One from the freezing blizzards of Chelyabinsk the other from the blistering heat of Guadalajara, as has always been the case, extreme places create extraordinary men. Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez and Sergey ‘The Krusher’ Kovalev both have absolutely nothing left to prove in the sport of boxing, they have both been unified champions, earned millions of dollars and been involved in unforgettable nights; win lose and draw. This is the reason that Saturday night’s main event is so captivating. Neither man is in it for the money, or the fame or the adulation, they are fighting for the sheer challenge of trying to beat the other man. Canelo is testing to see if he can be a champion at light heavyweight, to see if he can beat an established champion at a weight 35lbs heavier than where made his debut. Kovalev is testing his metal, can he beat a pound for pound star and one of the biggest names in world boxing, can he beat the golden boy in his own backyard? Neither has anything to lose and everything to gain, and when that happens, boxing gets its biggest fights.
The fight itself a complex one with numerous variables. Can Canelo bring his punching power up to 175lbs? Is Kovalev capable of producing the performances he once was? Will the judges side with Canelo and against Kovalev once again? Can Canelo out maneuver the jab of Kovalev? Can Kovalev stand up to Canelo’s bodyshots? All these will be answered on Saturday but for now I will look at the long and winding road that has led these two kings of the ring to step in against one another…
Both Canelo and Kovalev came up the hard way, from poor backgrounds in Mexico and Russia respectively. They used their fists to earn everything they had. Canelo is the youngest in a fighting family of eight children with all of his brothers also becoming professional boxers. He turned professional at just 15 years of age fighting in working men’s clubs and leisure centers to pay the bills. Kovalev started boxing aged 11, coming up through the infamous easten bloc amateur system. He boxed at 6 Russian championships and 3 world Military Championships all while serving in the Russian army. He finished his amateur career with a staggering 195-18 record. Turning pro at 26 in 2009, and as he secured his first KO victory Canelo was well into his career, winning and retaining the WBC and WBO Latin American welterweight titles, beating shane Mosley’s cousin and Migel Cotto’s brother between his 22nd and 32nd bouts, impressive numbers for a 19-20 year old. Kovalev however, soon closed the gap, adapting his distinctive eastern european style well to the pro game and utilising his devastating knockout power to draw increasingly more attention as he toured America from Kentucky to California.
A Canelo that would need bricks in his pockets to weigh 175lbs
Canelo’s big break struck just months before Kovalev’s worst moments in the ring unfolded. In march of 2011 Canelo got a shot at the vacant wbc light middleweight title against plucky brit and brother of former unified light welterweight champion Ricky Hatton, Matthew Hatton. Hatton was no slouch and tested Canelo but ultimately Canelo was too much and he won a unanimous Decision. He quickly followed up his world title win with a homecoming defence of his title against another wiry bitish campaigner in Ryan Rhodes in Guadalajara. He stopped Rhodes with a blistering combination that sent his hometown berzerk with glee. Kovalev too was expecting a joyous homecoming as fought in Russia for only the second time as a professional taking on Roman Simakov in his 18th pro bout for the WBC–ABCO light heavyweight title. The fight was a war with both men giving everything, Kovalev won by stoppage in the 7th round but tragically during the bout Simakov sustained a serious head injury which proved fatal. This deeply affected Kovalev, especially as Simakovs parents continued to blame him and even going so far as to open numerous court cases against him and his team. Kovalev said of this time; I really was lost. I was lost for about a month. I got a lot of calls of support from my parents, from friends, from my wife. But that whole month, I don’t remember. I was lost in my mind.”
As Kovalev wrestled with the consequences of the Simakov fight Canelo continued to ride the wave a newly crowned champion. He defended his title against Josesito Lopez and Shane Mosley, then in 2013 he beat Austin Trout to pick up the WBA strap and earn a shot at Floyd Mayweather Jr, The biggest star in boxing. Despite the trauma Kovalev got back in the ring and while Canelo built his star power in flagship events, Kovalev flew under the radar, pushing towards a title. After beating a series of ranked contenders he too got his shot. There two fighters world title bouts came within weeks of each other, one at 175lbs one at 154lbs, one in August and one in September, although the size of the two men was vastly different their journeys were remarkably parallel.
First was Kovalev who took on the WBO light heavyweight champion, popular welshman Nathan Cleverly. The fight went perfectly for Kovalev, he silenced the home crowd with a stunning display of boxing savvy and raw punching power, stopping cleverly after just 4 short rounds. Canelo put in an equally spirited performance, giving it his all and pushing until the end, however as we all know he was in with a man who proved himself the best of our era, and was handily beaten despite earning a draw in the eyes of one Judge (a scoring pattern that would play out into the future). Mayweather soon dropped back down to welterweight and left the path for Canelo to re group and regroup he did, knocking out Angulo, decisioning Lara and knocking out Kirkland to earn a shot at world unified middleweight champion Migel Cotto. As he was doing this Kovalev maintained his killer reputation by cleaning out all that light heavyweight had to offer at that time, the great Bernard Hopkins, Jean Pascal twice,Nadjib Mohammedi and Issac Chillemba, picking up the WBA and IBF titles along the way.
Kovalev Floors a Living Legend, Bernard Hopkins.
