Updated: Oct 31, 2019
by Ewan Breeze
After starting his career as a welterweight Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez moves up this weekend to try and capture the WBO light heavyweight title, a staggering weight jump of 28lbs in just 6 years and 11 fights.
He takes on a once indestructible but resurging Sergey Kovalev, at the new epicenter of championship boxing, the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, to try and achieve what would have been thought impossible just a few short years ago.
Canelo has dominated all but one man as a professional and if he were to beat Kovalev this weekend, not only it would be an immense statement, it would echo through boxing history. If he manages to become the Lineal Light heavyweight champion, he will join a club where he is in illustrious company. Those who manage to outgrow their initial weight class and clear it of contenders before moving up in weight to find new pugilistic challenges are an elite few. Canelo must, therefore, be mindful of those who have gone before him and learn from their successes in order to create success of his own.
The first man he will need to consider was born in 1863 and whose journey, via Australia and New Zealand, eventually led him to his first world title shot in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1891. Bob Fitzsimmons won his first title, the world Middleweight title, in 1891 with a vicious beating of Jack "Nonpareil" Dempsey, the man from whom the Heavyweight Champion Jack Demepsy would later take his name.
He fought 30 times as the middleweight champion, going 27-0-3, knocking out almost every man he stepped into the ring with, before he made the drastic leap to fight at heavyweight. Although he remained moderately small, his opponents now dwarfed him in size.
He first took on Tom Sharkey, in a bout refereed by famous sheriff Wyatt Erp, still wearing his colt 45. The fight was dominated by Fitzimmons but ultimately ended with him losing by DQ for hitting Shakrey while he was down. Both the crowd and Fitzimmons were outraged by the ending of the fight. However, off the strength of this performance, despite the loss, he got a shot at the heavyweight champion, Gentleman Jim Corbett.
Like Canelo Alvarez will be at the weekend, Fitzimmons was the favourite despite the size disparity as he took on his first serious test at heavyweight. Corbett had dethroned the long time champion John L Sullivan with a 21st round knockout but was no match for the power and boxing ability of Fitzimmons. He became Heavyweight champion of the world with a, by all accounts stunning, knockout of Corbett in the 14th round.
"He was the greatest strategist in the ring's history, a man of wonderful vitality, and the most accurate and deadliest hitter of the class." described Ring magazine's Nat Flischer
"To reach Jim Corbett in the pit of the stomach with knockout force was a feat for a magician, and Fitz was a magician. Where others failed, Fitz succeeded through strategic feinting to induce Corbett to raise his guard and open the way for a left shift and a crushing blow to the solar plexus.”
With this he became the lightest man ever to hold the heavyweight title weighing only 170lbs. Fitzimmons would lose the title to the 220lbs behemoth Jim Jefferies but would later out point George Gardener over 20 rounds for the light heavyweight title, making him boxing's first ever three division world champion, at a time when there were only three recognised weight classes.
Fitzimmons competed in an era of boxing so different to our own it could be that some people think there is no lesson for Canelo to draw from the lesson of Fitzimmons. I disagree. I think the most obvious one is body punching, both Canelo and Fitzimmons will go down in history as two of the sports best ever liver snatchers.
This is pertinent, as when you give up weight your advantage is often speed, to exploit that advantage you want your opponent to slow, and the best way to slow your opponent is with shots to the body. Canelo used this explosively against Rocky Fielding and I think it will be a key tactic against Kovalev, as it was for Fitzimmons against Corbett.
The next lesson is to do with the weight itself. As Fitzsimmons went up through the divisions he never bulked out. He never got overly muscular to try and get into a physical battle with his opponent, instead he used the natural speed and honed ability to overcome them with technique. This will be vital to Canelo’s success at 175lbs. He will always be the smaller man and if he, in an effort to ‘out man’ Kovalev beefs up too much he could lose the very advantages he brings up with him as the smaller man; speed, accuracy and skill.
Fitzimmons was the first three division champion but he held them all at different points of his career, the first man to bag three at once, in a jump more akin to what Canelo will try and do on Saturday, was ‘Homicide Hank’ himself, the great Henry Armstrong. With a more modern style not dissimilar to that or Mr Alvarez, Henry Armstrong bagged the Lineal Featherweight title in 1937 with a blistering knockout of Petey Sarron before he set his sights on heavier weights and bigger pay-checks. He decimated all comers before winning both the lineal welterweight and lightweight titles in two successive bouts against legendary champions. On the 31st of May he beat Barney Ross, a skilled champion far bigger than Armstrong, over 15 fantastic rounds.
