"We're winning this, fighting power with finesse."
Trainer Andre Rozier repeated this mantra whenever his charge, Danny Jacobs took the stool between rounds. The two had gone through their fair share of daunting tasks together. Rozier had been by Jacobs' side when the promising young boxer had been sidelined by a rare form of bone cancer, so squaring off with a man known for throwing exceptionally hard punches didn't really seem scary.
Jacobs was always reckoned to be an excellent boxer, but few had given him much of a shot at Gennady Golovkin. A look at Golovkin's record, at this point little different from a list of victims, showed no short supply for sturdy technicians.
Six months before the Jacobs bout, Golovkin had been vexed by the slick looks and fast hands of Englishman, Kell Brook but it lasted for all of four rounds before Golovkin wised to his game and began to mercilessly beat him. That Golovkin power had always been too much for his opponents, and it was not as though the Kazakh banger was short on technical ability either. Yet as the rounds progressed, Jacobs held Golovkin to the closest of contests. The punching power, which had become legendary, failed to make a dent.
As the tallies came in and Golovkin was declared the winner, there were the usual cries of "robbery"—a term used about ten times as often as it should be in the fight game—while others insisted that Golovkin had easily deserved the decision. But the fight raised far more questions than it answered. Was Jacobs that good or was Golovkin slowing down?
And so, on the eve of the most anticipated fight to bless boxing in a long time, Gennady Golovkin versus Canelo Alvarez, many are asking if Golovkin's marvellous ring-cutting feet are beginning to look like clay. Perhaps his management held off on this fight for too long. Could all the cash grabs and record padding that both men engaged in ultimately be the undoing of the thirty-five year old?
A Mexican Fighter
Saul "Canelo" Alvarez doesn't have the undefeated record that Gennady Golovkin is sold on. From the moment he emerged on the professional scene, Canelo was marketed as the next big thing and the wily Floyd Mayweather Jr. (understanding boxing to be a patriotic game wherein Mexicans provide the biggest demographic) was keen to capitalize on that. Thrown in with the boxing master too early, Alvarez was the canvas on which Mayweather painted one of his finest performances. But since then Canelo has gone from strength to strength, looking less like the hot young prospect and more like a consummate world champion. Just as his ginger hair and pasty complexion are not what are expected when someone describes a great Mexican boxer to you, Alvarez's blocky physique and knockout filled record belie a much more subtle and graceful fighting style.
The "Mexican style" has been up for debate throughout the build-up for this bout. National styles are a strange thing to think about in the modern era as fighters at the height of the game can train with whatever coach they choose, but traditionally the enormous Mexican fan base has gravitated towards pressure fighters and knockout artists. From the Z-boys to Julio Cesar Chavez, aggression is an important part of what makes a good "Mexican style" fighter. Of course there are also many examples of Mexican greats who fought better as counter fighters, such as Juan Manuel Marquez. Canelo Alvarez is undoubtedly in this camp, too.
In a typical performance, Canelo leads with the body jab and the wide right to the body, and invites the opponent to throw back at him. He shows punches to draw punches and the speed, power and variety of his counter punches make him extremely dangerous. Hooking with both hands to the body and the head, uppercuts from both sides, pull counters, cross counters—Alvarez's bag of tricks against the orthodox boxer is a deep one. Against the blisteringly fast Amir Khan, Canelo used the wide right to the body to slow Khan down, and looked to check hook the Brit as he stepped in.
Against Miguel Cotto, Canelo used an inside slip to set up the left hand to the liver, the left hook to the head, and the left uppercut.
The uppercut worked particularly well against Cotto's usual head forward posture when attempting to step to the inside.
When Floyd Mayweather fought Canelo, he didn't let Canelo get to the body. The wide right hit Mayweather's elbow or back more often than it found anything good, and Canelo resorted to blasting Mayweather in the arm for much of the fight. Mayweather is a low output fighter with convincing feints, and he often leads with a right hand or leaping left hook before falling directly into a clinch. This limited Alvarez's counter opportunities and the further the fight progressed the more he opened up offensively, offering Mayweather his own counters off the shoulder roll. Alvarez began slipping deep against Mayweather, and it didn't work. Instead of trying to time him with uppercuts, Mayweather just leaned on the back of Alvarez's neck, and made him carry his weight.
While Canelo has a good jab which carries some pop without requiring him to commit his weight, he more often leads with a body jab in hopes of setting up a lead left hook, or a right hand to the jaw. The latter of which was the setup which starched Amir Khan. It can be seen in almost every Canelo Alvarez bout.
Similarly, Alvarez will throw out his right glove in a "jazz hands" motion to distract as he slips to the inside to line up his left uppercut. This was a favorite tactic of the fantastically flamboyant Jersey Joe Walcott and both Canelo and Walcott hurt a lot of foes with their left uppercut.
