Ready for the real thing?

Chris Williamson
16/09/2016 10:44pm

Twenty three years ago a young, unbeaten pressure fighter from Liverpool prepared to cross the Atlantic to challenge a fearsome Mexican regarded as one of the finest fighters in the world. Boxing Monthly previewed the contest with the headline 'You Can't Beat the Real Thing'.

The implication was that Andy Holligan, British and Commonwealth light-welter champ, was merely an imitation version of the true master, Julio Cesar Chavez, the 10-stone champion he prepared to challenge in front of 30,000 fans in Puebla, Mexico.

The parallels are striking as Liam Smith ventures outside the UK for the first time as a professional this weekend. Although Smith is nominally the champion (WBO light-middleweight), Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez is undoubtedly the star, having clasped 'JC Superstar's' baton as Mexico's most loved and revered warrior.

The Scouser, less decorated than his fighting Smith brothers as an amateur, has shown vast promise as a pro, albeit his opposition since arriving at 'world' title level a year ago has been depressingly poor. John Thompson and 'Jimmy' Kelly were both stopped in seven one-sided rounds, while Montenegrin Predrag Radosevic was dispatched in less than two before an emotional local crowd the day after Muhammad Ali passed away in June.

While Alvarez (47-1-1) started his 'world' title phase by sweeping up a similarly gift-wrapped vacant belt (WBC light-middle against Matthew Hatton) five years ago, the Mexican has since stepped up considerably in class, in particular against two dangerous members of the 'who needs them?' club in Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara. A sole loss against Floyd Mayweather Jr in 2013 was followed two years later by a points win at a sadly familiar catchweight against Miguel Cotto which earned him the lineal middleweight crown.

As for this fight, it's almost impossible to predict how Smith (23-0-1) will fare at a level he's never operated even close to before. However the jump from fighting the hapless Radosevic to face a rampaging Alvarez is too hopefully blind for me.

While Smith has looked excellent in bullying recent foes with steady pressure and a fine variety of punches, evidence suggests the stocky Alvarez won't buckle, let alone break.

If the location of Saturday's ring isn't quite as daunting as the one Holligan climbed into all those years ago, it's a very small mercy indeed since almost half of Texans possess Hispanic ancestry according to the 2010 US census. It is an Alvarez crowd at the huge AT&T Stadium, and it will be loud and intimidating.

As such, it's perhaps unfortunate that Liam is the only member of his boxing brethren not to sample the stadium atmosphere first hand on the undercard at Goodison Park back in May when Tony Bellew knocked out Ilunga Makabu.

Liam is two years older and a stone heavier than Holligan was when he embarked on his 1993 'Mission Impossible' and although I expect Smith to last longer than the five torrid rounds Holligan experienced, I still predict a clinical mid-to-late rounds stoppage for the Mexican fighter.

I was present at the post fight press conference following Smith's last defence against Radosevic, where some of us rolled our eyes cynically as Liam placed the Mexican's name, fresh from a highlight-reel knockout of Amir Khan, atop his wish list.

Well, shame on us, for promoter Frank Warren has delivered the opportunity, big time. With such an immense step up in environment and opposition, however, perhaps the most appropriate title for this preview is 'Ready for the Real Thing?'