Canelo vs Kirkland: Estamos muy contentos!

“Estamos muy contentos!,” is an expression Canelo Alvarez keeps at hand in his bag of media-friendly phrases, saying it over and over in interviews and press conferences. It translates into “We’re very happy!” and he isn’t shy to apply it to any sort of circumstance and question. Whether he’s being asked how well training camp’s going, or questioned about the quality of his next opponent, or queried on what he thinks of his most recent winning performance, Canelo seems to be a forever happy guy.

On the other hand, that he repeats it so often that the phrase might as well be embroidered on his coat of arms could lead you to believe “Estamos muy contentos!” is little more than a platitude, a way of responding without imbuing words with personality, genuine feelings, or anything else that could betray his carefully crafted media-darling persona. Cynics–and it isn’t hard to find them in boxing–would suggest Canelo employs the phrase like a cruise ship animator whose job it is to manipulate his audience into joining the “fun.”

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Kirkland brought the fight to Canelo.

The most recent occasion I heard Canelo utter this saying was Saturday night, while Max Kellerman interviewed him in the ring at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, just moments after brutalizing James Kirkland in a three-round slugfest in front of over 31,000 delirious fans. That time, though, there was little doubt he was fully sincere in employing it. His performance inside the ring—holding his own against an early assault from the “Mandingo Warrior”, and then battling his way to a third round highlight-reel knockout—offered the chance to interpret the phrase in a different way. Looking at the thousands of fans giving themselves over to the Mexican red-head and the crazy atmosphere that prevailed in the stadium, it’s hard not to conclude Canelo’s fights are much more than just boxing events.

From the moment Canelo was shown on the giant screen walking out of his dressing room, the boxing card turned into a full-on party where everyone with a vague sense of connection to Mexico—whether by birth, by family ties, or by sharing the gusto with which the Mexican people celebrate their boxing heroes—reveled with an abandon usually seen at spiritual retreats. The plural form of “Estamos muy contentos!” is usually meant to convey Canelo speaking for his team, but when he said it on Saturday night in the ring, he and I and everyone listening knew he meant it to encompass every single one of his enraptured fans as well.

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Canelo’s ambition to face the toughest challenges available to him is well documented. And while we can find both critics and supporters regarding his ring exploits and fighting quality, the one thing that we can’t deny him is his broad appeal. And it bears saying that a very important component of that is his impact on the ladies: at least half of the audience at the baseball park was female. Most of them dressed to impress: plunging necklines, steep stilettos, the tightest jeans or the shortest skirts they could find, their faces so made up it was hard to say whether they were going out for a fun night or interviewing at Sephora. Most of them also wore red headbands with Canelo’s name printed on them. Given this level of fanaticism, it was hard to say whether the women were trying to impress their dates, or hoping a camera, a celebrity, or who knows, maybe Canelo himself, could catch a glimpse of them. Interestingly, there were also many groups of women who attended the fight by themselves: four or five or six of them huddling together, drinking their beers with an upturned pinky finger and enjoying a girls’ night out, seeing their preferred fighting hunk, Canelo Alvarez.

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Just before the main event of any big fight there’s a tense sense of anticipation in the audience: the fidgeting with the phone, the rushing to take a piss and then get a beer before the big fight, the nervous chattering about nothing, the casual glances and non-funny jokes between seat neighbors. But last night, while everyone waited for Canelo to come out and fight James Kirkland, the Minute Maid Park turned into a true Mexican festival, with a virtual Mexican flag flapping on the jumbotron, traditional music pumping from the PA, and the audience singing their hearts out as if they were celebrating Independence Day in Mexico City’s Zocalo.

The crowd booed James Kirkland heartily, his main offense being that of standing opposite Canelo. But when Alvarez came out of the tunnel to begin his ringwalk, raucous cheering erupted, following him all the way to the roped square. It was the crowd’s way of saying “Estamos muy contentos!” It didn’t matter that Canelo was facing a wildcard in Kirkland, who could equally likely blast Canelo out of there as get himself kayoed in less than one round like he did against Nobuhiro Ishida. All the way from the nosebleeds to Canelo’s personal cheering section ringside, everyone was just happy to see the freckled kid from Jalisco, and would support him no matter what. At least that’s what it felt like being there.

