Thomas Hauser’s reflections on the third and final installment of a controversial rivalry
AFTER two exciting, action-filled fights, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennadiy Golovkin ended their rivalry on September 17 with a fight that was evocative of flat beer. Canelo retained his WBC, WBA, IBF, and WBO 168-pound titles by unanimous decision. But the drama of their earlier encounters was missing.
Canelo and Golovkin had met in the ring twice before. The consensus in boxing circles was that Gennadiy deserved the decision in their 2017 confrontation. But the judges scored the fight a draw in a ruling tarnished by Adelaide Byrd’s ludicrous 118-110 scorecard in Canelo’s favor.
“I did my job in the ring and the judges didn’t,” Golovkin said afterward.
Canelo prevailed on a 115-113, 115-113, 114-114 majority verdict in their 2018 rematch.
Golovkin’s subsequent ring appearances were limited to victories over Steve Rolls, Sergiy Derevyanchenko (a questionable decision), Kamil Szeremeta, and Ryota Murata. Meanwhile, Canelo rose to greater heights, beating Rocky Fielding, Danny Jacobs, Sergey Kovalev, Callum Smith, Avni Yildirim, Billy Joe Saunders, and Caleb Plant to solidify his claim to boxing’s pound-for-pound throne.
Then, on May 7, 2022, Canelo fought Dmitri Bivol in a bid for the WBA light-heavyweight title. It was a bridge too far.
“Success,” Jimmy Tobin wrote, “taught Alvarez that his style made even larger men skittish. It cowed them, then broke them. He had no reason to expect otherwise.”
But against Bivol, “otherwise” came to pass.
Great fighters of the past, even in their prime, had losses on their record because they went in tough again and again. Muhammad Ali lost to Joe Frazier in Ali-Frazier I. Ray Leonard lost his first fight against Roberto Duran. Max Schmeling beat Joe Louis in their inaugural encounter.
Canelo had established himself as boxing’s brightest star. But against Bivol, he came up short, losing a 115-113, 115-113, 115-113 decision.
“When the sport’s pound-for-pound king is upset,” Corey Erdman wrote afterward, “it will entice discussions of whether the fighter’s status was ever deserved at all. 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. Canelo 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 best light-heavyweights in the world, precisely because he was a difficult opponent. 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.”
“Like most fighters with greatness in mind,” Paul Magno added, “Canelo extended himself a bit too far and felt the pushback from reality. If anything, it should be commended that he even made this effort. Beating Bivol would’ve been beyond impressive. It didn’t happen. So we all move on.”
Moving on meant Canelo-Golovkin III – the final installment in a rivalry that began with good feelings and expressions of mutual respect but had turned sour.
Golovkin was resentful of the judges’ decision in Canelo-Golovkin I. That resentment became full-blown antagonism five months later when urine samples provided by Canelo to the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association while he was readying to return to the ring tested positive for clenbuterol, a banned substance. The amount of the drug in Canelo’s system was consistent with the ingestion of tainted beef. But a boxer is responsible for what goes into his body. Alvarez agreed to a six-month suspension.
Golovkin savaged Canelo for the presence of clenbuterol in his urine.
“It’s not meat,” Gennadiy said when the finding was announced. “Canelo’s team are using these drugs and everybody’s trying to pretend it’s not happening. This guy, he knows. This is not his first day in boxing. Check him on a lie detector and then we can find out everything.”
Since then, Canelo has been tested more thoroughly by VADA than any other boxer ever, always without complaint and never with an adverse test result. That said; one month before Canelo-Golovkin III, Gennadiy was still keying on the issue.
“I’m not that kind of person who’s going to belittle any athlete’s achievements,” Golovkin told the Orange County Register. “And Canelo’s achieved a lot. But there are questions about how he did that and what he used. I did not say something just because I just came up with it. There are lab results. When asked, I said, ‘Yes, I believe that he cheated.’ And if somebody in his team didn’t like my words, I believe it’s their problem.”
Then, for good measure, Golovkin added, “Many Mexicans love me. And nobody in Kazakhstan loves Canelo.”
Needless to say, Canelo was displeased with Golovkin’s comments.
“He said I was dishonest, that I was a cheater, that I was a shame to my country,” Alvarez noted at the Canelo-Golovkin III kick-off press conference. “He’s an asshole. He really is. He pretends to be a nice guy. Then, in other places, he talks a lot of shit. Be a man and say what you want to say. I don’t pretend to be some other person. I don’t say things in another place, then come here and pretend to be someone else. He always says I am scared and running away when I am fighting the best guys out there and he’s fighting Class D fighters. I don’t know why he’s surprised this fight is personal for me. I hope he’s taking it personal too. He’s going to need it.”
Golovkin sought to moderate the dialogue as the fight approached.