The inside position, from which infighting is done with the head pressed against the opponent, will be both fascinating and crucial in this bout. In the first round of his fight with the awkward James Kirkland, Canelo was forced to the ropes and Kirkland worked well from inside position with Alvarez unable to avoid or deflect many of his punches. Miguel Cotto, who usually works well from this position, was unable to apply it effectively against Alvarez because Canelo was looking to time him with uppercuts as he stepped to the inside.
Once his head is already on an opponent, a fighter won't have too much trouble with uppercuts (infighters like Cotto invite them from this cramped position so that they can throw the left hook over the top) but on the way in and the way out they are in very real danger. As Canelo controlled the center of the ring for almost the entirety of the fight with Cotto, he always had the option to step back and fire an uppercut through space when Cotto got to inside position.
But with Golovkin's ringcraft there is a great chance that Canelo ends up on the ropes at some point and Golovkin begins working from inside position. It will be fascinating to see what Canelo can come up with from there.
Golovkin, meanwhile is more akin to what most would think of when talking about a "Mexican style" fighter—something he and his camp have also said repeatedly. His focus is on placing the opponent on the ropes and working them over with up-down combinations. Golovkin's body work is some of the neatest you will see in the game. Typically there are two ways to change up the angles on blows: move to a different location in relation to the opponent, or arc the blows differently. Golovkin is good at standing directly in front of his opponent but bringing his fists in from all angles. He can dig short hooks to the body, barely deviating from the center line, or wing wide, palm down hooks behind his opponent's elbows. The punch which felled Marco Antonio Rubio was a left hook which chopped downward in the style of an overhand—striking the temple over the top of Rubio's glove!
Golovkin's awareness of where his opponent's head will be, and the variance in tempo and power between his punches is what makes him so dangerous once he gets his man to the ropes. Covering up has just never been a reasonable option against Golovkin because he can assess the guard for cracks so quickly and deliver his power so swiftly.
Golovkin's footwork is especially tidy. Canelo Alvarez had a great deal of trouble cutting the ring when forced to play the aggressor against the slick southpaw Erislandy Lara (a fight which would Danny Jacobs versus Canelo Alvarez particularly interesting), but Golovkin has never had much trouble forcing the action. The downside of being a great ring cutter is that a fighter has to use his physical presence to get there—it is hard to be elusive and provide pressure at the same time.
Gennady Golovkin's head movement is less active than many of the great pressure fighters in history. In fact at many points in his fights he will go to a head down guard with his forearms up in front of him. Unlike the traditional earmuffs or peek-a-boo guards, Golovkin brings his elbows forward, away from his body with his palms facing in. It seems like a strange position to start hitting from, with the elbows so far from the body, like the old fashioned pugilistic guards of fighters like Daniel Mendoza.
From this position Golovkin can walk through blows to the head without any trouble, and can also snap out a vicious jab. This guard does make him vulnerable to body shots, however. Dominic Wade was knocked out fast when he fought Golovkin in April 2016, but he landed a couple of corking lefts to the body as Golovkin tried to cover and walk in. When Danny Jacobs fought Golovkin a year later, his constant work to Golovkin's body behind that floating right elbow was notable.
While on the surface there are many similarities between Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez, you might be better off thinking of Alvarez as an exceptional mid-range puncher, and Golovkin as a more smothering close range fighter. It seems as though for Golovkin to do his best work he will have to cut the ring and close that range. Canelo Alvarez does not have to play the matador very often, most of the time he is in the role of the pursuing puncher. In the Joe Louis style, he comes forward and digs in blows until the opponent returns and then he gives ground and counters to find the big punches. Golovkin has a very crisp jab but that seems the weapon to which Alvarez has the most answers.
One of the interesting factors in this matchup is Golovkin's willingness to throw a variety of leads. Golovkin jabs well but he will just as happily jump in with a left hook, throw a right hand lead off the bat, or shift into a southpaw stance as he takes a double step in. While these are generally regarded as less "safe" than the jab—which is the longest punch and does not require the fighter to square up or step in close—they are also more rare, and thus harder to prepare for. A master counter puncher works against the punches that opponents and sparring partners will flick out at him, knowing that he is a master counter puncher. Golovkin's unorthodoxy in that regard might well catch Alvarez by surprise. On the other hand, it would not be surprising to see Golovkin eat a hard counter uppercut or left hook while off balance, halfway through a shift. But that's boxing, you have to take risks to find openings.
Whatever happens on Saturday night, there is a lot of hype to live up to. Gennady Golovkin knows only one, very aggressive, way to fight. Saul Alvarez fights best when he is served a lot of punches. The stylistic matchup between pressure fighter and boxer-puncher has provided some of boxing's most grueling, back-and-forth fights. With all of the waiting that fans have had to do for this bout, we can only hope that it lives up to some of that anticipation.
Pick up Jack's book, Notorious: The Life and Fights of Conor McGregor .