From the archives: Facing Canelo
John A. MacDonald
Ahead of Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez's showdown with Amir Khan last year, John Angus MacDonald spoke to some Brits who have faced him in the ring...Gennady Golovkin take note!
When Canelo Alvarez met Amir Khan last year, it wasn't the first time the Mexican superstar had fought for a WBC title against a fighter from Greater Manchester at a catchweight limit. On 5 March 2011, Alvarez faced Matthew Hatton for the vacant super-welterweight title at a contracted weight of 150lbs, at the Honda Center, in the Los Angeles suburbs.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience for me,” Hatton told Boxing Monthly over the phone, as he recalled the fight. “[I was] very impressed with Alvarez, he’s certainly the best fighter I’ve been in the ring with. I think the thing that struck out for me was just that he’s immensely strong, physically he was just so strong.
“I’d boxed and sparred with bigger guys before but he was freakishly strong really. Again, [he was] very accurate with his punches, [he] didn’t waste many shots, powerful puncher but physically very, very strong.”
In his previous four fights, Alvarez had found himself caught in a no man’s land between welterweight and super-welterweight, with each bout taking place within half a pound either side of 150lbs.
Hatton – a career welterweight – was going to be conceding a size advantage to his naturally bigger opponent, but the situation was exacerbated by Canelo weighing in at a pound and a half above the agreed limit.
Despite a clause put in by Hatton’s team limiting the amount Alvarez could rehydrate by before the fight, the sheer size of the Mexican on fight night came as a shock to Hatton.
“I remember when he never made the weight for our fight, we put a limit in where he could only weigh 10lbs [extra] from the weigh-in to the fight,” Hatton said. “We wanted to weigh him on the night of the fight – for whatever reason we couldn’t – but we weighed him at 3’o’clock in the hotel, and he’d put on exactly 10lbs. He didn’t have a stitch on and this was about five hours before the fight. Then – miraculously – when HBO weighed us just before we came out – like they do over there – he’d put on another five pounds [laughs].
“Although he never made the weight at the weigh-in, when I looked at him and compared him in size to me, Alvarez isn’t the tallest fighter out there. He was fractionally taller than me, if anything. When I looked at him at the weigh-in, like you always do, you’re looking him up and down and I thought: ‘I fancy this. He’s not as big as I thought.’
“Then on the night of the fight, I was in the ring and when he climbed into the ring he took his gown off and he was like a totally different man. He was Popeye after he’d eaten his spinach! I couldn’t believe the size of him from the weigh-in to the night of the fight.”
Hatton – not a renowned puncher – started the fight looking to box behind his jab rather than standing and trading with the bigger man. This tactic appeared to be working early on, but Alvarez showed composure beyond his years – despite only being 20 at the time – as he methodically stalked Hatton, closing the distance to land hurtful combinations to both head and body, which instantly changed the course of the round.
“Alvarez is quite a complete fighter but one thing he does lack is speed in general,” Hatton told BM. “His hands are not the quickest but particularly his foot speed isn’t the quickest so it was my plan to get in there box, change the angles so Alvarez can’t set himself for the big punches.
“I didn’t feel he outclassed me or anything like that, it was just that his shots were having a lot more impact on me, my shots was bouncing off him really. They were having no effect on him at all and when you can’t get the respect of your opponent with your own punches, it becomes a very difficult job against someone offensively as good as Alvarez.”
As the fight progressed, the natural size of Canelo combined with his crisp, accurate punching forced Hatton to stand and trade more than he had planned to do. Despite realising that a win was beyond his reach, Hatton never once looked likely to wilt under the pressure. He was still throwing punches right up to the final bell. Despite a gutsy showing, Hatton found himself on the wrong end of a 119-108 unanimous decision on all three scorecards.
“Being perfectly honest, I was having success but I could just see it was having no effect on him,” Hatton said. “It was disheartening, but I was always a fighter who stuck with it – I never chucked the towel in – and I kept giving it me best to the final bell, really. In every fight I’ve been in, I’ve always hung in there. That was one of me traits as a fighter, that streak and I think I’m a bit like that out of the ring as well.
