Boxing is a mess. The best won’t fight the best. Speculation regarding which big fights might be scheduled is an unsatisfying substitute for the fights themselves. But on occasion, the best do fight the best. When that happens, a great fighter can emerge. Such was the case when Canelo Alvarez fought Gennady Golovkin.

Canelo and Golovkin fought twice. Their first encounter, on September 16 2017, resulted in a controversial draw. Their second meeting, one day shy of a year later, validated Canelo’s standing as an elite fighter and justified his status as boxing’s biggest box-office star and pay-per-view draw.

Alvarez has been in the spotlight since he was an adolescent. The weight of great expectations in his Mexican homeland has been on his shoulders for more than a decade. He turned pro at age fifteen and, prior to meeting Golovkin for the first time, had fashioned a 49-1-1 (34) ring record. He was willing to go in tough and had defeated some of boxing’s biggest names including Shane Mosley, Miguel Cotto, and Amir Khan. There were also victories over Erislandy Lara and Austin Trout. But with each win, there was a caveat attached. This opponent was too old. That one was too small. And there was a 2013 loss to Floyd Mayweather when a too-young Canelo was outslicked over twelve long rounds.

Gennady Golovkin was born in Kazakhstan. After compiling a reported 345-and-5 amateur record and winning a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, he turned pro and won his first 37 professional bouts, scoring 33 knockouts in the process and claiming the WBC, WBA, and IBF 160-pound titles. At his best, he relentlessly ground opponents down. The one important element missing from his resume was a victory over an elite boxer in his prime.

The first meeting between Canelo and Golovkin was the most-anticipated fight of the year. It generated a live gate of $27,059,850 at T-Mobile Arena, the third largest live gate in boxing history. The 22,358 fans in attendance comprised the largest indoor crowd ever for a fight in Las Vegas.

It was a spirited contest with most observers believing that Golovkin deserved the nod. Dave Moretti scored the bout 115-113 for Gennady. Don Trella had it even. Adelaide Byrd turned in what might have been the worst scorecard ever in a major fight: 118-110 for Canelo.

Clearly, a rematch was in order. A contract for a May 5, 2018, encore was signed. Then there was a problem. A big one. On March 5, it was revealed that two urine samples taken from Canelo by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) had tested positive for clenbuterol.

The Alvarez camp maintained that the positive tests were the result of Canelo having inadvertently eaten contaminated beef. To this day, Canelo maintains his innocence. Regardless, on April 3, he announced that he was withdrawing from the May 5 rematch. Then, on April 18, the Nevada State Athletic Commission unanimously approved a settlement agreed to by Alvarez that called for the fighter to be suspended for six months retroactive to the date of his first positive test for clenbuterol. There was no admission of wrongdoing on Canelo’s part. But there was an acknowledgement that clenbuterol had been present in his system.

With Alvarez temporarily out of the picture, Golovkin fought Vanes Martirosyan. Then negotiations for Canelo-Golovkin II resumed. On June 13, the two camps agreed to a September 15, 2018, rematch at T-Mobile Arena.

It would be a legacy fight for both men. But for Canelo, it was something more. Canelo-Golovkin I had been for history and glory. This one, because of the fallout from the positive drug test, was for Canelo’s honour.

Canelo-Golovkin I had been conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect. It was a feel-good promotion and a celebration of boxing. Two elite fighters had fought one another in an atmosphere of good will.

Canelo-Golovkin II was a different matter. Leading up to the rematch, the antipathy between the fighters was such that they declined to participate in traditional marketing ventures and, prior to the fight, appeared together only for the final pre-fight press conference and weigh-in. There was no kick-off promotional media tour. In its place, the two teams participated in a split-screen media conference from their respective training camps in Guadalajara and Big Bear.

“It doesn’t matter if he likes me, loves me, doesn’t like me,” Golovkin said. “I wouldn’t say I hate him. It’s just that my opinion of him has changed completely.”

Golovkin’s grievances began with his belief that Canelo had used illegal performance enhancing drugs while preparing for their first fight. Canelo, in turn, was resentful that he was being called a “cheater.” No fighter had been tested by VADA more often and without a problem over the years than he had. And while the standard for the presence of clenbuterol in an athlete’s system is qualitative, not quantitative, the amount found in his urine had been miniscule and consistent with the inadvertent ingestion of tainted beef.
Golovkin was also upset by the decision in Canelo-Golovkin I.

“Canelo lost that fight,” Gennady said. “That’s it. He lost the fight according to all standards. I thought I didn’t understand something, but then I reviewed the fight. These people [the judges] are like terrorists. They’re killing sport. People like that should be in prison.”