While Kovalev ‘Krushed’ his way through the light heavyweight scene Canelo hit the stratosphere with a three fight series that turned him from a great fighter to the heir apparent the title of the biggest name in boxing, in a post mayweather era. First was Cotto, in a brutal war canelo showcased every facet of his skills against a bigger man in a new weight class, something he will be looking to replicate this weekend. He then took on a smaller man with a bigger name, Amir Khan, he starched Khan with the best over hand rights ever in boxing, going viral in the new internet age. Finally it was Liam Smith in front of 60,000 people at the Dallas Cowboys stadium in Texas. He stopped Smith with a perfect body shot that sent him to levels of fame that no boxer in the world had at that time.
It was at this point they both hit the boxing mainstream, Canelo was number one and he had chosen to take the GGG fight at middleweight, sending boxing into an absolute meltdown. Right at the same time the second biggest star in boxing Andre Ward had decided to step up to light heavyweight and challenge Kovalev meaning that Saturday nights fighters made up one half of the biggest fights in world boxing. The first fights however did not go well for our protagonists with canelo winning a controversial draw in a fight most thought he lost and Kovalev losing a fight most thought he won. This was a low moment for both, Kovalev robbed of his titles while canelo, despite still having his had been robbed of the respect they normally afforded him. They both got immediate rematches but how they reacted in these fights will tell a lot about the psychological makeup of the men that will go into this fight. In his rematch Canelo shot out of the blocks, weary of Golovkin’s skill but determined to prove his ability, to win back the respect that was lost. Kovaelv however looked out of shape for his rematch with Ward, he looked mentally plagued by the bad decision knowing that even if he beat ward again he probably still wouldn’t get the decision. Canelo won his rematch in a close decision, Kovalev was stopped, a mixture of low blows, body shots by Ward beat the desire from kovalev who did not complain or protest, simply giving up as the fight was ruled to be over. This Psychological split marks the fork in their career trajectories which has counterintuitively, brought them together.
Canelo lands a thunderous right.
Canelo’s sudden boost in both confidence and stardom has led to his taking on increasingly ambitious challenges while Kovalev has struggled to find the form with which he had once ruled his division. Canelo’s first new challenge in the wake of the Golovkin rematch was to step up to 168lbs and take on the WBA ‘Regular’ world title holder, Rocky Fielding. Although many were critical of him for not going after the ‘Super’ champion in Callum Smith the step up in weight was a test in itself. He passed with flying colours destroying the liverpudlian in just three rounds. Canelo showed he could neutralize a height and reach advantage and carry his impressive KO power with him at heavier weights. He then moved back down to defend his collection of Middleweight championship belts against the dynamic Daniel ‘The Miracle Man’ Jacobs. Jacobs was the clear number one contender at middleweight with his only recent loss a controversial one to Golovkin, but Canelo handled him well. Again giving up height reach and weight on the night Canelo out boxed and outfoxed the very able Jacobs, retaining his belts.
Kovalev on the other hand had to rebuild in a far more dramatic way. He started afresh with two confidence boosters against Vyacheslav Shabranskyy and Igor Mikhalkin, although he won back his titles that ward had vacated these were not world level opponents. He then took on a more legitimate contender in Eleider Álvarez, a man who had come off the back of victories over men Kovalev had defeated in their primes and for this reason he was seen by team Kovalev as very beatable. How wrong they were. Alvarez knocked Kovalev from pillar to post, landing thudding blow one after another eventually knocking Kovelev out cold in the 7th round. This was a massive upset and shocked boxing, the curtain appeared to be falling on the once great Sergey Kovalev. Sergey himself, had other ideas. He booked an immediate rematch and unlike his rematch with ward he came in ready, boxing to a strict game plan designed and enforced in the corner by the legendary James ‘Buddy’ McGirt. Kovalev regained his belt with a wide points decision over Alvarez and as he has proved himself one to do, simply took on another contender. The auror of invincibility had been well and truly shattered however and as Canelo looked for a new challenge Kovalev seemed high on his potential hit list.
Kovalev lands on Yarde
This time however, it was Anthony Yarde, despite there being more questions about Canelo than Yarde the fight took place in Kovaelv’s hometown of Chelyabinsk and was captivating from start to finish. Kovalev started well being behind the jab and utilising lateral movement to hold the powerful hook heavy Yarde at bay. This worked until the 7th and 8th round when yarde exploded into the fight, landing clubbing shots he rocked Kovalev multiple times. The Champion recovered eventually stopping Yarde with a stunning KO in the 11th., Canelo gets to choose his opponents nowadays and Kovalev had just proven himself the perfect contender, Light Heavyweight champion, exciting with a huge name, but vulnerable, aging susceptible to being stopped.
The fight will take place at the new home of boxing, the MGM Garden Arena in Las Vegas and I personally think that this fight will be a lot closer that most. Yes Kovalev isn’t what he used to be, yes he’s been stopped but the Yarde fight showed that there’s no quit in the old dog yet. That said Canelo is rightfully the favourite, his ascendent rise through boxing has been nothing short of spectacular and his form against bigger men at world level is impeccable. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter who wins, for either men it will simply be another stitch in the epic tapestry that is their respective hall of fame careers.
Ewan Breeze – Rebel Boxing