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The final shot.

For all that, it was Kirkland who brought the fight to Canelo, like most observers expected him to do, lunging in, throwing wild power punches with the worst intentions and corralling Alvarez against a corner. With the enraptured audience watching on their feet—as they would all night—the young Mexican tried as best he could to weather the storm, with upper body movement and countering whenever he found an opening. He bought himself a few seconds of breathing time when he caught Kirkland with a huge right hand that sent the Austin-native to the canvas towards the middle of the first round. The crowd went ballistic, but Kirkland recovered verticality to continue fighting. That in itself was worthy of admiration: the punch he absorbed would’ve kept anyone else on the canvas for longer than ten seconds.

The second stanza saw Kirkland come back out with the same ferocity from the first round. Canelo was too smart to try and match James punch for punch, so instead focused on evading as many punches as possible and then find openings for his countershots. Still, the pace was frenetic, and Kirkland’s punching volume alone posed the danger that something big could find its way to Canelo. The Mexican at this point also seemed to be aware of his past stamina issues, and definitely seemed to be pacing himself in case the fight turned out to be a long one.

HOUSTON, TX - MAY 9: Saul "Canelo" Alvarez (black/green trunks) knocks out James Kirkland (black/red trunks) in the 3rd round of their 12 round super welterweight fight at Minute Maid Park on May  9, 2015 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Ed Mulholland/Golden Boy/Golden Boy via Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***Saul Alvarez; James Kirkland

In the end, that wouldn’t happen.  A windmilling Kirkland continued to bring the fight to Canelo, who turned a counter-uppercut into his money shot, snapping James’ head back several times once he started throwing that punch. Towards the middle of the third round, a huge such uppercut clashed against Kirkland’s chin, immediately turning his legs to spaghetti and sending him to the canvas. It wasn’t officially the end, but for all intents and purposes it was. While Kirkland rose up and tried to continue fighting, shortly after another huge right from Canelo snapped his head sideways and disconnected his senses from his body. James crumbled to the canvas and stayed there while the referee waved off the fight and Canelo jumped on a turnstile to celebrate with his hollering fans.

Kellerman asked Canelo whether he’d be willing to fight Miguel Cotto or Gennady Golovkin next, and the Mexican only answered he’s always willing to fight anyone. Canelo’s record of taking on difficult fights his handlers would rather keep him away from attests to his honesty: he went after Austin Trout, Erislandy Lara, and Floyd Mayweather against the wishes of his promoter, Oscar De La Hoya. But Canelo has shown time and again that his priority is to make the fights fans want to see and prove his critics wrong.

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When questioned on whether he considered his thrilling KO of Kirkland a sort of rebuttal to the disappointing Mayweather vs Pacquiao fight of last weekend, Canelo refused to concede and replied that he doesn’t care about other fights, he only cares about his own career and pleasing his fans. But in the larger narrative of boxing, it’s hard not to see his violent wrecking of The Mandingo Warrior as Alvarez telling Mayweather “Nice par!

In fact, that’s exactly the way most of the mainstream media who bothered to pay attention to Canelo vs Kirkland is portraying the Mexican’s victory. Say what you will about the merits of focusing on avoiding-getting-hit vs hitting, but the truth is that in boxing–at least in terms of spectacle and ratings–action will always trump caution, and violent offense will always appeal more than sage defense. This favours the Mexican’s chances in becoming the sport’s next big star, and if his future engagements prove as big and entertaining as last Saturday’s, the future of the sport is definitely in safe hands. At least for today, with Canelo and Kirkland putting on a three-round war that far surpassed MayPac in the entertainment department—thus confirming that big fights sometimes also offer big spectacle—boxing fans are surely as contentos as Canelo himself.

— Rafael Garcia

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