In the two days leading up to Canelo Alvarez’s bout with Dmitry Bivol, the streets on the southernmost end of the Las Vegas strip were lined with folks slinging t-shirts, hats, flags and headbands bearing Canelo’s name. Many of them doubled as vendors of mangoes and Tajin and tacos as well. The paraphernalia often depicted Canelo with a crown. The vibe in the city felt like a festival celebrating a superhero about to conquer his latest challenge.
Amongst the broader public there was nary a feeling that Bivol was a threat to thwart those plans. The more intrepid boxing followers certainly knew the challenges Bivol could present, the immense talent and acumen he possessed, but most knew only the stats they saw depicted on the bootleg shirts being hawked outside Ross Dress For Less. Another undefeated challenger of origins being danced around for fear of touching a thorny geopolitical subject who would ultimately bow to the king either before or after twelve rounds.
The run Canelo has been on in the eight years leading up to the fight gave even the most learned fans good reason to believe he would be invincible against almost anyone between 160 and even 200 pounds. Discussions were had during fight week about his chances against a 201-pound version of Oleksandr Usyk.
But expectations and requirements are not synonymous in this sense. Many might have felt that Bivol would be no match for Canelo, but that doesn’t mean losing to him was a failure to accomplish something he ought to have done. Five-foot-eight longtime super welterweights are not supposed to beat prime top-level light heavyweights, no matter how high up on the pound-for-pound list they may be. In this instance, it may be that Canelo simply hit his physical ceiling. How high that ceiling is may have been misjudged by both boxing prognosticators and Canelo himself.
Bivol did nothing to aid his case that he was a remarkable match for Canelo during his ringwalk. He entered to the sounds of Thunderstruck by AC/DC, one of the five or ten most utilized entrance songs in boxing, placing somewhere behind the clubhouse leader Mama Said Knock You Out. Except unlike other fighters who want to milk the building drama of the track and stretch out their reveal, Bivol was in full motion towards the ring by the time the music began, and was already standing in place in his corner before the first verse of the song could even begin. His walk onto boxing’s grandest stage could not have been more nondescript.
Particularly in comparison to Canelo, who rose 20 feet in the air on a giant cylinder while being surrounded by multicolored pyrotechnics and a mariachi band playing Europe’s Final Countdown.
The scouting report many had understandably turned in was that Bivol was a master of a simplistic style—relatively low output, efficient defense and accuracy—but that Canelo was a more endowed operator when it came to ways he could both attack and defend.
In reality however, Canelo had to contend with not just a fighter thicker, taller and rangier than expected, but one capable of besting him in every form of offense.
Canelo attempted to utilize the patient, stalking pressure that has become his hallmark during his rise up in weight to super middleweight and light heavyweight. Unlike his turns against other opponents however, he had difficulty getting close to Bivol, and was also never able to hurt him. Defensively, Canelo was unable to slip and slide away from Bivol’s shots, or casually parry them, the way he’d done against recent opponents. Bivol’s combinations were harder, more precise, more powerful and more bountiful than Canelo had ever had to deal with.
Bivol didn’t just peck Canelo from the outside incessantly either. Many times he waded to the inside, gloves smushed against Canelo’s and beat him in exchanges with hooks to the body, a wrinkle Bivol had seldom shown in the past.
Canelo was not big enough—and at least on this night—not good enough to beat Bivol. Despite the consensus 115-113 scorecards from the official judges, the fight was not particularly close.
Hindsight and knowledge of how the fight was scored makes the final round of the bout especially interesting. In addition to being winded, Canelo was visibly frustrated, almost begrudgingly going through the motions in the final round of a fight he was never comfortable within. This allowed Bivol to win a clear twelfth round that was ultimately critical to him winning a decision and not being given a draw.
When the sport’s pound-for-pound king is upset, it will entice discussions of whether the fighter’s status was ever deserved at all, whether the loss was a “cherry pick gone wrong,” and more. It’s important to remember what this fight was—a brilliant fighter daring to venture well above his optimal fighting weight in search of a challenge. The implication of “cherry picking” is that a fighter is seeking opponents who present as threats but are merely pawns in their overall goal of maintaining an allure of greatness. If Canelo wanted to do that, he could have remained at 160 or 168 and found plenty of opponents who would have been unable to test him whatsoever. Instead, he chose one of the three best light heavyweights in the world with precious little commercial appeal in America, precisely because he was a difficult opponent.
This is a scenario that has played out in the careers of other great fighters, ones that are and perhaps will be held in higher esteem by historians than Canelo. Mickey Walker was invigorated by the challenge of besting the largest opponents possible, and was ultimately thwarted by fighters like Max Schmeling who, while excellent in their own right, haven’t found themselves near Walker on all-time lists. Bob Foster, similarly, wanted desperately to be considered a heavyweight, reportedly guzzling beer in a naive attempt to gain enough weight to enlarge his frame. Foster is likely the greatest light heavyweight of all-time, but couldn’t excel in the sport’s largest division. Even the greatest fighter of all-time, Sugar Ray Robinson, was tripped up by a lesser fighter overall, Joey Maxim, in a trip up to 175.
As shocking as these moments may be at the time, they will appear in better focus as the years pass, and history favorably evaluated Canelo as one of, if not the generational best.
The “casual” fans in attendance, the ones who care about Canelo as a national hero and do not consume boxing content otherwise, were somewhat perplexed during and after the fight. A man in the third row who had purchased a seat and attended the fight alone, turned around after the eighth round and asked “what’s wrong with him?” As the fight ended, he, along with most in the T-Mobile Arena, quietly and solemnly shuffled out into the plaza in front of the Park MGM.
But even devoid of the context of the fight, those “casual” fans understood something that more committed but jaded fans will either forget or willfully ignore. Sometimes great fighters just lose, and it doesn’t mean they aren’t still great.
As the fans made their way out of the arena, many still stopped and purchased bootleg hats and shirts, knowing their hero would fight another day and they would cheer just as hard.
A group of fans entered the elevators at the hotel across from the arena minutes after the fight’s conclusion, dressed head to toe in Canelo merchandise and arms filled with even more.
“At least it was a good fight,” one said. “That was fun.”
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman