Danny Flexen looks at the most recent occasion we saw each of Canelo Alvarez and Callum Smith in competitive action
Going into the final marquee fight of the year, Canelo Alvarez vs Callum Smith for the latter’s Super WBA and the vacant WBC super-middleweight titles, on December 19 in Texas, neither man will have fought for over a year. Their most recent victories – Smith is unbeaten, Canelo’s only defeat to Floyd Mayweather – saw both fighters struggle at times and you could make a case for their being behind on your unofficial scorecard when the contests came to an end. Let’s look at these fights and derive what, if anything, we can take to inform the outcome on Saturday night.
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Callum Smith w pts 12 John Ryder – Nov 23 2019
The background to this showdown for Smith should have been ominous in hindsight. Perpetually linked with more high-profile fights, Liverpool’s “Mundo” had to ‘settle’ for a mandatory defence against his domestic rival, Ryder, from Islington. Entering his title challenge with four previous losses, John had turned his career around since moving up to super-middleweight and was on a four-fight inside-schedule win streak, but had yet to prove he was at world level and was felt by many to be rather small for 168lbs. Given Smith is absolutely huge for the weight, this appeared a foreboding factor for Ryder, a southpaw and six inches the shorter. As it transpired, Ryder performed better than most expected and Smith, perhaps having similarly underestimated the Londoner, laboured as the challenger made a virtue of his modest stature. He presented a compact and evasive target at distance, while finding it easy to roll inside and push Smith back to the topes and corners. That in particular is a concern for Smith ahead of his match with the stocky Canelo, who boasts exemplary upper-body movement and proven physical strength. At range, Smith’s jab was impressive, when he used it, and his whipping left hook, to head and body, was a potent weapon versus the ever-advancing Ryder. Canelo is more inclined to fight in explosive bursts rather than produce an incessant workrate, but is slicker than Ryder, albeit slightly shorter, and hits harder. Smith will need to establish his jab early, throw it often and vary its power and positioning, to have any chance of keeping Canelo off. At the close of 12 gruelling and absorbing rounds, I made Ryder a one-point victor but the three judges begged to differ, scoring for Smith 116-112 (twice) and 117-111. This verdict, particularly the wide margins, caused widespread consternation and Smith cannot hope to enjoy the benefit of the doubt against boxing’s biggest superstar in Texas.
Canelo Alvarez w ko 11 Sergey Kovalev – Nov 2 2019
Conversely, the odds were stacked in Canelo’s favour ahead of this fight, as they often are for boxing’s top attractions. The Mexican was bidding for a full world title in a third weight division, against a talented and strong champion but one whose best days were perhaps a touch behind him, who had been stopped the previous year (by Eleider Alvarez, immediately avenged) and, perhaps most significantly, was only 10 weeks removed from a tough defence against Anthony Yarde, in which he was almost halted before ultimately prevailing in round 11. Kovalev reportedly spent just a week out of the gym before being pressed back into service, understandably keen to secure the biggest payday of a long career previously lacking an especially lucrative bout. Despite this, the Russian started very well, looking spry and establishing his excellent left lead as the fight’s dominant punch. Canelo never appeared hurt by the stiff and busy jab but it did keep him guessing and often forced him to reset his approach. Of greater concern was the way in which Alvarez settled into a moderate pace, rarely upping the tempo even when a close fight he appeared to be losing meandered into the later rounds. He did eventually make inroads however, using his feet to close the space and throwing more in combination as Kovalev, given the short notice and the big effort he had put into the contest, inevitable faded. In round 11, just 11 seconds later than Kovalev had finished Yarde in their fight, Canelo back the champion to the ropes, landed a hard left hook that made his legs do a funny dance, then followed up with a right hand down the pipe to end matters. By this point, Canelo was ahead narrowly on two cards and level on the third. Against a younger, fresher, bigger (despite competing in a lighter division) champ in Smith, albeit one again potentially affected by the late notice, Canelo cannot afford to start as slowly. He will need to target the long body of his opponent to sap his energy for the championship rounds and look to gradually beat him up, rather than engage in a nip-and-tuck chess match before cranking up the pressure late on.