Whatever happened Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, one thing would be clear by the end of things: Fight fans would know whether Saul "Canelo" Alvarez was a legitimate boxing superstar or just a promotional creation.
It turned out the kid is legit.
The litmus test for Alvarez, coming off a 10th-round knockout over strong-but-limited slugger Alfredo Angulo, was slick southpaw Erislandy Lara, a fighter no one else in the division wanted to face.
Alvarez edged out a split-decision win over Lara by using aggressive tactics to stalk the Cuban stylist around the ring for the majority of the 12-round fight. The fight was close. General speculation leaned towards the fight going seven rounds to five for either fighter or a draw.
Boxing Scene's Jake Donovan summed up the fight nicely:
This was a good win/performance by Canelo. Lara posed difficult style, Canelo slowly solved it. I had it 114-114, but enjoyed fight. #boxing— Jake Donovan (@JakeNDaBox) July 13, 2014
Two judges at ringside saw the same fight most did. Dave Moretti scored it 115-113 for Alvarez, while Jerry Roth had it 115-113 for Lara. Levi Martinez, though, turned in an egregious scorecard of 117-111 in favor of Alvarez.
Make no mistake: Alvarez deserves credit for his performance. Whereas in previous outings against good boxers like Lara, the Mexican appeared out of his element, on Saturday Alvarez showed he had improved mightily and in short order.
How'd you score it?
Regardless, the little things Alvarez did in the fight, particularly in the second half, proved the budding superstar is as ripe for taking over the boxing world as his handlers had hoped. Alvarez cut off the ring and used smart hooks and uppercuts to Lara's body to yield the result he wanted.
It was not exactly spectacular but rather a hard-fought win over one of the best junior middleweights in the world.
"He has a good jab, but you don't run. You don't win a fight that way," said Alvarez via translator to Showtime's Jim Gray immediately after the fight.
Lara did not agree.
"People know...I won this fight," he said to Gray.
Showtime's tabulation of punch statistics showed Alvarez threw more punches in the fight but that Lara landed more:
#ShoStats: Total Punches Landed/Thrown thru 12 Canelo [97/415, 23%] Lara [107/386, 27%]— SHO Stats (@SHOStats) July 13, 2014
Yep, it was that close.
The atmosphere of the fight was electric. Both fighters strolled confidently to the ring to the sounds of their proud nationality. Representing Cuba, the crown jewel of amateur boxing, was Lara, the 31-year-old southpaw defector who finally got the fight he had been chasing for more than two years.
For Mexico, it was Alvarez, the hard-punching 23-year-old who was already one of boxing’s biggest stars.
Although Lara was ranked No. 1 and Alvarez No. 2 at junior middleweight by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, the bout was contracted at 155 pounds, likely because the stockier Alvarez was fast growing past the 154-pound junior middleweight limit.
Alvarez proved his mettle against Lara, but it was not easy.
Lara landed the first significant blow of the fight, a straight left that moved the shorter man's head back. Both men tried to establish the jab, but it was Lara who landed it the most. Perhaps in homage to his home country, Alvarez's best punch was a left hook to the body, the punch made famous by great Mexican fighters of the past.
But Lara didn't stay still long enough for Alvarez to land but a couple. It was Lara's round.
Alvarez landed a telling blow at the start of Round 2, a hard right hand to the head. Lara stumbled back but opened up himself shortly thereafter to make things close. Alvarez used hooks to the body and constant pressure, while Lara tried landing left-hand counters as Alvarez strode in toward him.
Alvarez chased Lara around the ring in Round 3, but Lara never stayed in one place long enough for much to happen. Alvarez walked into a few hard one-twos but was more aggressive and threw more punches than the swift-footed Lara.
Alvarez let his hands go more in Round 4, and Lara's high guard couldn't keep all of the punches off. The two traded power shots at times, though Lara also used his feet to keep the Mexican lost in space. Alvarez looked aggressive and smart, but Lara landed hard punches to keep him honest.
Lara opened Round 5 with a nice right hook. Alvarez responded with combinations to the body, but Lara kept the ever-charging Alvarez frustrated with good movement and well-timed counters.
Alvarez appeared tired at the start of Round 6. Lara was able to keep him at the end of his longer punches, while Alvarez missed wildly at times. Alvarez flurried in the last few seconds of the round, perhaps hoping to make an impression on the judges at ringside.
"This guy is desperate now," said Lara's trainer, Ronnie Shields, in between Rounds 6 and 7.
If that was the case, Lara made Alvarez more so during the first half of Round 7. Lara landed first and most and kept Alvarez following him around the ring like a lost puppy.
But Alvarez made his mark on Lara’s face with a left uppercut to Lara's eye midway through the round. It opened up a cut and allowed Alvarez to get off some nice combinations afterward.
The Alvarez pressure wilted Lara in Round 8. Lara moved around the ring but did not land crisp punches, while Alvarez kept charging with short, hard shots that seemed to move Lara as they landed.
Alvarez was a bully in Round 9. While Lara continued to circle, Alvarez was now able to run Lara into hard body punches. The Cuban could not do anything to keep Alvarez off him.
In Round 10, Lara opened up more from a distance and kept his opponent from charging toward him. It paid off. Lara snapped Alvarez's head back with hard one-twos, while Alvarez focused on drilling Lara's body.
The crowd booed lustily in Round 11, as Lara kept Alvarez off balance with fast feet and laser-like counters. Lara landed the cleaner blows, but Alvarez moved forward aggressively and threw punches with vigor.
Alvarez came out like a bull in Round 12. He came forward as fast as ever and threw punches as if his boxing life depended on it. Lara responded with smart moves and clean counters. Lara focused on jabbing the tired Alvarez as the clock ticked.
The fight was close, and both fighters seemed to know it. Alvarez used aggression to make his mark. Lara used circular movements and counters.
Both men raised their hands at the end of the fight and for good reason. Lara proved he was the slick southpaw that other junior middleweights were right to avoid, while Alvarez, in beating him, proved he was rightfully one of boxing's biggest and best stars.
The future is bright for Alvarez. He's young, popular and already holds wins over the likes of Lara, Angulo, Shane Mosley and Austin Trout.
More big time matches are on their way. Fights against Miguel Cotto or Manny Pacquiao would give Alvarez the chance to leap up pound-for-pound lists as well as garner him more money than most folks could even imagine.
More importantly, Alvarez has seemed to improve in every outing. Where against Mayweather last year, the moment appeared just a bit too big for him, Alvarez has shown real poise in his last two outings.
And no win will be more important to his career going forward than Saturday's over Lara. Alvarez was not only able to adjust to the problems Lara gave him early on, but he was able to amp up his intensity level late in the fight when it mattered most.
Alvarez has now affirmed his place among boxing's elite.
Kelsey McCarson is not a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. See him tweet about it @KelseyMcCarson.