CANELO ALVAREZ did what he was expected to do on Saturday night, February 27, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. The best fighter in boxing brutalized WBC mandatory challenger Avni Yildirim, forcing him to quit on his stool after three woefully one-sided rounds.
Yildirim, who came into the fight with a 21-2 (12 KOs, 1 KO by) record, is a poster boy for what’s wrong with boxing’s mandatory challenger system. The 29-year-old Turkish native, who lives in Istanbul, had never beaten a world-class fighter. The two times he stepped up in class, he was knocked out by Chris Eubank Jnr and lost a technical decision to Andre Dirrell. His most recent victory was a razor-thin majority decision over Lolenga Mock (an opponent in his mid-forties with 14 losses on his ring resume). That was 29 months ago. Two months before that, Yildirim beat a fighter with a 3-31-3 record.
But Canelo holds the WBC and WBA 168-pound belts and wants to unify the four major sanctioning body titles. To keep the WBC belt, he had to fight Yildirim.
Hard Rock Stadium seats close to 70,000 people for boxing, but attendance was capped at 15,000 because of the pandemic. In addition to being streamed live on DAZN, the card was available in the United States on traditional pay-per-view outlets.
There was the predictable chatter from Yildirim’s camp that Canelo was underestimating his foe. Trainer Joel Diaz (who was working with Yildirim in California) proclaimed, “Avni may be an underdog but he doesn’t care what anybody says. He’s fighting for his country and he’s going to shock the world.”
Canelo paid lip service to the competitive merits of the fight, saying, “He’s a strong fighter. He’s fierce. He’s always there, pressuring. At any moment, he’s dangerous. This is boxing and one punch can change everything. It’s not in me to underestimate anyone.”
But there was a reason that Canelo was a 30-to-1 betting favorite. Yildirim was a big step down in the quality of competition after Canelo’s three most recent outings (against Danny Jacobs, Sergey Kovalev, and Callum Smith).
“They’re not giving me much of a chance,” Yildirim acknowledged. “They look at me like it’s impossible because, if you look at boxing in Turkey, there are not many successful Turkish boxers. Maybe in our history you may find some successful athletes. But our country is not famous for boxing.”
Meanwhile, the always candid Tim Bradley (now an expert analyst for ESPN) put the fight in perspective, declaring, “Yildirim is a punching bag. He’s one-dimensional. He doesn’t have one-punch knockout power. He comes straight forward. His head is always in the middle. He leans forward over his front knee. Anytime he has stepped up his class of opponent, he’s been destroyed. He looks terrible. It should be a highlight-reel knockout.”
Two days before fight night, the promotion received a blow when Julio Cesar Martinez pulled out of his scheduled WBC flyweight title defense against McWilliams Arroyo because of an injury to his right hand. The WBC managed to salvage its santioning fee by approving Abraham Rodriguez as an opponent for Arroyo in a contest for its “interim” world flyweight championship. Rodriguez had one day to prepare for the bout – an ugly five-round beatdown in which Arroyo did to him what Martinez had been expected to do to Arroyo.
The most interesting undercard fight was a sloppy, inartfully fought confrontation between unbeaten 37-year-old Chinese heavyweight Zhilei Zhang and journeyman Jerry Forrest. Forrest was knocked down in round one . . . And round two . . . And round three . . . He was staggered in round four. Then Zhang (who was slow and plodding to begin with) tired, getting slower and weaker in the process.
By round eight, Zhang was exhausted. A bad cut above his right eye occasioned by an accidental head butt added to his troubles. In round nine, referee Frank Gentile took a point away from Zhang for repeatedly holding and pushing Forrest’s head down on the inside. If Forrest had been in better shape, he might have knocked Zhang out. But he wasn’t and he couldn’t. The judges ruled the fight a draw.
That set the stage for Canelo-Yildirim.
Elite athletes have an aura about them. Prior to the fight, Yildirim had proclaimed, “Canelo has never faced a true Turkish warrior.” But Canelo has the carriage of a champion. And Yildirim has the presence of a club fighter.
Michael Buffer’s ring introductions raised the energy level in the stadium. He’s still the best in the world at what he does. Yildirim had to wait for seven minutes after entering the ring while a musical tribute to Canelo played.
The fighters had weighed in on Friday (one day before the fight). There was a public weigh-in for the cameras at 2:00 PM local time. The real weigh-in had been conducted six hours earlier behind closed doors with each man tipping the scales at 167.6 pounds. By the time the faux weigh-in occurred, both Canelo and Yildirim had gained roughly eight pounds.
Weight was the only thing about them that was equal. Canelo and Yildirim represent two distinctly different classes of fighter. Indeed, Avni had served as a sparring partner for Canelo when Alvarez was preparing for his 2018 rematch against Gennady Golovkin. His chances of beating Canelo in Miami were virtually non-existent. And “virtually” disappeared when the bell rang.
