, Jacobs is everything Canelo isn't: Tall, rangy, a fighter who can stick and move, and perhaps most importantly, much bigger than GGG. Canelo may simply not have the tools to pull off an upset.
GGG, for all his technical proficiency, ought be called The Terminator. He moves forward, his expression never changing, dishing out power jabs that have brought professional fighters to their knees (with jabs!) and landing punches with concussive, life-altering force.
To make things worse for Canelo, GGG has, in his 350-odd amateur bouts and 37 professional fights, never been off his feet. His chin isn't so much granite, as adamantium.
But Canelo shouldn't despair. If he is looking for hope, he would do well to look to Father Time. Canelo is 27 and entering his prime. GGG is 35 and has almost certainly left his. GGG has looked less than invincible in his past two fights. The concesus goes that he is slipping. The trouble is, no one knows how quickly. May be not even GGG.
Not their first dance
And adding to the intrigue, this isn't even the first time they've traded blows in a ring. That happened in 2011, when Canelo, a fresh-faced 20-year-old accepted the invitation of an unknown Kazakh fighter to spar with him.
Sparring is not a fight. But witnesses say, Golovkin played the headmaster that day, taking Canelo to school. To quote Muhammad Ali, he gave Canelo dancing lessons, boxing lessons and falling down lessons.
GGG hurt Canelo, more than once, even as he backed off to make sure he didn't do lasting damage to the young pup. GGG remembers. You can be sure Canelo remembers. Perhaps the Mexian boxer has lost this fight already. Where it counts the most: In his mind.
The prediction: GGG TKOs Canelo in Round 11
GGG will start slowly. Watchfully. The first few rounds will be close. The judges will give them to Canelo. They know which way their bread is buttered. The money, as ever, follows the younger fighter. Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown.
But GGG does not just beat fighters. He breaks them. Slowly. Painfully. Working behind the most powerful jab since Sonny Liston. To quote one former GGG opponent: You've heard he hits hard. And then he hits you. It should be illegal.
As Canelo will learn, much to his chagrin. By the middle rounds, GGG will be hurting Canelo whenever he hits him. He'll hit him often.
By the 10th round, GGG's heavy hands will have painted a bloody picture across Canelo's chiselled features. The 11th round will see the referee halt the bout to save Canelo from taking any more punishment.
Canelo will demand a rematch. GGG will accept.
And then they'll do it over again. Much to the delight of boxing fans everywhere.
Published Date: Sep 16, 2017 16:46 PM | Updated Date: Sep 16, 2017 16:46 PM