Then Golovkin and his trainer, Abel Sanchez, began saying that Canelo wasn’t a true “Mexican” fighter.

In the past, Team Golovkin had gone to great lengths to market Gennady as a “Mexican style” fighter.

“There is no such thing as a Mexican style,” Canelo had noted. “There have been many fighters from Mexico with different styles. My style is mine. I’m Mexican, and that’s what is important.”

But Sanchez roiled the waters. After calling Canelo “a man without character,” he questioned his credentials as a representative of the Mexican people. Then he added, “I hope Canelo was able to see a transmission specialist for the rematch because in the first fight he was stuck in reverse. He was a runner.”

“I outboxed him,” Canelo responded. “I went on the ropes. I made him miss. I controlled the centre of the ring. I’m not a jackass who just comes forward, throwing punches and gets hit. He believes he is a great coach. He does not know what boxing is. He does not know what it is to have technique, what it is to box, what it is to make a move, knowing how to adapt to the circumstances of the fight, not just going forward throwing punches. I hope he goes home tonight and really thinks about what he says. Because he’s saying stupid idiotic things.”

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Then Golovkin added fuel to the fire, saying, “This wasn’t boxing by Canelo. It was running. He always has a way of running in the ring. However, in our last fight, he was really avoiding fighting close to me. I felt a couple of slaps. Slap! Slap! I didn’t feel real power, punch power. He’s fast; he’s quick. He is good fighter but he is not at my level.”

Canelo stated the obvious when he observed, “The cordiality we had is over. The respect that I had, that we had, it has been lost. They disrespected me for everything they have been saying, everything they have been doing, all their actions. Now it’s different. This fight is personal because of all that has been said, and it will be difficult to regain the respect we once had.”

Who would win?

Golovkin was a 13-to-10 betting favorite. Both men were big punchers. Each had a granite chin. Golovkin liked to force his opponent to the ropes. Canelo liked to counter off them. Each fighters knew that, on fight night, more than a few liver shots would be aimed in his direction.

★ ★ ★

Canelo Alvarez arrived at Dressing Room #1 at the T-Mobile Arena on Saturday night at 5:10 PM. A five-by-ten-foot Mexican flag hung on the wall opposite a large flat-screen television monitor.

Two hours earlier, a seven-man film crew that worked for Canelo had set up in the room. The crew was gathering material for a documentary about his life. It also fed content to Canelo’s 3.6 million Instagram followers, his 1.3 million Twitter followers, and the 2.9 million people in his Facebook community. The cameras recorded his arrival in the dressing room with Chepo Reynoso (his manager) and Eddy Reynoso (Chepo’s son and Canelo’s trainer).

Canelo sat on a black imitation-leather armchair to the left of the flag. No one knew it at the time, but this would be HBO’s last pay-per-view fight. Three months later, the network would be out of the boxing business.

HBO production coordinator Tami Cotel came in and positioned Canelo for a pre-fight interview with Max Kellerman. When the interview was done, Canelo returned to the armchair and, arms crossed across his chest, began watching the first pay-per-bout of the evening on the TV monitor. Roman Gonzalez knocked Moises Fuentes unconscious in round five. Canelo nodded in acknowledgment.

David Lemieux vs. Gary “Spike” O’Sullivan – the second televised bout of the evening – began. Canelo turned his body slightly to the right in his chair, crossed his right leg over his left thigh, and studied the action with his right hand pressed against his chin. The fight didn’t last long. Lemieux KO’d O’Sullivan two minutes 44 seconds into round one. Two fights. Two reminders of how suddenly and brutally a fight can end.

Soft Latin music began playing in the dressing room.

The TV monitor showed Gennady Golovkin arriving at T-Mobile Arena.

Several sponsor representatives entered. Canelo rose to greet them and posed for photos before returning to his chair. Video footage from his first fight against Golovkin began to play on the monitor. Canelo watched impassively.

At 6:05, clad in a tuxedo, Julio Cesar Chavez came in to conduct an interview for Mexican television. That was followed by a visit from Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Bob Bennett, who arrived with several commission dignataries and referee Benjy Esteves who gave Canelo his pre-fight instructions.

Golden Boy publicist Gabriel Rivas and matchmaker Robert Diaz appeared from time to time to attend to various matters.

The video of Canelo-Golovkin I ended.

More well-wishers, family members, and friends came and went. Canelo rose from his chair to greet each one with a welcoming smile and embrace.

At 6:20, Canelo’s girlfriend came into the room with his daughter, an adorable toddler named Maria Fernanda Alvarez. Canelo took his daughter in his arms and sat with her on his lap. “What a beautiful girl,” he murmured. He lifted her arms up and down while nuzzling her cheek and saying “Papa! Papa!” over and over again in a sing-song voice.

