Legend? Not So Much

Saturday night dedicated fight fans had to slog through a pretty boring undercard to get to what the Arby’s commercials call “the meat!,” and while I do want to see more of Rei Vargas, the tall featherweight who had been out of the ring (for reasons unstated) for two years, and while I have a soft spot in my heart for Flint, Michigan and its native son and daughter Anthony Dirrell and Clarissa Shields, still, it was a tedious ordeal. When the main event finally came on, it was like the MGM Grand woke up from a long nap.

Midway through the Vargas fight, the Charlo Brothers and their dates were talking and laughing and having an all-around good time, as they should, which shows how focused I was on the action, watching the audience rather than the ring. Dirrell’s fourth round KO win woke me up a bit with that slam-bang uppercut; that was definitely the highlight of the undercard. Dirrell wants some of that Canelo action and I for one think he deserves it, but he’s likely going down, as did poor Caleb. It was another one-sided win for Alvarez, his fourth in fewer than twelve months, but also another inconsequential victory, a fight from which we learned nothing that we didn’t already know.

Dirrell Canelo legacy
Anthony Dirrell notched a memorable one-shot KO.

Now don’t get me wrong, I respect Canelo’s skill; he has a true champion’s ability to figure out a guy’s weaknesses in the early rounds and, once he’s dialed in, it’s just a matter of time before his hand is raised. But for me it’s not just the front story, so to speak, but the back story too, the larger context. Canelo’s skills and power, his winning ways, his status as maybe the best in the game right now, pound-for-pound, all that is obvious, a given. But when people try to pump up this “four belt” nonsense, while Canelo keeps saying, “… for my history! I am here to make history!” I confess I get a little cynical. Did Canelo make history by knocking out Caleb Plant Saturday night? In Canelo’s book, and with his fans, undoubtedly. For me, not so much.

There is history, and then there is overblown, narcissistic self-worship, usually accompanied by a blind spot or two, that I always observe with people who have Canelo-sized egos. And there are a couple of real problems with Alvarez’s overblown view of himself that need to be taken into account. First, every time Canelo talks about how he’s fighting for his legacy, repeating his mantra about “for my history,” you know he’s referring to his ambition to be regarded as the greatest Mexican boxer of all-time. He never says that outright, but it doesn’t take a genius to ascertain the intended meaning here. And I have to admit, this rubs me the wrong way. Because those are some mighty big shoes to fill.

Canelo vs Plant
Plant was no threat to Canelo.

To be blunt, every time Canelo makes that kind of statement and comparison I can’t help feeling he’s disrespecting the accomplishments of the true Mexican greats of the past, warriors whose records are studded with great champions and Hall of Famers, guys like Ruben Olivares and Julio Cesar Chavez. Surely no one is ready to say Canelo deserves to be ranked higher than those greats, are they? I mean, it only takes a glance at JCC’s stupendous curriculum vitae to see that the class is with Chavez Senior. It’s to Julio’s credit that he hasn’t commented much about Canelo’s arrogant ranting; nor has he ever boasted much about his own historical standing, though if he ever did he’s certainly earned the right to brag. Tellingly, he obviously feels no need to do so.

Meanwhile, Canelo is crafty and cunning in his public statements. He never literally states that “Chavez is number two,” but if you listen carefully and read between the lines, that’s the message, clear as a summer day in Culiacán. I’ve been following boxing now for about sixty years and even Muhammad Ali, the most entertaining, big-mouth self-promoter of all-time, didn’t dote on his “legacy” the way Canelo does. “The Louisville Lip” was much more tongue-in-cheek and, at times, even humble. He had the right to brag about what he brought to the ring, but much of the time he did it with good-natured humor.

Canelo Chavez Legacy
Do Canelo’s accomplishments rival those of Chavez?

But here’s the other elephant in Canelo’s living room that causes his “my history” mantra to really grate on my nerves (and I’m not even getting into the clenbuterol stuff), namely the fact that he has avoided, and continues to avoid, a third showdown with his top rival, Gennady Golovkin. Call me suspicious, but I remain convinced that Canelo decided after that second great war with the Kazakh that a third fight with Golovkin was too much of a risk, too much of a chance of tarnishing his precious “legacy.”

After all, Gennady clearly got the better of the first fight, scorecards be damned, and, contrary to what you so often hear, narrowly did the same in the rematch in the eyes of most. Never forget: out of eighteen media ringsiders scoring that second bout, ten saw Golovkin the winner, seven scored it a draw, and only one gave it to Canelo. All this to say, I believe, in his heart of hearts, Canelo knows his “legacy” is a flawed one. And so long as he keeps ducking Golovkin, the fact of it puts the lie to all that “my history, my legacy” talk.

Golovkin vs Canelo
Few question that Golovkin was robbed of a glorious win in 2017.

Ring legends are predicated on a boxer’s complete body of work. And don’t get me wrong, Canelo has already had a tremendous career, and I think he’s a great boxer. But it’s not only what he does, but also what he does not do. Golovkin is a class guy and likely won’t comment, but he, above all, knows what the real deal is. So to a man who is a legend in his own mind, I say, “Canelo, you don’t get to anoint yourself tops in history. As long as you do, you’re putting the cart before the horse. You have to let history itself make the call on who the real history-makers are.”

So let’s talk facts. On Saturday night you beat up a belt-holder with less than a third of the fights you’ve had, less than a third of the experience and ring savvy you have, and then you carry on like you just conquered a prime Harry Greb or something. And if next you take on the (with all due respect) over-the-hill Anthony Dirrell, you’ll likely knock him out too, and then brag some more about “my history, my legacy.” I can’t be the only one who finds this a little hard to take.

A victory that proved very little.

No, my guess is there’s a quiet but sizable contingent of hardcore boxing fans out there who can see past all the hoopla and hype and are not fooled at all by your bragging and boasting, Señor Alvarez. Real fans who know that when you say the words “history” and “legacy,” you’re really just saying, “No one tells me what to do. You can call it ‘cherry-picking,’ if you want, but I call it ‘greatness.'”

The bottom line is you can talk all you want about how great you are, but talk is cheap. You can call yourself “a legend,” but that accolade is reserved for the real kings of the ring, the men who planted a much deeper footprint in boxing history. And I mean the real fight history, not your ego-defined, self-serving version, but the one that’s in the record books, that no one can deny, that no one tries to deny, except those blinded by hubris and the bright lights inside the MGM Grand. Let me tell you, my eyesight is just fine. And I know exactly what I watched on Saturday night.

Robinson and LaMotta: talk about legacy.

So I think someone who likes to talk a lot about “history,” should remember how many times Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta locked up. Or how many times Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano went to war. Or how many times Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali went to hell and back. Talk all you want about legends and legacy, Señor Alvarez: yours includes avoiding a trilogy fight with your greatest rival. And as much as you might wish otherwise, and as loud as you might talk about yourself, no one is going to forget that. Bottom line: Canelo Alvarez is a terrific fighter, a future Hall of Famer. But a legend? Not so much.

— Ralph M. Semien   

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