This Saturday, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady “GGG” Golovkin will be fighting for the second time.
When you watch as many fights as I do, you develop an incurable disease which forces you to make comparisons between fighters from different eras. And, being an ill man, I often look at the basic tenets of Canelo Alvarez’s style and think of the great James Toney. The specifics of technique are often quite different, of course–Canelo can shoulder roll, and pretty nicely, but he has yet to master the technique half as well as a fighter like Floyd Mayweather, and frankly, not even Floyd understood the shoulder roll as well as Toney, nor ever felt comfortable using it in so many different circumstances. Watch James Toney catching southpaw left hands on his shoulder and you’ll understand. Only George Benton, Archie Moore, and a few others compare.
In any case, Canelo’s overall style echoes Toney’s. He’s slow of foot, but quick of hand. He has excellent, or at the very least, well-above-average defensive skills, and he relies on them to make up for the fact that he prefers to fight at a slow, controlled pace. Like Toney, Canelo is undoubtedly at his best as a counter puncher. Both men are disciplined body punchers, as well, and both can fence jabs with the best of them.
One thing about Toney that always irked commentators was his tendency to fight with his back on the ropes. Only as he progressed into the legend-making latter-days of his career did the guys in the booth start giving Toney his due credit. It was true that Toney allowed himself to be cornered on a regular basis, but it was the savviness and purpose with which he did it that people tended to miss. Toney’s defense made him much safer on the ropes than the typical boxer, and his sharp counters kept most opponents too wary to really overwhelm him. They would often resort to charging across the gap and trying to lean on him, but since James was already leaning on the ropes, he never seemed to mind. He would just stay behind his shoulder, prevent as many clean punches as possible, and chill while his opponent did all the hard work. Despite a reputation for stamina issues (Alvarez can certainly empathize with that), Toney usually looked like the fresher fighter in the final round, because he could almost always recover on the ropes.
In their first meeting, Canelo spent a considerable portions of the fight defending Golovkin’s fearsome punches with his back against the ropes. If anyone was shocked by this turn of events, they had never seen either man fight before–still, it became clear early on that Alvarez would not be the victim that Golovkin makes out of most cornered prey. Defense kept him safe, and counters kept his opponent cautious–at times. If we are to expect a similar style of fight this time around, then Canelo will need these skills to be just as sharp as ever, if not sharper.
So let’s examine a few of his favorite tricks.
The great disadvantage of fighting off the ropes is that, well, there’s something behind you when you do it. Distance is a boxer’s best friend. A simple backward step is enough to negate at least the first layer of the vast majority of attacks. Against the ropes, however, direct retreat is no longer a possibility, immediately narrowing the cornered fighter’s defensive options.
One way to circumvent this problem is to create a false sense of distance with upper body movement. Our first example begins with such a move.
As Golovkin comes forward, Canelo senses the turnbuckle coming up behind him. Before he can be collapsed against the ropes fully, he leans forward slightly, positioning his head over his left leg. This brings his chin into range for Golovkin’s punches, but it also creates a new, temporary escape route. Simply put, by leaning forward, Canelo enables himself to then lean back. This is the logic behind Floyd Mayweather’s famed pull-counter. The opponent is given an obvious target, but as soon as he commits to an attack, he finds himself reaching across an unexpected gulf, falling right into whatever counter the cornered fighter has prepared.
No fool, Golovkin is immediately suspicious of the target Alvarez seems to present. He probes the opening with a quick jab, wary of a counter. Because Alvarez has knowingly presented the target, he has little difficulty in avoiding this single punch—but he does not yet pull back into the convenient space behind him. Instead, he chooses to slip the jab, leaving his head forward and falling just under the strike. If you were to slow this part of the exchange down 30x, it would play out like a little comedy of errors. Canelo chooses to maintain his false distance because he expects Golovkin’s jab to be a mere throwaway—which it is—and wants to save the upper body retreat for the real, committed attack. In turn, Golovkin suspects that Canelo is trying to bait him into a trap—he is—and pulls back, himself. And for a tiny moment, too quick to pick up at real-time, both fighters meet eyes, and realize that the initiative is up in the air. Classic misunderstanding!
In that instant, hand speed counts. Golovkin reaches out to find his bearings, but Canelo’s jab gets there first. Canelo acts first. It’s just a tap, but a useful one. Not only does this touching jab tell Alvarez precisely how far away his opponent is, but it tips him off to Golovkin’s response. Alvarez can feel GGG preparing to surge forward through his jab. By the time Golovkin does let the right hand go, Alvarez is already moving into the slot created by his forward lean, telling us why his head stayed forward in the first place. Golovkin has to reach across and down, giving his punch yet more distance to cover, and allowing Canelo to get his chin completely out of the way as he rolls the blow off his shoulder. And check out the subtle little pivot Alvarez makes just before the right hand comes. His right foot steps a mere few inches away from the line of GGG’s attack, protecting his head completely. That’s a defense with layers.
The savage uppercut counter that follows is straight out of the American slickster canon—a free power shot to the only target the opponent can’t quickly protect: the pit of his stomach. That’s one way to convince an opponent to back off for a few seconds, and those are the kinds of shots Alvarez will need if he hopes to keep Golovkin from overwhelming him down the stretch.
When fighting off the ropes, angles are absolutely essential, because direct retreat simply isn’t an option. Canelo spent much of the first fight waiting out Golovkin’s right hand, and pivoting to his left to let it miss. As the fight carried on, that punch got wider, and progressively closer to its mark. Frequently, Canelo had to look the punch off, turning his face with the punch to let it slide harmlessly off his cheek. This has become a trademark technique of Canelo’s, but no man wants to let Golovkin get that close to his chin on a regular basis.
