When our favorite boxers win, we credit their courage, ring-smarts or resilience in the face of adversity, but when they lose we often look for some outside entity to blame, whether it be the judges, foul tactics, or an inept referee. The rematch of Gennady “GGG” Golovkin and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez will likely be no different, that is unless someone manages to score a truly decisive victory. The judges’ scorecards were questionable, to say the least, the first time around, leaving fans to again question boxing’s integrity. Leading up to Saturday’s rematch there has been too much controversy, too many “mamadas,” and bruised egos, with both men’s machismo questioned, all of this fuel to what we hope will be a fistic fire to never forget. The result: this time it’s personal.
In boxing a fighter with heavy hands always has a puncher’s chance, but a cunning trainer will never count on that. Boxing is a chess match, a thinking man’s game, and preparation, strategy and tactics are what a trainer must focus on. But rematches present intriguing problems of their own and it’s difficult not to think that this bout could well be decided long before the opening bell rings. How the fighters and their coaches prepare, or fail to prepare, for this second meeting could very well decide the outcome. This writer can’t help but see parallels between chapter two of Canelo vs Golovkin and two high-profile rematches from the past, the second meetings of all-time greats, Ali and Frazier, and Leonard and Duran. A look back to those duels may give us insight into why trainers and pre-fight preparation are deciding factors in rematches while highlighting, in particular, if Abel Sanchez is in fact ready for this particular challenge.
March, 1971. Ali vs Frazier, or the historic clash they called simply, “The Fight.” One of the biggest sporting events of the 20th century blessed boxing fans with a battle between two heavyweight greats, both with a legitimate claim to the world title. Fueled by Ali’s exasperating taunts and the proud Frazier’s slow-burning anger, the animosity and tension spilled over, resulting in a vicious, back-and-forth war and 15 rounds of thrilling action. Frazier took the decision and his victory was in part a result of the strategic genius of trainer Eddie Futch who had counseled Joe to stay low and attack the body while bobbing and weaving to get inside of Ali’s jab. With his head a constantly moving target, almost like a double-end bag, Joe pushed the pace and applied constant pressure, countering Ali’s right hands and uppercuts with powerful left hooks, and scoring a knockdown in the final round to seal the win. However, the rematch almost three years later, was a different story.
Chapter II was also in Madison Square, but this time Ali did not engage as often as he did in their first meeting. Instead he moved more, stayed away from the ropes, and opted to clinch and tie up Frazier at every opportunity, holding him until the referee separated the fighters. Ali and his team knew that Frazier would utilize the same high-pressure style as before, so Ali made some adjustments and changed his tactics. The result was a very different contest and a clear points win for “The Greatest.”
Seven years later, “The Brawl in Montreal” saw Sugar Ray Leonard taste defeat for the first time as he dropped a close decision to Roberto Duran in a 15 round struggle that was every bit as exciting as any of the Ali vs Frazier battles. Not heeding his corner’s exhortations, Leonard stood toe-to-toe with the master inside fighter in an attempt to prove he was more than just a “media darling,” that he could rumble with one of the “baddest” men on the planet. In other words, Ray’s ego was his downfall.
He soon demanded an immediate rematch and his wish was granted, but this time he listened to the wise counsel of Angelo Dundee and the result was a very different encounter the second time around. Instead of playing to Duran’s tune as he had in Montreal, Sugar Ray decided what music would be played in New Orleans, forcing the Panamanian to dance to his song. The result was a masterclass demonstration of lateral movement, quick combinations, swift footwork and savvy defense. Leonard boxed with authority; he would strike, then pivot, step away, and strike again before “Hands of Stone” could gather himself and attack. Bewildered and humiliated, Duran lifted his gloves in round eight and uttered to the referee the infamous phrase, “No mas, no mas.”
As we prepare to see Gennady Golovkin and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez do battle for a second time, one wonders which of these two fighters will make significant tactical adjustments and which trainer will be assuming an important role in how this match unfolds. Like Duran, Leonard, Ali, and Frazier, Canelo and Golovkin are boxing superstars and the implications of their rematch are potentially huge. The pressure on both fighters and their camps cannot be underestimated but one senses that this pressure is particularly intense for Abel Sanchez, the trainer of Gennady Golovkin. Simply put, it is Canelo Alvarez, not Triple-G, who possesses more tactical options, who is more versatile, who can both fight aggressively or box effectively on the back foot. This sets the bar high for Sanchez as it will be up to him to help Golovkin react effectively to Canelo’s strategic adjustments.
