The impossible is just what Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez does at this point. A 20-0-1 professional record before turning 18? Check. A world title before he was old enough to buy a beer? Check. The first and only man to beat Gennady Golovkin? Check. First undisputed super middleweight champion in history? Check. We could go on. What the fiery Mexican hasn’t done in boxing almost isn’t worth doing. But it is this history of making the impossible look easy that has some fans underestimating his next challenge.
This weekend, Alvarez will clash with WBA light heavyweight champion Dmitry Bivol. There is no new entry in the record books pending if ‘Canelo’ is successful. He has reigned as light heavyweight champion before, having stopped Sergey Kovalev for the WBO strap in 2019. The bout also lacks the super-fight sheen of past meetings with ‘GGG’, Floyd Mayweather and Miguel Cotto. The title unification intrigue of his wins over Danny Jacobs, Austin Trout and Caleb Plant is absent too. Many casual observers have the same question about Alvarez vs Bivol: why is it happening?
It is a glowing testament to the unassailable high standards ‘Canelo’ has set that this question is part of the discourse. Bivol is a 19-0 world champion with eight successful defences. The Kyrgyzstan-born Russian is ranked as the number two light heavyweight in the world by The Ring magazine, and currently sits sixth in The Sportsman Boxing Power Rankings. It is perhaps a sort of backhanded compliment for ‘Canelo’ that a fighter of Bivol’s standing is considered almost beneath him. However, this assessment is roundly unfair.
Bivol’s 19-fight ledger lacks the glamour that Alvarez’s record has in abundance. There are no fighters on there who would trouble the pound-for-pound list. What there are lots of though are good-to-very good practitioners, and a smattering of former world champions. Current WBO light heavyweight champion Joe Smith Jr fell to Bivol via decision in 2019. Ex-unified ruler Jean Pascal was defeated on points the year before. World-ranked contenders like Isaac Chilemba, Sullivan Barrera and Britain’s Craig Richards have also been beaten during Bivol’s five-year title reign. The Russian is not a stadium-headlining superstar or a pay-per-view draw like his opponent on Saturday, but he is a genuinely world-class light heavyweight champion.
We have established that Dmitry Bivol deserves to be in the ring with Alvarez on Saturday in Las Vegas. What we have not yet determined is how he will get on when he’s in there. The answer depends on a number of intangibles. How do you beat a man who has only lost one fight? Copying the perpetrator of Alvarez’s sole defeat, Floyd Mayweather, seems out of the question. Floyd’s slick, defensive mastery is often imitated but never truly duplicated. But there are elements of Bivol’s style that could cause ‘Canelo’ problems.
The Russian likes to fight at range, and possesses height and reach advantages over his challenger. While his hand-speed does not rival the generational quickness of Mayweather, he does throw rapid punches. His one-two combinations, thrown straight and from mid-range, have broken down many of his 19 victims. Bivol has the weapons to frustrate ‘Canelo’, what he lacks is the power to hurt him.
Bivol is currently on a streak of six consecutive unanimous decision wins. What this tells us is that he widely outscores his opponents, but struggles to put them away. ‘Canelo’ has proven that he has an iron chin in the past, taking full-blooded shots from power-punchers like Golovkin and Kovalev in fights he went on to win. If Bivol is going to defeat ‘Canelo’, he will need to rely on his boxing to do so.
It could be argued ‘Canelo’ is facing a similar quandary, though. How does he defeat a man who has never lost. Stylistically, the play would be to try and close the distance with head movement and intelligent pressure. This will be easier said than done. Bivol does not just win fights, he dominates them. A look at the scorecards for his recent outings demonstrates this. A 116-112 card in his favour when he defeated Isaac Chilemba is the closest score for one of his fights in four years. The fact the other two judges filed 120-108 scores tells you this was more an aberration than a genuine expression of how the fight unfolded. ‘Canelo’ is the favourite, and rightfully so, but he’s in with a fighter who literally does not know how to lose.
It’s not an audacious move to cruiserweight, a super middleweight showdown with David Benavidez or a third fight with Golovkin. All fights that were mooted in recent months. But what Alvarez is taking on this weekend in Vegas is another extraordinary challenge in itself. Bivol is almost as good as it gets in the 175-pound division, with the possible exception of Artur Beterbiev. While Alvarez has visited this division before, it is widely accepted Kovalev was past his best when they fought. Bivol is in his pomp, confident and coming to win. This might not be one for the history books, but when the dust settles on Saturday night don’t be surprised if this was a lot closer than most ‘Canelo’ fights.
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