The Formula for How Saul Alvarez Can Surprise the Boxing World
On Saturday night in Las Vegas, 23-year-old Saul "Canelo" Alvarez steps into the ring for the opportunity of a lifetime when he faces boxing's pound-for-pound king, Floyd Mayweather, live on pay-per-view.
Alvarez is running at about a 5 to 2 (per oddschecker.com) underdog less than a week out, and I don't expect the line to move that much in the closing days. Mayweather has the smart money betting on him for a reason: He's gone nearly two decades without losing a professional fight, while consistently battling opponents recognized as among the best in the world.
I'm not a gambler, and if I was, I wouldn't be chasing an upset with Canelo on Saturday night, no matter what the odds end up at. But I do think Alvarez will acquit himself well against Mayweather, better than anybody else has in recent years.
I think Alvarez will display intelligent boxing tactics and force Mayweather to fight hard in the later rounds. I think he is going to surprise a lot of people.
There is something like a traditional "plan" for how to beat Floyd Mayweather: you cut off the ring on him and crowd him. You muscle him onto the ropes and pound at his body, lean on him and make him carry your weight.
You rough the pretty boy up.
Oscar De La Hoya refers to it on Showtime's All Access, when he states, "I showed the blueprint for how to beat Floyd."
Of course, the "plan" for beating Floyd Mayweather is something like the Ptolemaic theory of the Universe: widely discredited by the findings of practical science.
De La Hoya lost a split decision that most observers feel Mayweather clearly won. Victor Ortiz, Miguel Cotto and Robert Guerrero were all supposed to implement some version of the plan but none of them came close to actually doing so.
Alvarez is a ruggedly built fighter who is very good at applying pressure and attacking the body. Depending upon how we frame it, he's either physically ideal for implementing "the plan" or else just the latest made-to-order victim for Mayweather.
I expect Alvarez to have some exciting moments against Mayweather, but I don't think he'll force them by sticking to the plan. The usual prescription to trap Mayweather on the ropes or in the corner is intuitive, but it neglects the inconvenient fact that Mayweather is a brilliant inside fighter.
At 36, Mayweather might actually be better at this aspect of fighting than he was when he faced De La Hoya six years ago. Mayweather is still very quick and his timing is impeccable. He excels at torquing away precisely at the right instant to avoid a punch.
What he can't slip he deflects or blocks. Like many great boxers, Mayweather has very long arms in relation to his torso.
Even most casual fans realize the offensive advantages of above-average reach. But when you put a six-foot tall man's arms on a 5'8" boxer like Mayweather you are essentially giving him an oversized shield for each side of his rib cage.
Rather than simply pressuring Mayweather and trying to drag him into the trenches, I think Alvarez should start out the fight trying to establish engagement at middle distance.
In the early rounds, I think Alvarez should stay cool and work behind his jab, inviting Mayweather to be the aggressor. I think Canelo has underrated head movement and that his best chance to land hard on Mayweather early might come from surprising the pound-for-pound champ with counters.
Mayweather's best punch is his sneaky straight right. It is dangerous as a rapier and Mayweather's timing and footwork allow him to score with it in from startling angles.
But Mayweather often relies on his opponents' own aggression to walk them into the punch. If Alvarez is hanging back and waiting for Mayweather to attack, the right will most often come in back of a quick, distracting jab.
That jab could be the perfect opportunity for Alvarez to slip and attack Mayweather with a right hook to the body.
If Alvarez does employ this tactic with some success, Mayweather will adjust quickly. The most obvious quick adjustment might be to feint the jab, then try to catch Alvarez with a lead hook as he attempts to slip and go downstairs.
But if Alvarez can manage to draw Mayweather into throwing more hooks he will be taking the fight in exactly the direction he wants it to go. There's an old boxing saying, "Don't hook with a hooker," and the lead hook is Alvarez's best punch, and the only one of his punches that is probably better than Mayweather's version.
Of course Alvarez will have to employ aspects of the traditional "plan." He will want to be a very busy fighter. Another reason he wants to keep the fight at middle range is so that he will have room to unload with aggressive flurries when the opportunity presents.
Mayweather will have plenty of fans in the crowd on Saturday but the MGM Grand will truly erupt any time Alvarez lets his hands go. Even if he is failing to score cleanly with a flurry, he might get some credit from a judge swept up in the excitement of the moment.
But to win a fight against a skilled technician like Mayweather, Alvarez is going to need to do more than simply bully the smaller and older man. Alvarez is going to have to demonstrate some skill and ring generalship.
That's going to be a difficult plan to pull off. As Mayweather tweeted last Monday, echoing his statements on All Access:
I don't care what you do good. I do everything great.— Floyd Mayweather (@FloydMayweather) September 2, 2013
But simply looking to crowd and bully Mayweather has never worked. Even with a 20-pound weight advantage on fight night, Alvarez is going to need to need fight smart, especially early, to pull off this major upset.
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