SAUL “CANELO” ALVAREZ continues to polarise opinion.

“Greatest Mexican Ever,” cried his fans after he knocked out WBO light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev in Las Vegas on Saturday night. “Cherry Picking Drug Cheat,” screamed his critics following that victory over the 36-year-old veteran. 

Regardless, Alvarez remains the undisputed leader of the sport today. To proclaim him the greatest ever Mexican, though, is premature. Alvarez, at 29, still has some distance left to run. Only when he’s finished should we attempt to pinpoint his place in boxing history.

But credit where it’s due. This fight was no gimme. Kovalev, even at 36, was a real opponent and so it proved.

Heap nothing but praise on the superstar’s thick shoulders for scrunching his rival like tissue paper so late in the bout. He emerged from a difficult and taxing encounter inside Las Vegas’ MGM Grand a knockout winner. And the finish was savage.

Kovalev, no doubt exhausted but still firing, failed to get his right hand in position to block an incoming left hook. It was as much a mistake on Kovalev’s part as it was a mark of Canelo’s excellence; after going to the body with his left for so long, the Russian was conditioned to expect another raid downstairs. The direction changed mid-flight. It soared into the side of the champion’s temple and wrecked his equilibrium. As Sergey’s left arm dropped his legs tangoed. Canelo’s right hand, meanwhile, instinctively hurtled towards the target. It collided with Kovalev’s jaw and sent him down in a heap.

There can be no denying that the Russian had been in decline long before his knees gave way under the weight of that right hand. There is substance to arguments that “Krusher” would have beaten Canelo a few years ago. No question that this fight, at this time, made sense for Alvarez. But making sense does not translate to an easy fight. On paper and in reality it was a difficult contest. Let’s call it a calculated gamble.

Canelo’s gamble paid off

Alvarez made no effort to call out Artur Beterbiev or Dmitry Bivol, the other light-heavyweight belt-holders, in the aftermath. Though his majestic physique filled out in all the right places to reach 175lbs, he doesn’t look like a light-heavyweight.

For now – in much the same way as Thomas Hearns in 1987 when he mugged Dennis Andries to collect another divisional belt – expect Canelo’s excursion to light-heavy to be a one-fight only deal. He should not be blamed for that.

Alvarez is not the first fighter to scour the weight classes and manipulate the system: In 1988 Sugar Ray Leonard (looking to beat Hearns’ then-record of titles in four weight classes) defeated Donny Lalonde after convincing the WBC to put both the super-middleweight and light-heavyweight belts on the line in one bout. That fiasco puts Canelo’s admirable jump to Kovalev in sharp context. Furthermore, Leonard didn’t then pick out a young Michael Moorer, Virgil Hill or Michael Nunn, he picked the biggest payday available to him and that was a rematch with Hearns (who was looking increasingly vulnerable at the time).

In that regard, parallels can be drawn with Canelo. Talk has turned to a third fight with Gennady Golovkin. The same Golovkin who was made to wait a long time to rumble with Canelo in the first place. The same Golovkin who was forced to wait again when Canelo somewhat carelessly ate contaminated beef in Mexico and failed a drug test before the rematch. The same Golovkin who deserved far more than a draw and a loss from two punishing bouts. The same Golovkin who is now 37 and several years past his best and two weight classes below Alvarez.

“I’ll fight him if it makes business sense,” Canelo said, not long after shutting the door on his old rival a few months ago.

Canelo has a score to settle with Golovkin

What we want to hear from our leader are promises to accept his biggest challenges at the right time. But his biggest challenges will not always equate to the biggest fights, at least in terms of dollar signs and worldwide interest.

It would seem that Canelo – a former 154lb king who started out as a super-lightweight – will settle at super-middleweight, at least for his signature Cinco de Mayo outing in May, in a division where he is yet to win a world belt (the secondary WBA bauble he strapped on after beating Rocky Fielding last year does not count). Callum Smith and Billy Joe Saunders are unbeaten fighters who, unlike Golovkin, are at their peak and accustomed to 168lbs. But Golovkin, unlike Smith and Saunders, guarantees a whopping audience.

Are we expecting too much? In an era where fighters of his stature fight only twice, sometimes three times a year, it’s going to be impossible for him to tick every box. And should we really accuse a fighter who has fought Golovkin, Floyd Mayweather, Miguel Cotto, Erislandy Lara, Daniel Jacobs and Kovalev in recent years of ducking his closest rivals?

Ultimately, he can do what he likes, particularly in a sport where there is no structure or true governing organisation to tell him otherwise. Canelo, like Leonard and Mayweather before him, is now boxing’s star striker. However, writing him off as a mere goal hanger, one who lurks in the six-yard box waiting for the balls to bobble in front of him so he can smash them in, would be doing him a disservice.

Without question, his star appeal was recognised early on and his talent nurtured carefully. In that regard, he is fortunate. He has unquestionably been protected to a degree and close fights have too frequently been scored widely in his favour. Again, Canelo is not the first member of boxing royalty to be treated so kindly. One only has to look at a handful of Muhammad Ali’s outings in the second half of the 1970s as evidence that the biggest stars get befitting treatment.

The failed drug test and subsequent six-month suspension will be an eternal black mark. And so it should. That the punishment was too lenient is the fault of the governing bodies atop the sport. Roy Jones Jnr and Shane Mosley managed to escape without any real punishment for performance enhancing drug use. Evander Holyfield is another hero who cleared his name under some highly suspicious circumstances. Yet each retains their place in the affections of fight fans.

Canelo Alvarez
Canelo’s career has become a controversial one (Tom Hogan/Hogan Photos/Golden Boy promotions)

It seems that the real issue here is not Canelo. It’s the sport and it’s bendy rules and its fractured titles. The failure to implement a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs. The blinkered loyalty to those in power and its inability – after all these years – to implement a structure that demands the right fights are always in place.

But look closely at Alvarez’s record and you will find numerous examples of a fighter who has worked hard to achieve his goals. There has been the odd tap in – like that Fielding win and bogus title – but he would not have been in such a position if he didn’t take the ball and run with it in the first place.

Where Canelo ends up will be up to him. He answers to no one. Not his teammates. Not his promoter. Not any governing or sanctioning body. He has free rein of his destiny and that, much to the critics’ annoyance, highlights his immense status today. But such power is not gained accidentally or handed over to anyone. It is reserved only for extra special fighters and Canelo Alvarez is exactly that.

Canelo Alvarez
Canelo always finds a way to come up smiling (Hogan Photos/Golden Boy Promotions)