With that angle threatened, if not exactly shut down, Canelo relied on another kind of angle. Level changes are a staple tactic in boxing. A simple duck is one of the all-round safest ways of avoiding punches in the pocket—anything but an uppercut targeted at the head will sail harmlessly over the top. If you’re willing to bend the rules and get really low, like Canelo in the first part of this example, even a body shot can miss its mark completely.
The first of the two exchanges in this sequence is initiated by Golovkin, on his terms. Canelo is well protected by his tight guard, but GGG is applying lots of pressure, so he is compelled to wait on him to lead. When Golovkin does attack, Canelo follows the logic that the duck is generally the safest defensive move in a pinch. If you’re not sure what’s coming at you, bend your knees and hope it passes overhead. With this catch-all purpose in mind, Alvarez does indeed bob low enough to get completely under the right hook Golovkin tries to plant in his ribs. Once the exchange has started, Canelo keeps chasing new positions, never giving his opponent a stationary target, until finally he gets enough space to pivot away.
Of course, being the cocky bastard that he is, Alvarez then marches right back into the corner to let Golovkin try again. This time, however, he takes a little slice of the intiative. After Golovkin probes with a body jab, Canelo appears ducks down again. Similar to our first example, he leans forward slightly this time, trying to crowd Golovkin and limit his offensive options. Like the other forward lean, this level change is not a defense to any attack, but a preparatory move—a new angle to which Golovkin must adjust his attack.
GGG takes the most obvious path, shooting for Canelo’s lowered head with a right uppercut. As before, Canelo expects it, knowing that this is the only punch to which he is immediately vulnerable when he changes levels. As Alvarez evades the shot and pulls back into his shell, it becomes clear that this exchange is taking place on his terms—and we should hope so, seeing as he did willingly put himself in the corner. Because Golovkin had to react to Canelo’s initial duck, and chose to do so by attacking, he has planted his feet farther away from the perimeter, giving Canelo room to simply shell up and bounce off the ropes to evade the flurry.
Good fighters do not allow themselves to be outmaneuvered. If the opponent changes levels, he has lines of attack to the body, and up the center to the chin. Just like angles of the side-to-side variety, the angles created by ducking demand a response. A thinker like Alvarez can rely on that response to dictate the terms of an exchange, and make his opponent miss without having to move his feet.
Generally speaking, boxers are taught to present their opponents a narrow target—or, at least, they should be. We have seen Canelo utilizing a side-on stance in both of our previous examples, laying back behind his shoulder and giving Golovkin very few openings from one moment to the next. At times, however, a heavily bladed stance is a liability.
Lateral movement, for example, is decidedly more difficult. Sidestepping starts to feel more like walking backwards, and as such, it cannot be done with much alacrity. The pivot is an option, and a side-on stance does make it rather easy to pivot to the left. Pivots, however, do not create much distance, especially when the opponent is ready for them. Sometimes, an aggressive opponent gives you no choice but to get on your bike, and that is when it helps to square up.
In this sequence, Alvarez backs up along the ropes as Golovkin comes on. As he nears the corner, he pops in a quick little left hook to the body, which Golovkin blocks. As Golovkin counters, Alvarez leaves his stance completely, lining his feet up along the ropes. This makes it much easier to sidestep, and Alvarez does so, skirting along the edge of the ring in nothing resembling a real boxing stance.
Maintaining the pressure, Golovkin hurries to cut Alvarez off. Since the Mexican fighter is abandoning fundamentals, GGG figures it’s safe for him to do so, too—he crosses his feet, more or less jogging a few steps to cut Canelo off from the center of the ring. Alvarez catches on pretty quickly, and swaggers right back to his prior position, taking up his stance again. Golovkin surprises him with that trademark jab, but the follow up is pretty damn slick.
Canelo sort of throws away a counter jab, slinging a lazy punch out there and expecting a response. Golovkin, being Golovkin, responds with a bomb of a right hand. And here we get some more unconventional footwork out of Alvarez. Instead of pivoting, which might take him out of position to respond to what is obviously an overcommitted attack, he falls out of his stance again. This time, the move is what we might call a “retreating shift,” though to put it simply, Canelo just takes a step backward with his lead foot, falling into a loose southpaw stance. Ordinarily, because it momentarily compromises the integrity of the stance, this kind of footwork is considered a big no-no. A boxer is never supposed to cross his feet. In this instance, however, the cheat allows Alvarez to spring on his unbalanced foe. He pops Golovkin clean on the chin with a right hand—which is now essentially a jab—and follows with a slick left cross, before blocking the counter and getting back to open space.
These are loose, snappy counters rather than thunderously powerful ones, but if the last fight is any indication, Canelo could use a lot more volume like that this time around.
Golovkin is no Vassiliy Jirov. His punches carry far more weight, and his inside defense is far tighter. So while James Toney was able to let his personal pressure-fighting nightmare waste punch after punch without much cause for concern, the new Toney must know that he cannot afford to be lazy, even for a second, when fighting Golovkin off the ropes. Perhaps Golovkin will look to really overwhelm him this time, and Canelo will have no choice but to let his counters go, and defend like his life, or at least his consciousness, depends on it. Or perhaps we will see a repeat of the first fight, with both men walking a very fine line, but Canelo in particular, being concerned not only with Golovkin, but with his own pace, as well.
If fighting off the ropes seems like a bad idea against Golovkin, it may yet be the only way for Canelo Alvarez to convincingly beat him.