Saul Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin stepped into the ring for the third and final time on Saturday night. The winner was clear, the scores controversially close — especially those two 7-5 cards, but Bloody Elbow had it 8-4 ourselves so we can’t quibble too much about that. We won’t spend much time litigating that here though. Instead we’ll take a look at the story of the fight, why Canelo was so dominant early and why (scores aside) he did seem to fade a bit later to allow Golovkin at least some success.
A clue to the latter can be found right from the start. After an opening exchange of jabs, the first meaningful punch Canelo threw was a massive left hand that missed, left him overbalanced, and needed some snappy recovery work to get away from danger. He calmed it down for the rest of the opening round, in which nothing major happened, but after that those swinging punches and explosive movements both to close ground and recover were a feature of the fight. There was clearly a gameplan going on there – whether emotional, in anger at Golovkin, or coldly rational, reasoning that Golovkin would find it difficult to respond to these, we can’t know, but either way they had their effect early on.
Golovkin’s age is the sad part of this equation — four years ago he’d never have allowed someone over-committing in front of him to get away with it, but this time he just couldn’t get himself moving fast enough to close distance and respond. That gap in response was visible for him against Murata in April, and that must have been in Canelo’s mind when he came up with the plan.
We saw it other times too. Another- more typical- part of Canelo’s gameplan was to throw with Golovkin’s jab and counter hard whenever his right hand came into play. This is something he always does so it isn’t new to Golovkin, but in the first two fights Golovkin’s jab was the most prominent feature of either fight and Canelo was never able to consistently punish him for it. Here, he was, to the point that at times in the early rounds he seemed intimidated, more focused on backing away after the jab than scoring with it. Even after a strong talk from his corner got him committing to it more through the middle rounds, Canelo was slipping a lot of them and countering with greater volume on many, and it wasn’t giving him much positional control.
In round seven things Canelo changed things up again, perhaps sensing a finish- he took the lead entirely, not waiting for opportunities to counter but pushing at Golovkin behind his own jab and throwing combinations in close. This may have been a mistake. A perfectly rational one to be honest, since at that point Golovkin looked old and drained and like the pace was getting to him, and that continued through round eight. Canelo continued to have success and he forced Golovkin to up the tempo without having anything to really show for it, which must have felt like a recipe for breaking the older man down.
In the ninth though, that changed. Looking back on it, you can see Golovkin already sensing some openings- Canelo had already started to shell behind his high guard more than the earlier slips and head movement- a fairly telling sign of fatigue. Golovkin began the round hooking off his jab, catching Canelo behind that guard. The champion’s response was to push even harder, seeking to intimidate Golovkin as he successfully had earlier- but this time, the overreaching was punished, as he fell in just as Golovkin slid back and jabbed, falling onto the punch. He wasn’t dazed or in danger of a stoppage, but Canelo definitely felt it, and his responses changed not just for the remainder of the round but really the fight.
By the end, it was clear that the older man had the more energy left. It wasn’t a collapse by any means, the rounds were still close enough that Canelo was in them, winning some and still in no danger of losing the fight, but it seems quite remarkable that the 40 year old who’d spent the first 8 rounds struggling to commit to punches at all finished with the upper hand. It gives us a new perspective on how precisely Canelo’s been managing his gameplans for the last few years- we always knew he was a little prone to fade down the stretch, but we didn’t see it for a long time, as he became expert at managing his pace even when his opponent was pushing the pace relentlessly. Part of that was a commitment to making his technique even sharper, keeping his balance at all times and avoiding draining recoveries. Against Bivol we saw him fade because the Russian pushed him out of that perfect form with his own work and never gave him a moment to rest, but neither thing happened here- Canelo’s explosive leaps early were all his own decision. Apparently sure that his opponent’s age was going to work against him, he over-committed, and while it didn’t quite backfire, he can’t have been comfortable with how it turned towards the end.
Thoughts for the future
So, both men come out with things to think about. Canelo may feel some validation in finally winning unquestionably over his old foe, but in all truth this was in many ways a less impressive performance than in the second fight, even if he lost that one. If he’s not quite back to the drawing board he at least has to make some adjustments, because some of his potential opponents will have seen things here they like. Golovkin, for his part, has talked about returning to 160, and an immediate retirement seems unlikely — but those slow starts are only going to get slower, so he does have to think about how much longer he wants to go on.
That may seem a depressing conclusion to take from a fight that was closer than many expected and had its excitement. It didn’t live up to the first two, for sure, but it wasn’t the waste of time it might have been. Boxing is a sport sometimes defined by mistakes made, though, and even if they didn’t change the result, they’re worth learning from. Canelo has typically been one of the sports best learners from fight to fight, so let’s see what he offers us in future.
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