IF the aim of a fight between Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and John Ryder was to merely confirm both the toughness of the challenger and the superiority of the champion, with both fighters well-compensated for their respective efforts, it can be considered a rousing success; a plan carried out perfectly. If, however, you were hoping for something more interesting than that, you would have been well advised to look elsewhere.
Because, in the end, tonight’s (May 6) super-middleweight title fight between Alvarez and Ryder in Guadalajara was no more educational than a Saturday morning boxercise class – and possessing the same level of drama. Predictable in the extreme, you tend to come away from a fight like Alvarez vs. Ryder knowing no more about either man than you did going in, and wondering only, What was the point of all that then?
In truth, the point was this: Canelo returned home to Mexico, where he had not boxed since 2011, and Ryder received a hard-earned and well-earned payday of the life-changing variety. For some – chiefly, the ones involved in the promotion – those will be good enough reasons for a fight like this to take place, especially given both how it all ultimately unfolded and the courage Ryder, in particular, showed in lasting the distance and not performing a stop, drop and roll with the money already on the way. But for others – those not involved with its promotion – fights like Alvarez vs. Ryder, in the context of Alvarez’s lengthy and illustrious career, will instead be looked upon as stalling, killing time, wasting time; both his and ours.
Alvarez, after all, is a man of 63 pro fights, a pro since the age of 15, and doesn’t have a lot of time left at the elite level or as an athlete in his physical prime. He will, when the end comes, perhaps look at fights like this one against Ryder, and others, and wonder if his time could have been better spent testing himself against names more likely to enhance his legacy. Or, then again, given the money he makes regardless of the threat level, maybe not.
As it is, though, opponents like John Ryder, for all his toughness and courage, do not rank high on the list of Canelo Alvarez victims. At best, and if wanting to be kind, Ryder ranks high on the list of the Mexican’s British victims, of which there are now eight, by the way. This Alvarez even confirmed at the end of the fight, when heralding Ryder as the best British opponent he had faced, not that that, in the grand scheme of things, means a whole lot.
Much of his praise had to do with Ryder’s toughness, of course, which has never been in doubt. Yet, also, one suspects the reason why Alvarez was so keen to praise his latest opponent had just as much to do with the fact he had (a) gone the distance with him, despite wanting a stoppage, and (b) forced him to show signs he is slowing down, moving his head less, and appearing altogether sluggish these days. That can probably all be attributed to the difficulty he had raising his game for a fight like tonight’s, but there is a sense as well that Alvarez, at 32, is a champion whose best days are behind him and whose ability to continue performing in his thirties is now predicated on an ability to exaggerate the skills of his opponent in order to ignore the eroding of his own.
That may or may not be the case here. We’ll never know. Certainly, though, during the 36 minutes he spent together with Ryder in the ring, there were signs Alvarez was not so much cruising to victory as being unable to find the necessary gears required to make it a shorter night. In the fifth round, for instance, when he dropped Ryder for the first time, sending him backwards with a stiff and well-timed right hand, there was an expectation that he would then follow up and duly finish the Brit before the halfway mark. Only this never happened. Instead, Ryder regained his feet and continued to exhibit his bravery by standing with Alvarez and taking confidence from the fact Alvarez, once so mobile and elusive, appears to have slowed quite significantly since moving through the weights and landing at super-middleweight. Now, whereas before he would move and make an opponent miss, Alvarez relies too much on his own physical strength, and his own toughness, and the bloodthirsty roars of his Mexican fans. Now, when watching him stand and trade and let his hands go, one cannot help but think we are watching a great champion’s last stand, although it will only be seen this way in retrospect when the last stand becomes precisely that.
Until then, we watch Alvarez beat opponents like Ryder in dominant style and look only at the stats. We look at the numbers of punches thrown and landed, which always reveal he is working harder than his opponent, and we look at the numbers delivered by the three men sitting ringside, which always reveal he is going home with everything he brought with him. We also look at the money generated by such a fight, which, according to his promoter, is all that really matters; proof, as it is, of his global star appeal.
For now, against men like Ryder, 32-6 (18), that will all be enough for Alvarez to continue winning and continue experimenting at weights far removed from where he initially started, down at junior-welterweight. One day, though, just as all great champions come to understand, Alvarez will discover that the chances he took against lesser opposition, as well as the bad habits he formed, will come to punish him against those better equipped to reveal to him all he is so desperate to ignore.
His has been a long career, after all. For almost 18 years, in fact, Alvarez has boxed professionally, winning world titles in numerous divisions, and engaging in more than one bitter rivalry along the way. During this time, he has also manipulated his body, bringing it both up in weight and down in weight, and he has filled out quite remarkably, now standing before us as a square of a man with a jaw and neck as wide as many people’s torsos. There is, in other words, a lot of stress and strain on that ever-thickening body of his, something only then exacerbated by the punches he has both given and taken throughout the course of 63 pro fights. “I think he’s probably past his best,” said Ryder after their fight, “but he still had enough in his tank tonight.”
Thirty-two, it’s true, is not old for a boxer, especially a super-middleweight. But a 32-year-old who has been boxing since the age of 15 is a boxer different than most. What’s more, with Alvarez, 59-2-2 (39), there is sadly forever the cloud of performance-enhancing drugs hanging over him when trying to analyse both what he has achieved, what he is achieving, and what any of it means. For example, though a 2018 ban for having clenbuterol in his system has since been almost forgotten, what cannot be either forgotten or ignored is the impact this had on his body, both back then and going forward. Because in the same way soaring through the weights can either add or take away years of a fighter’s career, so too can abusing a body with PEDs, creating in this body either a reliance on them to perform at an optimum level or a deficit in performance when finally coming off of them for fear of again being caught.
With someone like Alvarez, such is the grey area created by that 2018 failed test, we will never know. We will never know when it began and when it ended and we will never know how much of his success, both leading up to that point and following that point, should be credited to what we found out in March of 2018.
If just to maintain our high opinion of him, we have to suspend any disbelief and attempt to give the Mexican the benefit of any doubt. As he gets older, though, and shows inevitable signs of regression, the entire gamut of his career, including both the big wins and that drug test, will come into greater focus and have us trying to figure out what everything means. When, like tonight, nothing new is learned about Alvarez or his future in the sport, all we can really do is look back and try to remember the fighter he was and compare it with the fighter he has become. We can then try to figure out, based on what we have seen previously and what we saw during 12 routine rounds against John Ryder, whether Saul “Canelo” Alvarez is becoming more human and therefore beatable because he is simply getting old – in fighting terms – or, conversely, because his desire to achieve superhuman feats came at the expense of him looking after his body.