At 28 years old and in his physical prime, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez is a boxer of many qualities. Some attributes he has worked on for years, molding them and polishing them with painstaking care, to the point they’re now essential parts of his fighting toolkit. The Mexican has earned the right to say he has mastered them because he has come to understand their intricacies and subtleties through the familiarity only repetition can breed, just as he has perfected their execution via the trusty trigger that muscle memory becomes when you’ve worked at the craft long enough.
In this regard, Canelo, The Fighter, is a closed system. His input is the rounds spent in the gym sparring, jumping rope, shadowboxing, punishing the heavy bag. His output is compact punches, powerful, precise, well-timed. His input is conditioning work, road work, core workouts, interval drills. His output is feints, footwork, stamina. Thousands of three minute intervals spent in the gym neatly add up into the fighter that today claims the middleweight championship of the world as his own. By putting in the work, by sacrificing time he could have spent with family, by choosing discipline over temptation, in short, by sheer willpower, Canelo has reified his desire to become the best prizefighter he can be.
However, other attributes are not the result of such discipline and intransigence but have been bestowed upon him, as if gifted by providence. In some cases, these stem directly from the qualities of Canelo, The Fighter, but not always. Take, for example, his good looks and fair skin, widely acknowledged to have primed him for television screens and anointed him for superstardom. Although a definite asset in an image-obsessed culture, Canelo’s looks were as much of a liability during his childhood, when he was teased by kids who looked nothing like him, and who would beat him up because of that. Those who think the best revenge is success might find it fitting that Canelo’s need to defend himself from bullies is also what motivated him to enter the boxing gym.
When put together, all of Canelo’s qualities compound into a hell of a package: an elite fighter who captures the attention of the whole boxing world whenever he steps into the ring. Canelo is the product of all those qualities, as is his unrivaled ability to make it rain in the desert—in the Nevada desert, specifically. In this regard Canelo, “The Rainmaker,” is an expansive system: massive amounts of sports fans care about his fights. Whether they want to see him win or to see him lose doesn’t matter; what matters is they all tune in. As the sport’s premier moneymaker, he constitutes a multi-million dollar industry of one, his influence and reach ever growing. He appeals to everyone and is courted incessantly. The most egregious example of this being DAZN—an upstart streaming service who hopes to take over the sports broadcasting industry—who signed him to a $365 million dollar deal, one of the richest contracts any athlete has ever seen.
This weekend “The Rainmaker” returns to Las Vegas to work his magic once again. His opponent is Danny Jacobs, the third best middleweight in the world. Seeing that Canelo holds a win (albeit a controversial one) over Gennady Golovkin–still considered by many the best 160-pounder in the world–Jacobs is the next most suitable opponent for Canelo to attempt the first defense of the championship title he lifted from the Kazakh. At least that is the way Canelo vs Jacobs is being sold, and to those who look at boxing as a sport, it’s a perfectly reasonable argument and one they readily accept.
However, the reality is that the sports angle of a prizefight is always overtaken by more pressing concerns when nine-figure sums have been invested. You don’t need to be reminded of the fact money talks in sports, and that it does so especially loudly in a blood sport. Lest you start getting antsy, be assured this is not a diatribe against the unfairness inherent to professional boxing; nor is it a hit piece on Canelo vs Jacobs, which is as good a matchup as can be demanded from the Mexican at this point. We are only trying to distinguish wishful thinking from objective reality, something which, in boxing, is achieved by separating what is discussed, heard and seen outside the ring ropes, from what happens inside of them.
And what we can expect from Canelo and Jacobs when they’re finally left alone inside the ring is a cracking, tactical duel between two strong, accurate punchers. Despite what you may have heard from promoters and assorted Twitter accounts, it won’t be Hagler vs Hearns, because neither Canelo nor Jacobs have the drive to pummel their opponent, regardless of risk. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t be interesting–perhaps even fascinating–to watch. Their punching power, cunning, and skills guarantee a quality contest, one worthy of being called a championship fight.
No, if there’s a problem with Canelo vs Jacobs it has nothing to do with its quality as a sporting event, but everything to do with “The Rainmaker” and his implicit capacity to alter reality outside the ring. His ability to pour currency from the sky, to incite the arid Vegas landscape into blooming green, is not without unintended effects. Everyone who profits financially from his exploits–including promoters, athletic commissions, sanctioning organizations, casinos and mega resorts–has a paramount incentive to protect him in any way they can, to not jeopardize in any way future bi-annual desert extravaganzas.
That is why regulators grant him lenient treatment if he happens to break sporting rules, as shown by the measly six months suspension he incurred after failing a doping test. That is why judges award him every single close round, and a few that aren’t that close, as attested by Golovkin’s earning a single card out of a possible six across two fights with Canelo, despite the fact most observers had the Kazakh winning both fights. That is why Vegas’ monolithic casinos pay through the nose for the right to host his fights, why they bend over backwards to keep him as happy and comfortable as possible, and why they do everything in their power to make sure he returns again and again.
