Almost exactly one year after they fought to a controversial draw — prompting a near-aneurysm from ESPN’s Teddy Atlas — Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin will meet once again in Las Vegas at T-Mobile Arena in a middleweight world title rematch. Alvarez-Golovkin has been the best pure bout that contemporary boxing has produced in essentially three years, so it’s perhaps no surprise that a slab of contaminated meat couldn’t delay its second installment for more than six months.
Boxing’s ecosystem subsists on manufactured hatred and braggadocio. Both are far more evident this time around, the mutual respect of their first fight a distant memory. The animosity has risen steadily between the two world champions raised thousands of miles apart: Alvarez grew up hawking ice cream on the streets of Juanacatlan, Mexico, while Golovkin was forced at a young age to fight grown men in Karaganda, Kazakhstan.
Alvarez (49-1-2, 34 knockouts) and Golovkin (38-0-1, 34 knockouts) are two of the finest active fighters, universally considered to be among the sport’s top pound–for–pound talents. Here are three keys to their fight:
Will Golovkin’s jabs take their toll?
A jab is a fighter’s appetizer, a small taste before the main course of hooks, crosses and uppercuts. Certain studies have found the punch capable of packing more velocity than a cross, but typically it’s a weapon deployed to accrue points, find a boxer’s range and conserve energy — not end a fight. How then to strategize against an opponent whose hors d’oeuvres crack like howitzers?
Golovkin carries what may be the most lethal jab in the middleweight division. He uncorks it at a high volume to dictate the pace of a fight and to coerce his opponents into vulnerable positions as they try to earn back points. “I don’t think anybody in the past I’ve trained has had such a good jab,” said Abel Sanchez, Golovkin’s trainer, who has coached 18 world champions.
Over his past five fights other than the Alvarez bout, Golovkin connected on 39.7 percent of his jabs to his opponents’ 20.3 percent, landing an average of 12.7 jabs per round, according to CompuBox data. He threw 128 more jabs than Alvarez did the last time the two met, landing 53 more and boasting a superior connection percentage. Alvarez landed more jabs than Golovkin did in just one round (the sixth) and was out-landed 42 to 12 over the final four rounds.
Alvarez’s jab has earned the endorsement of Floyd Mayweather Jr., but Alvarez doesn’t often use it more than his opponents do. He has out-jabbed three of his past five challengers other than Golovkin — with a trouncing of hapless Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. largely skewing the data. Miguel Cotto in 2015 more than doubled Alvarez’s total jabs landed. When Mayweather dolled out the lone loss of Alvarez’s professional career, he more than tripled the Mexican’s jab-landed total.
Blows wear on a fighter over time. As Golovkin once put it: “Who wants to get hit in the face?” It’s paramount for Alvarez to avoid the unrelenting power that has made it difficult for Golovkin to keep sparring partners. Alvarez cannot afford to let Golovkin impose the rhythm of the fight by way of his jab.
Can Alvarez find any space?
If Muhammad Ali turned the ring into a stage worth exploring, Golovkin turns it into a treadmill, relentlessly closing in on his opponent as if drawn by a magnet. Golovkin bouts typically resemble bullfights, with the Kazakh fighter charging his opposition with abandon. “I don’t like dancing,” he said upon vaporizing Marco Antonio Rubio in the second round in 2014. “I like fighting.”
The surgical precision of his footwork is deliberate, an inverse of the speed-driven, complicated maneuverings of fighters like Sugar Ray Leonard and Ali. Golovkin cuts off the ring — using lateral footwork to force his opponents into close quarters or trap them against the ropes — because it isolates his prey and allows him to apply unyielding pressure in a forced slugfest. Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach has said Golovkin may have the best footwork in boxing.