Armstrong used a marvelous menagerie of skills to out fox the wily Ross. He used head movement to elude the jab and throw his punishing overhand right, left hook to the body combination. He used tricky, pressuring footwork to keep Ross constantly off balance and prevent him throwing power shots, all while cutting angles and punishing Ross upstairs and down.
Armstrong would post with his arms to create space and pull away his opponents guard so he could fire off combinations, a technique used more famously by Roberto Duran, and more recently Lomachenko. He then, just 4 months later, shed some weight and did exactly the same to the lineal lightweight champion and hall of famer Lou Ambers.
This feat is absolutely miraculous and should give Canelo confidence. If Armstrong can do it in 2 years with no dietitian or modern science (and dare I say mexican meat!) Canelo can do it in 6 years with millions of Dollars invested in his nutrition and coaching. The other lesson for Canelo to take from the performances of Armstrong is a technical one. The techniques I have already outlined are still to this day the blueprint for a front foot counter puncher, no one in boxing has ever honed this style better than Armstrong but Canelo is a very proficient practitioner of it.
Against the bigger heavier man I think it is the Armstrong blueprint that will lead Canelo to victory.
The final case study for Canelo is that of the great Sugar Ray Leonard. Leonard was Welterweight, Light Middleweight, Middleweight, Super Middleweight and Light heavyweight champion of the world, exactly as Canelo will hope to become Sunday morning. Learnord’s championship run reads like a who's who of 70’s and 80’s boxing, Wilfred Benitez for the Welterweight Championship, Duran to win it back, Hagler for the Middleweight crown, Thomas Hearns for the super middleweight title and admittedly the weakest of the pack, Donny Lalonde for the light heavyweight strap.
Like Fitzimmons, Leanord never beefed up, like Armstrong he fought clever and tactically but the most important lesson Canelo can learn from Sugar Ray is how to win the psychological and physiological war needed to beat the bigger man. These lessons come from the nearly 10 year waiting game Ray played with the man many consider to be the best on his record Marvelous Marvin Hagler. After retiring initially due to the detached retina he sustained in the first Thomas Hearns fight, Sugar took up commentary and while on HBO he commentated on virtually every Hager title defence, thus the mind games and the waiting game began.
He critiqued Hagler's performances, he staged a press conference hiniting a comeback only to deny it right at the end with Hager front and center. He invited Hagler to his restaurant and other social functions all the while speaking openly about challenging him. This was all just to bait the champion, waiting for the right moment to pounce.
When in 1986 Hager had an all out war with John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi, again Sugar was ringside, only this time he saw his moment had come.
“When I saw the Mugabi fight I saw a window of opportunity and if I didn’t take advantage of it then, it would never have happened” said Leonard
Hagler struggled with Mugabe and was hospitalised after the fight and as he recovered, Ray began to train. By the time they entered the ring Sugar was in tremendous shape having trained for a full year and had several ‘smokers’ (real fights but inside the gym) to prepare.
Hagler though, after years of long training camps and brutal fights in the ring was, in Ray’s eyes, worn down, over trained and depleted. Ray saw this as vital to neutralising Hagler's size and strength advantages.The fight was immensely close and is debated to this day but ultimately Ray was victorious and many attribute that to the fact he made Marvin wait. Hagler was coming past his peak and was so emotionally involved he became drawn into Ray’s game plan and lost the fight.
Canelo has for me already learnt this lesson and has become a master at catching his opponents just a shade past their peak in order to beat them, as Ray did to Marvin. It is a dangerous game to play as you can never truly tell what a fighter has left but with Cotto, Lara, Kirkland and even GGG, Canelo has timed it perfectly so he peaks as they slip and I think he has played a masterstroke again with his choice of Kovalev. Callum Smith, Jermall Charlo, Demetrious Andrade, Billy Joe Saunders and even Artur Beterbiev are more relevant challenges for Canelo right now but he has gone for the biggest name with relevance and popularity after knocking out Anthony Yarde but also what he sees as diminished skills, a business masterstroke and something Sugar Ray knew all too much about.
With 17 weight classes now weight hopping is common but to hop between 3 of the 7 traditional weight classes is still absolutely an achievement worthy of recognition. Very few individuals have had this distinction and every one of them is remembered today for their gallantry inside the squared circle.The footprints in which Canelo now walks are hallowed as they were made not just by the three greats I have mentioned but also the likes of ;Sugar Ray Robinson, Sam Langford, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns,Julio Ceasar Chavez, Roy Jones Jr, Bernard Hopkins and his own mentor Oscar De la Hoya. For him to beat Sergi Kovelev in emphatic fashion will cast his name into the annals of history alongside these great champions, the question remains, can he do it?