Danny Jacobs, Brooklyn’s own “Miracle Man” and a sharp, strong middleweight in his own right, in an attempt to attain the career-defining victory that has so far eluded him, eagerly accepted the offer to face “The Rainmaker.” But the opportunity, as welcome and profitable as it is, arrives shrouded in caveats. It’s one thing to be granted the opportunity and it’s an entirely different thing to capitalize on it, as doing so would entail not only toppling Canelo, the fighter–an imposing task in and of itself–but achieving it in such a way that it overcomes “The Rainmaker’s” inexorable clout outside of the ring as well.
Some such instances may not be material, but are still jarring in their shamelessness. For instance, earlier this week WBC honcho and poster boy for nepotism Mauricio Sulaiman shared a video of himself in which he shows off a Canelo-branded baseball hat. This is the equivalent of Roger Goodell wearing a Patriots jersey mere days before the Super Bowl. That Sulaiman thinks nothing of exposing his favoritism for the whole world to see just shows the extent of Canelo’s clout. Does it necessarily prove “the fix is in”? No, but that doesn’t make it any less brazen. Then again, to expect integrity from the WBC is to expect wholesome fruit from a decomposing, rotting tree trunk.
Perhaps more significant is the fact last week judge Adalaide Byrd, who turned in a universally derided, laughably wide card in favor of Canelo in the first Golovkin fight, was shortlisted as a possible juror for Canelo vs Jacobs, with no one in the room batting an eyelash or cracking an ironic smile. And while she didn’t make the final cut, the trio of jurors who did are the exact same ones who granted victory to Canelo in the second Golovkin fight, two of which awarded The Rainmaker the decisive twelfth round, which was, at risk of sounding like a parrot, widely seen by everyone else as belonging to Golovkin.
One scoring aberration by itself proves nothing, but when they happen repeatedly and systematically in favor of the same fighter, they can no longer be shrugged away. Instead, they constitute proof that “The Rainmaker’s” pull is real, and whether he or his team are flexing that pull intentionally or not is beside the point. The point is that such clout exists, as undeniable a force as gravity, just as measurable and definable. And just like gravity, it is neither good nor bad: “The Rainmaker’s” clout doesn’t care about abstract notions of fair play, or about anyone’s feelings of what’s right. It exerts its influence quietly and unavoidably. It’s no one’s fault that it’s woven into the fabric of prizefighting. No one deliberately put it there. It just is.
In a perverse twist, if anyone is really responsible for these powers, these currents of influences, it’s the fans who tune into his bouts, despite the fact many of us would rather have such clout restrained. Alas, those powers cannot be contained once they’ve been bestowed, not even by “The Rainmaker” himself. To be fair about this, it bears pointing out Canelo is just the latest iteration in a long line of boxers who can turn deserts into lush gardens. There have been others like him before, and there will be others after. All of them possessed qualities both earned and bestowed, and they all equally employed them to the best of their abilities. The rest of us, including Danny Jacobs, can only acknowledge this fact, accept it, and deal with it.
Jacobs chased “The Rainmaker” into DAZN to keep the hope alive of a potential clash and now he has tracked him all the way to the Nevada desert. In signing up for the Canelo assignment, Jacobs is pursing fighting glory, sure, but let’s be completely honest about this: he’s also chasing at least some of that clout that currently wraps itself around Canelo like a warm blanket. But the Brooklynite better be aware of the magnitude of the task that awaits him in Vegas, for the possibility of failure is a very real one, and is not without consequence.
Gennady Golovkin stared down “The Rainmaker” twice and fell short on both occasions; and while he parlayed those showdowns into his own lucrative DAZN deal, now he’s fighting a virtual unknown at a catchweight and his legacy is–in an official capacity at least–defined by what his resume lacks instead of what it contains. Admittedly, the financial rewards for having faced Canelo amount to several times what he had earned in all his previous fights put together. But do they compensate for having lost his titles and his undefeated record not to Canelo, The Fighter, but to “The Rainmaker’s” clout?
Maybe they do and maybe they don’t. Only Golovkin knows the answer to that question. Unless it’s the sort of question that will haunt him on sleepless nights for the rest of his life. Jacobs, for his part, is about to find out exactly what it means to face down the biggest moneymaker in the sport, and everything that entails. And if Danny thinks he got the short end of the stick against Golovkin in 2017, he’s in for a dreadful surprise this weekend.
But worrying about all that is a futile endeavor at this point. The best Jacobs can do is zero in on what he can control: the action that will take place between the ropes. That’s where whatever that is truthful and real about boxing can still be found, and that’s where he can answer the questions regarding his own qualities as a fighter. What came before, and what will come after—including scorecards, official verdicts, and the inevitable debates that will follow—are just likely to be distorted versions of reality, rendered so by the inescapable, relentless pull of “The Rainmaker.”