“He was very accurate. He didn’t waste many punches. In our fight, I didn’t feel out of me depth and outclassed, I just felt [he was] oversized really. The one thing that stands out is just the strength, freakishly strong really and it was just something which I couldn’t overcome. I was really impressed with Alvarez, he’s definitely the best fighter I’ve been with and he’s getting better all the time. I think he’s coming – possibly – towards his peak now.”
Three months later, Alvarez took on Ryan Rhodes in front of packed out arena in his hometown of Tlajomulco de Zuniga, Mexico, in the first defence of his WBC title.
Rhodes himself had been a boxing prodigy, becoming the youngest post-war British champion at just 20 years of age, stopping Paul “Silky” Jones to claim the super-welterweight title. A little over a year later, Rhodes had moved up in weight to challenge for the vacant WBO middleweight title, only to lose a close decision to Otis Grant.
Rhodes’ career drifted somewhat after that but he was enjoying an Indian summer prior to the Alvarez fight, as he was on a 10-fight unbeaten run – including winning the European title against Jamie Moore in a 2009 ‘Fight of the Year’ contender – and, at 34, was looking to use his experience against the young champion.
By his own admission, Rhodes used to “struggle” to get down to 154lbs and, since this was the first time that Alvarez had fought at the super-welterweight limit, you’d expect Rhodes to be the bigger man. However, just like Matthew Hatton, Rhodes and his team were stunned by the size of Canelo on fight night.
“I looked at him at that weigh-in and thought: ‘You know what, he isn’t that big,’” Dave Coldwell, Rhodes’ trainer recalled. “We got to fight night and we were stood in the ring waiting and he gets in the ring – it’s a small ring – he’s got this big gown on with shoulder pads and he takes it off and it’s just the thickness of him. His back was thick, totally dense back muscles, his pecs were even thick
“I’ve been in this situation before where I’ve had fighters and the first thing the fighter looks at is how big they [the opponent] are up top and you just turn to your man and you say: ‘Don’t look at his top, look at his legs.’ I remember looking down at his legs and I just saw the size of his calves and quads and just thought: ‘Wow!’ They were massive, there were no spindly little legs there at all, he was just massive all the way through. I thought: ‘Wow, I can’t turn ‘round and say [look at his legs] to Ryan!’ [laughs]. He was a totally different fighter from the weigh-in to fight night.”
The size of Alvarez wasn’t the only surprise Rhodes had to contend with. Having watched Canelo’s previous fights and feeling than Canelo might seek to put on a show for the hometown crowd, the Sheffield fighter had expected educated pressure from the champion. This wasn’t the case.
“In the video footage, and when we studied Alvarez, he was an aggressive, come forward fighter, threw plenty of power shots and a really strong, aggressive fighter,” Rhodes told Boxing Monthly. “Thinking he was going to box like that my gameplan was to get behind my jab, stick and move, counter punch him and hit him from awkward angles and to try and keep it like that for the first six rounds of the fight.
“Obviously, in the first round I came out and he just held the centre of the ring. It was the first time I’d seen him box like this. I had to change my gameplan. He were counter punching me, he were keeping me on the end of his jab, he was fighting the complete opposite of how I though he were going to fight so that meant I had to change my gameplan straight away.”
Having been schooled in boxing at the famous Ingle Gym, Rhodes was a veritable box of tricks. However, no amount of switch-hitting or unorthodox angles would unsettle Alvarez. Rhodes, who had perfected the art of making opponents fall short and countering them, found himself on the receiving end.
Every question Rhodes asked of the champion, Canelo had an answer for. The task at hand was becoming increasingly arduous for Rhodes – punctuated by a knockdown in the fourth round – yet he never gave up hope of finding the shot to alter the fight.