But if we consider Sanchez’s latest high-profile cornering work as a kind of litmus test for what he can offer, we may be tempted to conclude that he may well fall short on Saturday night if Canelo throws a veritable curve ball at his dangerous adversary. In July, Oleksandr Usyk put on a boxing masterclass of his own against Sanchez’s fighter, Murat Gassiev, to win the cruiserweight final of the World Boxing Super Series tournament. With excellent footwork, range control and piston-like punching, Usyk neutralized Gassiev in every facet of the game. The victory was so comprehensive that afterwards some wondered: why was the Russian power-puncher not better prepared to react to Usyk’s style? It was no mystery how the Ukrainian was likely to perform, and yet Gassiev could do nothing to counter his tactics.
Styles make fights and I suspect Abel Sanchez would have avoided Usyk for as long as possible given his own fighter’s style, experience and limitations. Murat Gassiev is known for his devastating knockouts and his highlight reel shows why he’s nicknamed “Iron,” but this match-up was, in truth, a stylistic nightmare for the Russian. He simply lacked the experience and tactical resources to cope with Usyk’s skill. Once “The Cat” picked up the pace in the second half of the match, his strategy completely fell apart. No one can question Gassiev’s effort; he came out for every round determined to follow Abel’s orders and find a way to win, but he was simply outclassed. And Sanchez, a a veteran coach of over two decades, was unable to help. All he could do was watch his young disciple be outworked and outboxed.
What was striking was how little Sanchez could offer in terms of concrete advice for Gassiev to follow. After round five Sanchez scolded his fighter: “Do you want me to stop it? Then get in there and work!” He exhorted Murat to target the body to slow Usyk down and lower his guard, a strategy very similar to that of Frazier against Ali, but he offered no advice on how to corner “The Cat” and get into position to land meaningful blows. But after round five it was Usyk who increased the intensity and Sanchez had no answers for his fighter. To his credit, Murat doggedly pursued his quarry but no tactical adjustments were put into play.
Abel Sanchez’s training camp, in Big Bear Lake, California is a mecca for fighters. Those who train there glow with admiration as they describe the opportunity to work in a fortress built from champions. Most, if not all of Abel’s fighters, have a similar style; they swarm their opponents with pressure and aggression. Like a wolf pursuing its prey, the relentless chase wears down the adversary, which we saw when Golovkin pressured a fading Canelo in the late rounds of the first fight. But it’s a style which doesn’t offer much in versatility and the boxers who utilize it regularly take damage as they work to close the distance and corner their opponent.
Golovkin stalks behind his powerful jab, steering his quarry in any direction he chooses. His left lead is stiff and heavy and he uses it to gauge his range and move his opponents to his desired location. His ring generalship is something Gassiev should study. According to Abel, Gennady plans to stick with his original plan, the same tactics we saw in the first fight. But Golovkin is 36-years-old; is the decision to stay with the same strategy one borne of free choice, or necessity? After all, it is difficult for an older boxer to learn new tricks. But if we anticipate that Canelo may bring some tactical surprises to the rematch, one wonders if an identical battle plan, even if supported by supreme conditioning, is enough to ensure success for the veteran.
To credit Abel, however, it is evident he knows how to get under Canelo’s skin. He has labeled the Mexican a “runner” and this has clearly bothered Alvarez, thus proving that the cinnamon-haired pugilist is burning internally for revenge. Abel’s bold statements could work in Gennady’s favor; if Canelo falls for Sanchez’s bait, his ego, like that of Sugar Ray Leonard in the first encounter with Duran, will be his downfall. If he elects to try and prove himself by standing toe-to-toe with Golovkin, the result could be disastrous, but I suspect he will do so only briefly before hopping back on his bicycle and maneuvering out of danger.
What some overlook is the fact that Canelo is a clever boxer, more brains than brawn. He took his lesson from Floyd Mayweather in 2013, studied his own shortcomings, and improved his skills. Two years later he demonstrated his progress against the cerebral Miguel Cotto, and while one can argue that “Junito” was well beyond his prime years, Canelo’s slick defense and counter-punching prowess were the determining factors in his victory over a future Hall of Famer. The point is that it is Canelo who knows how to grow and adjust and who is still young enough to add tools to his toolbox. As you read this no doubt he and his team are discussing yet again the finer points of their gameplan, watching videos and studying the Kazak’s best moves. And I suspect that, like Ali and Leonard, he will bring some surprises to the rematch on Saturday night.
No doubt Golovkin will enter in peak condition, ready to go to war, but if he brings no wrinkles to his game, how can he seize the initiative? The pressure is intense for all involved, but the burden on Abel Sanchez is particularly onerous. Having recently suffered a completely one-sided defeat in July, has he since made the necessary adjustments? Is he up for the task of making contingency plans to secure a convincing victory like Yank Durham and Eddie Futch did for Frazier in the “Fight of the Century”? Or will he neglect altering Gennady’s tactics like Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown did with Duran in New Orleans? If it is the latter, I suspect Saturday night may mark the beginning of the end for the pride of Kazakhstan. Because, as Arcel himself stated, and as Canelo understands, boxing is “brains over brawn.” — Jeffrey Fuss