According to CompuBox, Canelo outlanded Yildirim 16-to-1 in the first round. Then things got worse for Avni. Canelo started putting more into his punches and landing harder. A straight ring hand dropped Yildirim in round three. He rose and Canelo battered him around the ring. Ironically, it was during this beating that Avni landed his only good punch of the night - a desperation left hook. Canelo walked through it with a look on his face that said, 'Oh; you actually hit me. Now it's my turn again.'
Sitting on his stool after round three, Yildirim had the look of a man who thought that it would be a good idea to stop the fight. That message was communicated to the powers that be and the fight was stopped. According to CompuBox, Yildirim landed a total of eleven punches in three rounds. Canelo landed six times that number. And trust me. Canelo's punches were harder. Much harder.
As for what comes next, Canelo is scheduled to fight Billy Joe Saunders in an effort to claim the latter's WBO belt on May 8 (Cinco de Mayo weekend). He hopes to then unify the 168-pound titles against Caleb Plant (IBF) on September 18 (Mexican Independence Day weekend). If these plans come to fruition, Canelo will have fought four times in nine months dating back to his December 9, 2020, conquest of Callum Smith. And it will make the super-middleweight division his own personal version of Showtime's "Super-Six" tournament from a decade ago.
The site has not been finalized for Canelo-Saunders. But on February 9, 2021, the Nevada State Athletic Commission granted Canelo Promotions a license to conduct business in Nevada. This was done with an eye toward Canelo-Saunders being contested at the 72,000-seat Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. Should this happen, it would be the first boxing card ever at Allegiant Stadium. In 2016, Canelo christened the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas for boxing with a knockout of Amir Khan.
Meanwhile, it should be noted that, while Canelo has progressed brilliantly as a fighter, a comparison between the purses paid to his opponents and the way that Floyd Mayweather and Al Haymon conducted business is in order.
After Mayweather beat Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd made himself bigger than the belts. Fighters lined up to enter the Mayweather sweepstakes and, for the most part, accepted the one-to-two-million-dollar payday that they were offered. Manny Pacquiao, Miguel Cotto, and Canelo earned more than that for fighting Floyd. But they were the exception rather than the rule.
Canelo's recent opponents have been consistenly overpaid. DAZN has thrown around crazy money. And after it signed Canelo to a now-abrogated $365 million contract, its largesse extended to his opponents. By way of example, Sergey Kovalev's payday for fighting Canelo reached into eight figures.
By putting a premium on unifying the 168-pound titles, Canelo is giving Saunders a payday far beyond what Billy Joe's ring accomplishments and marketability would otherwise warrant. Similarly, Caleb Plant's resume is devoid of top competition. While Plant was defending his belt against Mike Lee, Vincent Feigenbutz, and Caleb Truax, Canelo was fighting Danny Jacobs, Sergey Kovalev, and Callum Smith. And before that, Canelo bested Gennady Golovkin and Miguel Cotto.
If negotiations for Canelo-Plant stall down the line, Canelo could tell Premier Boxing Champions (Plant's manager and de facto promoter) to make a deal for Caleb to fight one of the five top-rated IBF 168-pound challengers - Evgeny Shvedenko, Zach Parker, Aidos Yerbossynuly, Juergen Braehmer, and Leon Bunn. Let's see how big a purse Plant is offered for one of those opponents.
Also, Canelo is a broadcast free agent and his current two-fight promotional contract with Matchroom Boxing will end after Canelo-Saunders. Expect spirited bidding for his services when that happens.
Of course, if Canelo lost to Saunders in May, that would change everything.
But these business considerations shouldn't obscure Canelo's accomplishments as a fighter. At age thirty, he has compiled a 55-1-2 (37 KOs) record with many of his victories coming against quality opponents. He has continued to improve at an age when many fighters stop improving. Much of the credit for this goes to Canelo. He's a hard worker and a true professional. But credit is also due to Canelo's team as a whole and particularly to lead trainer Eddy Reynoso. At long last, Reynoso is gaining recognition for his work with Canelo, Oscar Valdez, Frankie Sanchez, and Ryan Garcia. It will be interesting to see how Andy Ruiz progresses under his tutelage.
Meanwhile, right now, Canelo is the #1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He's the most consistently marketable fighter in boxing. And he's in his prime.
When asked to compare himself with Julio Cesar Chavez (Mexico's most storied ring icon), Canelo has said again and again, "I want to make my own history."
He's doing just that. Canelo might not be as beloved as Chavez in his native Mexico. But he's starting to look like the better fighter.
Thomas Hauser's most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.