Fans of Eleider Alvarez will certainly appreciate the irony of the Columbian-Montrealer having his most active year as a pro since 2017 under the shadow of COVID-19. The mercurial Alvarez, despite firmly establishing himself as a top five light heavyweight at least three years ago, remains best known for being an enigmatic talent to fans who have followed his rise after he chose to punch for pay in Canada following the 2008 Olympics. Chronically inactive, maddeningly inconsistent, and undeniably gifted, all describe the man known as “Storm,” a boxer whose most obvious quality is his ability to inspire debate about which version of him will show up when the stakes are highest.
From the high of scoring a clean knockout over Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev, to the low of lethargically losing the immediate rematch six months later, Alvarez provided the perfect encapsulation of his entire career in a half year span. That said, the two Kovalev fights justified the faith promoter Yvon Michel has placed in his charge in what has amounted to an excruciatingly slow build-up to the top level, one slowed even further by Adonis Stevenson’s undeniable reluctance to face his stablemate. But those two bouts also showed that, despite possessing the talent to be a world champion, legitimate doubts remain about whether Eleider has the intangibles needed to reign.
On August 22, “Storm” will get the chance to once more position himself for a title shot. At 36, despite no obvious signs of decline, Alvarez vs Smith is surely Eleider’s last chance to put everyone on notice and position himself near the top of the light heavyweight division, a stacked weight class where Alvarez might yet prove himself to be the best of the best. But standing in his way is Joe Smith Jr., the union man American commentators love to romanticize since his upset knockouts over Andrzej Fonfara and Bernard Hopkins. Smith is a rugged, tireless aggressor and no-nonsense brawler with a strong boxing identity – in many respects, Eleider Alvarez’s kryptonite.
This isn’t to say that Smith Jr. should in any respect be considered a favourite, far from it. Alvarez is superior in every respect, except perhaps in the consistent heaviness of his punches. The Colombian has an elite amateur pedigree, technical superiority, decisive advantages in speed and timing, as well as one of the stiffest left jabs in the sport when he opts to deploy it. The Kovalev fights also proved that Alvarez’s beard is world class and that he can indeed mix it up and hold his own in a rugged fight, when he puts his mind to it. The danger for “Storm” here is the contradictory essential quality of each boxer: Alvarez will sometimes fight down to his level of opposition, whereas Smith Jr. is one of those stubborn overachievers whose effort level is always where it should be in big fights.
To understand the risk for Alvarez, it’s worth looking back to a match most will have forgotten, namely his unanimous decision win over a game Andrew Gardiner on the undercard of Jean Pascal vs Lucian Bute in 2014. This was Alvarez’s 14th pro fight, and he’d already begun his ascent up the world rankings following a points win over Edison Miranda in his previous bout. Gardiner, then 10-0 with a strong record in the Canadian amateur system, was a late replacement and the bout was supposed to yield a routine win for Alvarez; it turned out to be anything but.
Those in attendance booed the lopsided scores in favour of Alvarez and cheered the plucky Gardiner, who gave “Storm” all he could handle for ten rough rounds. It was a classic case of Alvarez, despite all his gifts and physical advantages, being drawn into Gardiner’s fight and the Columbian’s inability, or unwillingness, to impose his natural advantages. Gardiner’s effort was relentless, his in-fighting gave Alvarez fits, and his maddening consistency won him the mental battle, resulting in Alvarez petulantly pushing him in lieu of an embrace after the final bell. While times have changed – Gardiner lost his next fight by stoppage and retired at 10-2 while Alvarez won a world title – it’s a fight worth recalling as it represents a plausible scenario when one broods on Alvarez vs Smith Jr.
All that said, “Storm” at his best is something to behold. He’s a massive light heavyweight with elite boxing skills, and of late he’s harnessed one-punch knockout power in a right hand that was badly injured at the end of his amateur career, leading pundits to be, for years, highly skeptical of his ability to hurt opponents. But such skepticism must surely be a thing of the past following Alvarez’s most recent win, a pre-pandemic icing of Michael Seals that will remain in strong contention through December for Knockout of the Year.
But even the Seals fight hinted at those warning signs fully evident in the Gardiner win so many years ago. The inferior Seals lulled Alvarez into a sloppy, grappling tussle where “Storm” couldn’t, or wouldn’t, dominate the action until the stunning conclusion. Sure, the former champ was clearly winning leading up to the knockout, but the match was highly competitive, when in fact Alvarez is good enough to make a fighter like Seals appear as if they don’t belong in the same ring.
By contrast, Joe Smith Jr.’s previous outing was a dominant win over Jesse Hart where the Long Islander dropped Hart in round seven and controlled the action throughout. Forget the one insane scorecard in favour of Hart; this was one man totally imposing his will on the other, and Smith had Hart fighting as if the Philadelphian were trying to balance on a sheet of ice. Smith Jr. bullied, out-worked, and clearly hurt Hart despite perceived – and let’s be honest, exaggerated – deficiencies in skill and physical attributes. Against Alvarez, Smith Jr. will look to do the exact same thing, which is what he always does. And this is a danger that Eleider and his team must take seriously.
Alvarez is superior to Jesse Hart in every respect, but against Smith Jr. the fight could simply come down to will. Can Alvarez match Smith Jr.’s effort and work even harder than the betting underdog? Will he be able to keep Smith Jr. from muscling him to the ropes and smothering his more accurate punches? Can Alvarez land his jab to set up his big right cross without getting one-punch happy? The answers to all these questions should be an emphatic yes, but again, this is Alvarez.
The feeling here, though, is that Eleider “Storm” Alvarez wins this high-stakes, crossroads battle impressively. Starting with his knockout of Lucian Bute in 2017, we’ve seen less of the underwhelming Alvarez and more of the dynamic talent that American fans are at least somewhat familiar with. In the past, he probably would have limped to a decision win over Micheal Seals based on the first six rounds of that fight. Instead “Storm” ended up with the sickest KO of his career, a result that speaks to his improved ability to harness a sense of urgency and let his power decide the outcome. Naysayers will quickly point to the Kovalev rematch to refute this perspective, but an optimist will chalk that up to Alvarez underestimating the Russian’s skills and taking for granted another knockout win.
And this optimist believes Joe Smith Jr. isn’t technically proficient enough to lull Eleider Alvarez into that kind of sleepwalking performance, one where the former champion settles into a pattern of lethargy and doesn’t commit to his attack for fear of being countered. Smith Jr. will bring something out of Alvarez, but whether it’s an inside war or a clinical, focused display of technical boxing remains to be seen.
But “Storm” should win both versions of that fight, because at his best, he has a mean streak to match his skills. In terms of attitude and moxie, Alvarez might ironically think back to one of the worst rounds of his career, the fourth in his first battle against Kovalev. Despite getting punched about the ring by the Russian, Eleider pressed forward, smacked his gloves together, and barked some mean trash-talk at “Krusher”; three rounds later, the fight was over. If that nasty version of “Storm” shows up against Smith, the gulf in boxing ability will be that much more pronounced and Eleider Alvarez, once again, will put everyone, including all the light heavyweight champions, on notice.
— Zachary Alapi