Not unlike the fictional Ivan Drago, Golovkin has aluminum-bat strength and a rhino-like neck (he’s capable of completing sets of chin pushups). He has never been knocked down in his professional career. Golovkin seems to want to prove the integrity of his jaw by lunging at his opponent, suffocating his space. In the ninth round of last year’s bout, Alvarez unloaded an overhand right that landed flush. Golovkin let it slide across his cheek like a washcloth and continued to move forward, stalking his opponent as if nothing had happened at all. Watch the video, and you can see fear in the eyes of Alvarez in that moment.
Stylistically, Alvarez agitated some in the boxing community — most notably Golovkin’s team — during last year’s clash by snaking around the ring, idling along the ropes and largely eschewing the knock-down drag-out brawl Golovkin sought. For Alvarez, a roving, defensive-minded counterpuncher, this was the optimal blueprint. Those who aim to out-punch Golovkin nearly always end up on the canvas.
The game plan was mostly effective in their first fight: Golovkin landed 32 percent of his power punches, a drop-off of 14 percentage points from his previous 13 fights. Alvarez was certainly out-hit, but he kept Golovkin to 18.2 shots landed per round — well below his average of 26.2.
It didn’t go unnoticed by Sanchez, who told ESPN that he has since asked Jordan Brand — one of Golovkin’s sponsors — to “make some shoes so that we can go a bit faster and are able to catch [Alvarez].”
“It’s one thing to be coming forward like a donkey,” Alvarez countered. “It’s another thing to be moving.”
Despite the verbal barbs, Alvarez should stay on the outside and pick his moments to earn points when possible, even if it comes at the expense of entertainment for the fans. Alvarez has ample power behind his punches, but he’d be wise not to play into a strategy that would clearly favor the man who has earned 89 percent of victories by knockout.
Who gets the late-round advantage?
In the opening four rounds, Golovkin out-landed Alvarez by 2.5 punches per round but was out-landed when it came to power punches: Alvarez averaged seven per round, while Golovkin averaged six. But over the final five rounds, Golovkin landed an average of six more total punches per round than Alvarez did (21.6 to 15.6) and generated a higher connection percentage (34.5 percent to 32.4 percent).
If we break the bout down into thirds, Alvarez averaged a higher connection percentage than Golovkin in the first through fourth rounds (36.5 percent to 30.8 percent) and the fifth through eighth rounds (31.1 percent to 27.3 percent), but fell behind Golovkin in the ninth through 12th rounds (33.3 percent to 35.1 percent).
Controlling the waning rounds is easier said than done, of course. Golovkin’s punches register like those of a heavyweight, with a higher severity than typical of fighters from lower weight classes. Vanquished opponents have compared facing Golovkin to “being hit by a train.” To be sure, after your central nervous system has suffered 24 minutes of battery, elevating your performance over the final 12 minutes is an arduous task. But when the decision is in question, those memories are freshest in the minds of the judging panel, so a strong finish carries considerable weight.
The prime of a boxing career is ephemeral, the sport’s history littered with the legacies of those who stayed too long. The 2015 study “Hand Speed Measurements in Boxing” found that peak performance is often achieved between the ages of 20 and 30. Alvarez is 28 years old, at the zenith of his career. Golovkin is 36, closing in on the sunset of his. “A boxer who fights after 35 is pushing on the gas pedal, accelerating toward an early demise,” wrote Ferdie Pacheco of The New York Times. And yet, Golovkin has been so ruthlessly efficient in the ring that before last year’s Alvarez matchup, he hadn’t so much as seen the final round of a fight in more than eight years, preserving the bloom of his career to such a degree that most sportsbooks give him a 59 percent to 63 percent implied probability of winning on Saturday, consistent with last year’s odds. Those odds support a 36-year-old’s ability to crush his opponent, coming off the longest layoff of his career, in 36 minutes or less. Golovkin’s skill set has been among the best in the sport for years, but he was unable to land lucrative fights because, simply, no one wanted to fight him. Alvarez seemingly does, but he’d be wise not to turn the upcoming nine-figure payday into the blow-for-blow melee his opponent seeks.