Maria rested comfortably in her father’s arms. Then Canelo rose from his chair and walked her around the room on her unsteady legs, holding both of her arms above her head from behind.

He looked like a man playing at home with his daughter, not a warrior readying for war.

Jaime Munguia vs. Brandon Cook – the third fight on the pay-per-view telecast – began. It was over in three rounds. Canelo put his daughter down and began stretching with Eddy Reynoso, his first boxing-related exercise of the evening.

Miguel Cotto, who Alvarez defeated in 2015 to win his first middleweight belt, came in, hugged Canelo, shook hands with Eddy, and chatted for several minutes with Chepo.

There was more stretching.

At seven o’clock, Eddy began wrapping Canelo’s hands with a representative of Golovkin’s camp looking on. Right hand first, then the left.

At 7:15, inspectors Alex Ybarra, Francisco Soto, and Charvez Foger cleared the room of camera crews, family members, and friends. In forty-five minutes, Canelo would leave his sanctuary for the ring.

Tami Cotel returned with the request that Canelo sit for a brief interview for HBO social media. “I’m sorry,” Robert Diaz told her. “This isn’t a television show now. He has to get ready for a fight.”

Canelo put on a protective cup and black trunks with gold trim. Eddy applied Vaseline to his face. There was more stretching followed by a brief interlude of shadow-boxing.

Eddy gloved Canelo up.

There was some padwork.

Cotel returned. “You walk in twelve minutes,” she instructed. Chepo draped a black serape emblazoned with a Mexican-flag emblem over Canelo’s shoulders. The dressing room had been remarkably quiet from start to finish. Now only the soft Latin music could be heard.

Canelo began signing in tune with the music. A love song.

★ ★ ★

A.J. Liebling once wrote of rematches, “The spectator who goes twice to a play he likes is pretty sure of getting what he pays for on his second visit, especially if the cast is unchanged. This is not true of the sweet science.”

Canelo Alvarez

With Canelo-Golovkin II, fight fans got what they paid for.

The crowd was divided with vociferous partisans on each side. Chants of “GGG! GGG!” were met with “Ca-nel-o! Ca-nel-o!”

Golovkin looked flat in the early going. Or was it old? He was 36; eight years older than Canelo. Either way, he didn’t fight the way the world was used to seeing him fight.

A lot of that was due to Canelo. Looking back on their first encounter, Alvarez had realised that Golovkin was wary of his power. Very wary. In his dressing room after that bout, Canelo had told his team, “The judges think he punches like a monster. My punches were just as hard as his, harder.”

So this time, Canelo decided to test Golovkin early with more aggression and see how he responded. By moving forward and holding his ground, he deprived Gennady of the ability to set up at his leisure and gave him less room to mount an attack. This time, Canelo was the man stalking. This time, Canelo moved forward constantly and gave ground more grudgingly while fighting a measured disciplined fight.

And this time, Golovkin was the more cautious fighter. He jabbed effectively. But Gennady has built his reputation and dominated opponents with the power punching that follows his jab. And that power was absent here because, like all boxers, Gennady throws with less authority when his forward momentum is stalled.

Canelo went to the body consistently and effectively, fighting like the more confident man and forcing the pace of the fight. When Golovkin hit him solidly, he didn’t crumble. He fired back.

Gennady’s face started to show bruising as early as round two. Canelo was cut on the left eyelid in round four. After five rounds, Golovkin was breathing heavily in his corner. After nine rounds, he looked to be fading. Canelo’s power was influencing him more than his power was influencing Canelo. It was clear that Gennady needed another gear to win. And he dug deep to find it.

Midway through round ten, Golovkin shook Canelo with a straight right hand and followed with a barrage of punches. Most of them missed, and Canelo regrouped to fire back.

In round eleven, Gennady shook Canelo again. Round twelve saw toe-to-toe action as both men sensed that the outcome of the fight was in doubt. At the final bell, they embraced. Two men who understood that, in the ring, they were the equal of each other.

“I scored the fight even,” Abel Sanchez said afterward. “I thought that the twelfth round was the pivotal round. We’ve got to give Canelo credit. He was able to do the things that he needed to do tonight.”

The judges also thought the fight was close but favoured Canelo by a 115-113, 115-113, 114-114 margin.

LeBron James, who was sitting at ringside, later tweeted, “One of the best fights I’ve ever seen! Ultimate competitors in @Canelo and @GGGBoxing! Salute to both of you. Could watch y’all fight any day.”