The Limits of Ambition

We’re about six weeks away from Mayweather vs Pacquiao, and while the boxing world celebrates finally getting the mega-fight it has wanted for so long, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez has discreetly excused himself from the party. This is not only because Mayweather vs Pacquiao left him no choice but to yield the coveted Cinco de Mayo weekend, but also because he’s getting ready for his upcoming clash on May 9 with the volatile James Kirkland.

Canelo vs Kirkland will be held in Houston’s Minute Maid Park, a baseball stadium which can hold up to 40,000 fans on fight night and that Oscar De La Hoya chose such a roomy venue speaks to his intention to make a huge event out of the contest. The Golden Boy and the Mexican are certainly giving themselves every chance to succeed: ticket prices start at a mere $15. A four-hour drive will get Mexican fans from the border to Houston, and Canelo’s celebrity status among Texas’ Latino community coupled with Kirkland being an Austin native should also help pack the stands.

A year ago we wrote about how Canelo, in pursuing the boxing throne Floyd Mayweather currently occupies as both the biggest money-maker in the sport and the best fighter pound-for-pound, differentiated himself from Money May in crucial ways. For one thing, Canelo actually takes sizable risks in his match-making, his fights with Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara demonstrating this. And secondly, given that the Mexican has tasted defeat–ironically, at Mayweather’s hands–he is not burdened by his precious ‘0’ like so many undefeated fighters.

KIRKland-Canelo poster

In fact, we can interpret the event in Houston itself as an attempt by Canelo to further distance himself from Mayweather’s ways. The ticket prices for Canelo vs Kirkland make it an extremely affordable event, so much so that fight fans can attend with their families or with casual sports fans who would be discouraged by high ticket prices. Mayweather, on the other hand, made most of his money thanks to his aura of exclusivity, fighting only at the MGM Grand of Las Vegas since 2006, his fights broadcast only on pay-per-view. It is rumoured only a thousand tickets will be made available to the general public for Mayweather-Pacquiao, with the nosebleeds costing at least $1,500. So much for that fight being “for the fans“.

A quick counter to this argument is that Mayweather can afford to charge exorbitant prices precisely because he is a super-star and Canelo isn’t. But this overlooks the fact that if there’s a big-name prizefighter out there doing something for the fans, Canelo’s much closer to being that guy than Mayweather or Pacquiao. By most accounts, it took five years to put together the most significant welterweight fight of our time, with Mayweather inadvertently blaming himself for the delay when he recently declared “this fight happened because of me.” By the same token, Canelo wasted little time staging a fight with Erislandy Lara following his thrashing of Alfredo Angulo, with an offer juicy enough to make Lara cancel a previous engagement. This just goes to show that when a star wants a public-demanded fight to happen, he can make it happen.

Canelo Alvarez, Erislandy Lara
Canelo edges Lara: risky business.

That being said, the fight with Kirkland is a calculated risk by Canelo. Yes, it’s true that when Kirkland is firing on all cylinders he can make it an extremely tough night for any opponent. But it’s also true that on May 9 the Texan will be coming off 17 months of inactivity and he won’t have Ann Wolfe in his corner, whose Full-Metal-Jacket-drill-sergeant persona is directly responsible for Kirkland’s best performances.

Still, if Kirkland is in decent shape, his high activity rate and punching power should test Canelo’s mettle and chin. The Mexican may be the better boxer and a more accurate puncher, but he is as famous for fading in prolonged contests as he is for his freckles. Kirkland’s stamina, on the other hand, is otherworldly. Canelo may land the harder, more eye-catching shots early on, but what happens if the “Mandingo Warrior” keeps up the pressure in the late rounds as fatigue overwhelms Alvarez? Will the Mexican have enough left in the tank to stand his ground against a human windmill?

If Canelo vs Kirkland turns into anything resembling the action-classic Oscar De La Hoya promises it will be, that’s the way it will happen. And that sort of test of young Alvarez’ resilience would represent a far more useful outing than a quick knockout of a shot Kirkland. Especially if a full move up to middleweight is in the cards for the Mexican, where menacing punchers like David Lemieux and Gennady Golovkin patiently await big-money showdowns.

Gennady Golovkin v Marco Antonio Rubio
Golovkin awaits.

And now that Golovkin’s name has come up, we need to take a step back and re-assess Canelo’s attitude towards risk, which we lauded earlier. When a fight with Miguel Cotto fell through, some fans hoped for a Canelo vs Golovkin confrontation to replace it. However, Canelo’s camp responds vaguely when asked about that matchup, if they respond at all. The party line from the Mexican’s team is that Canelo is not yet a full-fledged middleweight, so a Golovkin fight will have to wait. Frustratingly, Alvarez currently fights in a division of his own, somewhere between 154 and 160 pounds. However, given his propensity to balloon after weigh-ins and his difficulties in making 154, we have to think a middleweight campaign is on the horizon.

Perhaps a Golovkin fight right away would be a premature move, but that speaks to Canelo’s hesitation to move up in weight as much as it does to Golovkin’s being a world-class bruiser. But just in case you don’t find a potential Canelo vs Golovkin clash enticing enough, we advise you to check out Doug Fischer’s report of a sparring session between the two, written a few years ago. If you read between the lines, you may also find the reason Canelo’s camp might want to delay that meeting for as long as possible.

Golovkin and Alvarez spar: GGG got the better of it.

Trout and Lara were seen as threats to Canelo because of their ring mobility and boxing skills, but the worst thing that could’ve happened to the Mexican in those fights was to get thoroughly outboxed. Golovkin represents an entirely different sort of threat. A natural middleweight with stone in his chin and lead in his fists, Triple-G could potentially derail the Canelo express for good, leaving Alvarez stranded in no man’s land between Has-Been and Never-Was. Imagine if Golovkin put the beating of a lifetime on Canelo? It wouldn’t matter how much credit he got for taking the fight if he couldn’t effectively capitalize on it afterwards.

So maybe there is a limit to Canelo’s ambition, who’s still young and popular enough to keep earning millions without having to take on the monster that is Golovkin. Of course, the drawback for not taking that fight is that without it he’ll never earn the sort of recognition he says he craves. But who knows? In the end, a dominant performance against the fierce Kirkland may give him enough confidence to pursue the middleweight beast. What is clear is Alvarez needs to take on GGG in the near future if he is to fulfill his promise of exciting fights against the very best. Not to do so would be a major blow to his plans for world domination, and an epic letdown to all the fans he yearns to please.

–Rafael Garcia

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