ONE fighter, a red-headed Mexican middleweight, tried to stay warm by swinging his arms. The other, a Russian with a coveted light-heavyweight title, laid down languidly on a sofa.

For shortsighted bureaucratic reasons out of their control, both men had to mill around in their locker rooms for an unusual amount of time before they could get on with their highly anticipated 175lb showdown.

When Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Sergey Kovalev finally squared off in the ring at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, they brought with them the tetchy restlessness built up during an interminable delay. For 10 rounds, Alvarez, the smaller man who skipped two weight classes for this occasion, doggedly pursued Kovalev, who answered by jabbing relentlessly off the back foot. The result produced one monotonous sequence after another, a standstill by aesthetic standards. Then, as if by the crack of a whip, it all changed in the 11th round.

Outboxed for most of the fight, Alvarez took advantage of a small opening in the penultimate round by throwing a right hand that landed square on Kovalev’s left temple. Dazed from the shot, Kovalev covered up as Alvarez sprang forward with a massive left hook that got inside the guard, turning the Russian’s legs into instant jelly. Seeing his foe lunging into a spasm, Alvarez struck hard with a pinpoint straight right to the chin that dropped Kovalev into the ropes. With Kovalev’s limp right arm slung over one of the strands and his head sagging ominously toward the ring mat, it was clear to referee Russell Mora that there was no point in administering a count. The official time of the stoppage was 2-15 of the 11th (set for 12). With the win, the 29-year-old Mexican, who began his career as a super-lightweight, picked up the WBO light-heavyweight strap and the right to refer to himself as legitimate world title-holder in three weight classes.

“It was a very close fight because [Kovalev] was defensive, he was closing up his guard,” Alvarez said afterward. “All he was doing was trying to establish points, but we knew what was coming. Inevitably it would come, and everything came out the way we had planned.”

And come out it did. For a good portion of the fight, the 36-year-old Kovalev controlled the tempo by working assiduously behind his jab, keeping the shorter Alvarez at bay. The question, though, per usual, was whether Kovalev could keep this up for 12 rounds, especially given his conditioning woes in the past. Endurance turned out not to have been the only issue.

Though Kovalev may have been the most menacing light-heavyweight of the past half-decade, he could never quite get Alvarez to respect his power – the power that once dropped the likes of Andre Ward and Bernard Hopkins, and vanquished Nathan Cleverly, Jean Pascal (twice) and most recently Anthony Yarde – and that, ultimately, would prove to be his downfall. It was yet another reminder of the crafty decision by Team Alvarez to take this fight. Indeed, it would have been an unthinkable venture three years ago, when Kovalev was at his most dangerous.

Still, there was plenty of risk on hand for Alvarez. Many a time throughout the fight, it looked as though it would not be his night. Employing a high guard and deft upper-body movement, Alvarez tried to wade inside and land something big, but in the early going, his punches mostly sailed through the air. Eventually, the cracks would soon begin to show. In round four, Alvarez got on track, landing a few counters to the body, as he began having more success in closing the gap. In round six, Alvarez landed a three-punch body combination at the end that immediately forced Kovalev to hold.

But Kovalev would respond in kind. He enjoyed a strong eighth round that saw him connect on a straight right that backed up Alvarez for the first time in the fight. Unfortunately, had the fight gone the distance, Kovalev still most likely would have lost a decision. Going into the 11th round, judges Julie Lederman and Dave Moretti scored the fight 96-94 for Alvarez, while Don Trella had it even at 95-95.

Post-fight, Alvarez credited his composure for allowing him to deliver such a violent ending. “The plan overall was patience, that was basically it – to have patience,” Alvarez said. “We knew it was going to be five, six rounds and it was going to take some time for me to get him. But honestly he’s a great fighter. I’m new at this weight, new in this division. Much credit to him, he’s a great fighter, but we stuck to our game plan. It was delayed a little bit but overall it was successful.”

While Alvarez did not give a clear answer as to which weight class he planned to compete in for his next fight, he did hint that a trilogy with middleweight rival Gennady Golovkin was not completely off the table. “It’s really not a challenge to me. We’ve fought 24 rounds and I beat him,” Alvarez said, referring to his decision win in their second fight. “It’s really not a challenge for me, but if it represents business, why not?”

Canelo Alvarez
Tom Hogan/Hogan Photos/Golden Boy

After all the speculation that Ryan Garcia was somehow scared to face the rugged Filipino Romero Duno, the lightweight Insta-star from Victorville, California made sure to make his detractors eat their words. On the Golden Boy Promotions undercard, Garcia landed a seemingly phantom left hook in the first round (set for 12), causing Duno to crumble to the canvas. Referee Tony Weeks, seeing that Duno was completely dazed, waved off the bout at 1-38. Replays showed that Garcia’s hook had caught Duno clean on the right temple. Given the level of opponent and style of stoppage, this was the most impressive win in Garcia’s fledgling career.

In a competitive women’s 10-round flyweight bout, Seniesa Estrada and Marlen Esparza went back and forth for nine rounds (set at three minutes, instead of two) before Esparza bowed out because blood from an earlier cut (caused by an accidental headbutt) began obstructing her vision. The fight went to the scorecards, where all three judges had it wide in favour of the Los Angeles native Estrada: 90-81 (Steve Weisfeld), 89-82 (Chris Flores) and 88-83 (Tim Cheatham).

Early on, Houston’s Esparza seemed to be getting the better of exchanges, outlanding Estrada from the outside. But the tenor of the fight changed when a clash of heads in the fifth round opened up a ghoulish cut on Esparza’s forehead. From that point on Estrada began outworking Esparza on the inside, landing quality body shots that clearly began taking their toll on a fatigued and bloodied Esparza. Robert Byrd officiated.

Brash welterweight prospect Blair Cobbs (Las Vegas by way of Philadelphia) suffered a knockdown en route to a sixth-round stoppage of Carlos Ortiz (set for 10). At the end of the first round, Ortiz threw an overhand left that connected on the right temple, causing Cobbs to wobble and touch the canvas. But Cobbs recovered and boxed patiently for the next few rounds, until he scored a right hook in the sixth round that dropped Ortiz hard. During the next break, the Mexican complained to his corner that he couldn’t continue, causing referee Vic Drakulich to wave off the all-southpaw bout.

Super-welterweight Evan Holyfield (born in Atlanta and based in Houston) didn’t need much time to make his professional debut a successful one. Holyfield, the son of heavyweight great Evander Holyfield, needed all of 16 seconds in the opening round to wipe out Nick Winstead in a four-rounder. After landing a left hook that stunned Winstead, Holyfield went all out, firing off a flurry of combinations that sent the Louisianan to the canvas. Referee Robert Hoyle immediately called off the bout.

THE VERDICT Canelo catches up with Kovalev in the end to record a standout achievement.