“Each round I was coming back a little more disheartened but I thought: ‘I had to dig in. Maybe I would land a big shot in the middle to late rounds.’ I were never coming back to the corner thinking: ‘I’ve lost this,’ it were just getting me frustrated that I were trying different things and I were changing my tactics and he was winning the rounds.
“This is why I say he such a fantastic fighter, he’s got everything in his armoury; he can box, he can fight, he can punch, he can mix it on the inside, he can counter punch. He’s got everything you need to be a great fighter.”
“I knew I was in with a great, great fighter. I knew he was something special but even then I had the belief that I could pull it out of the bag, even in the middle to late rounds. I thought I’d catch him with a good shot or something like that. I was only in about round 10 where I thought: ‘I am struggling here but I’ve just got to dig deep. We’ve been in these tough fights before, we’ve just got to dig deep and grind it out.’”
Rhodes may have been disheartened but he wasn’t dejected. Cut and bruised, he entered the final round still looking for the one shot to change the fight. Instead, it was Canelo who found it, obliging the referee to stop the contest. Dave Coldwell – who has been around world class fighters such as David Haye, George Groves, Andy Lee and Jamie McDonnell – knew that he had witnessed a performance from a special fighter.
“When you are in the opposite corner you can sense and see that a fighter reads a fight very well – I found the same thing with Terence Crawford [Coldwell was in Ricky Burn’s corner for the Crawford fight] – great fighters make adjustments as the fight goes along,” Coldwell said. “If things are just not quite working out they adjust and adapt and I felt that’s what Alvarez did. His shot selection is very good, he sees things, he’s very alert and yes, he’s very strong, he’s very heavy handed.
“Do you know what I noticed more than anything? How he paid attention to his coaches. He was very focused in that fight, he was listening to what they were saying. You just knew you were in the ring with a guy that would go very, very far and become a great fighter. He was seen as the future and I think he’s fulfilling that.”
The willingness to follow instructions that Coldwell witnessed that night, is something that Canelo demonstrates in the gym, too. Ahead of Canelo’s fight against James Kirkland, Chorley southpaw, Jack Catterall left Las Vegas – where he’d been helping Floyd Mayweather prepare for his fight with Manny Pacquiao – to travel to San Diego to spar Alvarez.
For two weeks, Catterall sparred three days a week with Alvarez, doing the final four of eight-four minute rounds. Whilst Canelo uses his physical advantage in fights, he never used it to bully the smaller Catterall, something the 140lbs boxer is grateful for.
“I can see from the outside looking in that he’s very dedicated,” Catterall said. “It was totally different from the other gyms I’ve been in, in America where they’ve been packed with people. It was very quiet, there was one fighter training alongside him – who was much younger – there was very few people in the gym, which was obviously at his house. He worked very hard. You felt the people around him were good people. Obviously, I don’t think they would let him slip up and miss sessions out or things like that.
“Watching him spar the guy before me – Dennis Douglin – they were going at it for the first four and he [Douglin] was a naturally bigger guy and they were really banging it out. I knew that once he [Alvarez] got in the ring with me he was working on things and that’s why I respect him a lot really, because he didn’t take advantage of the size difference. He wanted me there for a purpose and I managed to gain his respect and stay for the couple of weeks and help him out.”
For all of Alvarez’s strengths, he does have flaws. Hatton, Rhodes and Coldwell were all in agreement that he doesn’t have the fastest feet – something which Floyd Mayweather exposed. Despite this, Coldwell believes his ring intelligence can compensate for this shortcoming and that he has improved since his sole defeat.
“It’s like Wilfred Benitez against Ray Leonard,” Coldwell said of Mayweather vs Canelo. “You’ve got two masterful boxing brains in there just because one beat the other one – comprehensively in the end – it didn’t mean that Benitez is any less of a fighter and that’s how I see Alvarez. Just because he got out-smarted and out-boxed by Mayweather – who’s an absolute genius – he’s still just a young kid at that stage. It was a great learning fight for him and I think he’ll have learned a hell of a lot from that. He’s pushing on and going to another level now.”
A version of this article was published in BM magazine and online last year