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Saul “Canelo” Alvarez had a lot of frustrations to get out Saturday night at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Since his last fight, a controversial draw with long-time middleweight kingpin Gennady “GGG” Golovkin, a storybook saga had morphed into a nightmare.
First there were the failed drug tests and a reputation left in shatters. Then there were the accusations of cowardice, that he wasn’t “Mexican” enough in style or substance, that he was destined to be remembered more for the bouts he lost than the many he’s won.
For an entire year there was little Canelo could do but take his lumps. Never a media darling, he was even more closed than is customary, seemingly filled with a rage that desperately needed an outlet. But when the bell rang kicking off the rematch with Golovkin, it was finally time to start hitting back.
In the first fight, Canelo ceded the middle of the ring to the fearsome Golovkin, something every fighter throughout the Kazakh’s career has either done or paid a terrible price. Not so in the second tilt. This time, as promised, Canelo stood his ground taking the fight to GGG with unprecedented success, winning a majority decision after 12 grueling rounds.
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“He’s a great opponent,” Canelo told HBO’s Max Kellerman after the fight as Golovkin rushed out the ring to the locker room. “But every great fighter needs a rival. I was that rival. I showed it tonight.”
Almost immediately, as Canelo unleashed devastatingly fast hooks and uppercuts that caused the capacity crowd to cry out in pleasure or despair, something truly remarkable happened. The monster, who had won a record tying 20 middleweight title fights, wilted under Canelo’s sustained attack.
The younger man by eight years, Canelo didn’t just refuse to take a backward step—he actually began backing Golovkin up consistently, wearing away at both his cheekbone, which was soon a bright red, and his psyche.
But Golovkin didn’t become a living legend by the merest coincidence. A rally was inevitable and he never stopped trying to land one of the thudding blows that had made him a cult figure on HBO’s boxing broadcasts. Occasionally, he would send a right hand thundering into Canelo’s face, opening up a cut over his left eye early that never quite closed.
If these blows bothered the new champion, he did a good job hiding it.
“He was connecting with punches,” Canelo conceded. “But they were few and far between.”
Golovkin, to his credit, never quit, winning the 10th and 11th rounds on all three judges’ scorecards. Seemingly finding himself with fight, and his legacy, on the line, Golovkin pressed Canelo into the ropes for the first time in the bout. In the first loss of his long career, Golovkin showed the Hall of Fame character his critics have been waiting to see revealed.
Canelo vs GGG scorecards https://t.co/pDLcU4hRND
In the final stanza, it was the younger man who came out swinging. In the past, loaded with muscle, Alvarez seemed to fear fading at the end of a long fight. This time he took it to the champion until the bell, winning the round and the fight with heart and will as much as his superior boxing skill.
Coming into the fight, Golovkin had succeeded the retired Andre Ward as Ring Magazine’s new pound-for-pound champion, a mythical title crowning the sport’s best fighter regardless of weight class. With his victory, it’s only fitting that Canelo replace the conquered hero on the throne.
A lot of fighters are cute technicians with slick entrances and exits, boxing maestros who force even the sharpest critic to concede that fisticuffs can indeed be a science. A lot of fighters are tough brawlers, capable of imposing their will on both their own body and their opponent’s.
Very few are both, which is what makes Canelo’s growth as a pugilist so impressive. Canelo throws every punch with authority, from a developing jab to the kind of body shots that make a man wince from halfway across the arena. When the moment calls for it, he can move out of harm’s way with alacrity. But when the time is right, he’s also more than ready to play rock-em-sock-em robots with the meanest mugs on the planet.
Already the sport’s most popular star, Alvarez proved against Golovkin that he’s also the best fighter in boxing. His lone setback, a 2013 loss to Floyd Mayweather when he was just 23-years-old, only made Alvarez better, sharpening his boxing skills and emphasizing the importance of cleverness and craft. Against Golovkin, he proved he could also stand in the pocket with a generational power puncher, taking and delivering blows as necessary to win.
For the first time since Mayweather’s departure, it truly feels like boxing has a new standard-bearer. The middleweight king is dead.
Long live the king.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.