“I don’t feel any hatred toward him,” Gennadiy said. “This is a sport. To me, he’s just an athlete, just another human being, just a boxer. If you have something against your opponent, you display it during the fight. When the fight is over, you hug each other, you shake hands, and you put everything past you. Whatever differences we have, we will meet in the ring and resolve them.”
“Do you think he dislikes you?” a reporter asked Canelo.
“Of course,” Canelo answered. “But I don’t care.”
Canelo-Golovkin III, like its predecessors, was contested at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Their first two fights had generated live gates of $27,059,850 and $23,473,500 with pay-per-view buys in the United States numbering 1.3 million and a little more than 1 million buys respectively. But those fights had been on HBO-PPV with HBO’s cachet and marketing muscle behind them. By contrast, Canelo-Golovkin III was on DAZN-PPV.
DAZN executive vice president Joe Markowski (one of the architects of DAZN’s financially disastrous boxing program in the United States) sought to paint a bright picture at the kickoff press conference when he declared, “The intrigue from the public has remained, one hundred percent. You can use any metric you want to look at, from a social media perspective, from a media perspective.”
But in truth, Canelo-Golovkin III had passed its optimum sell-by date. And DAZN has failed to build an effective marketing platform in the United States. Best estimates are that Canelo-Bivol (on DAZN-PPV) engendered 300,000 fewer buys than Canelo vs. Caleb Plant (which was a Showtime-PPV venture). Three days before Canelo-Golovkin III, more than 7,000 tickets were unsold.
Golovkin had never entered a fight before as an underdog. He was a 2/1 betting favourite over Canelo in their first two encounters. This time, Canelo opened as a 3/1 betting favourite and the odds rose to 4-to-1 as fight night approached.
Many observers thought the 168-pound contract weight would favour Canelo. His most recent six fights had been contested at super-middleweight or higher, while Golovkin had fought at middleweight for his entire career. But Canelo began his career at 139 pounds (21 fewer than Gennadiy). And the 168-pound contract weight spared Golovkin the wear-and-tear that making 160 pounds would have imposed on his body. Thus, age was expected to be more of a factor than weight.
Gennadiy is no longer the fresh-faced young man who fought in the United States for the first time a decade ago. He’s 40 years old. Canelo is 32. That’s a significant difference. Johnathon Banks (Golovkin’s trainer) sought to downplay the issue saying, “I think the media gives too much attention to his age. Some fighters can perform into old age and some can’t. Golovkin still looks great.”
But forty is forty.
Also, there was a widespread belief that Canelo had improved as a fighter since the two men met in the ring for the second time four years ago.
“He is a really good fighter, one of the best I’ve fought,” Canelo said of Golovkin, No doubt of that. He earned his titles. But I think he’s going to be surprised how much I’ve improved. My resistance, my strength. That will definitely surprise him.”
Golovkin minimised those considerations. Asked about Canelo’s power at 168 pounds, he responded, “All my opponents knew how to punch. Canelo is a very difficult opponent. But as you see [from the Bivol fight], he loses too.”
“I don’t want people to think that the result of the third fight is going to erase the results of the first two,” Gennadiy added. “This is a different time, different weight category. The first two fights went into history already. So any outcome of the third fight should not affect the memory of the first two and should not erase what happened there.”
But for Canelo, there was a link. Canelo-Golovkin III was a “must win” fight in terms of his legacy. If he lost to Golovkin, it would cast a shadow over his performance in their first two encounters and lead to the conclusion that Gennadiy (with his otherwise unblemished record) was the better fighter all along.
Canelo-Golovkin III was expected to be an entertaining encounter between two future Hall of Fame fighters. Unfortunately, once the bell for round one rang, it didn’t evolve that way. Canelo was fighting for money and glory. Golovkin looked like a man who was fighting for the money.
There was little sustained action. During the first half of the bout, Canelo moved forward, fighting patiently with a measured attack and piling up points. He was the hunter. Golovkin (who once ground up opponents) fought like a fighter who didn’t believe in himself. He avoided confrontations and looked for openings rather than trying to create them. He did nothing to change the flow of the fight.
There are times when a fighter has to take imprudent risks and expose himself to increased punishment as his only hope for avoiding defeat. That was the situation Gennadiy found himself in during the second half of the fight. And while he did pick up the pace a bit, he never took the risks that he must have known he needed to take in order to win.
Most ringside observers gave Canelo the nod by a wide margin. Watching online, I scored the fight 117-112 (8-3-1 in rounds) for Canelo. The judges turned in a surprisingly close 116-112 115-113, 115-113 verdict in his favor.
“This fight was more tactical, like chess,” Golovkin acknowledged afterward. “Today, Canelo was better.”
Canelo-Golovkin III was disappointing from an aesthetic point of view. It was also a financial disaster for DAZN. The streaming service guaranteed Canelo a reported $45 million for the bout and Golovkin $20 million. But the $64.99 pay-per-view price in the United States alienated many of DAZN’s monthly subscribers who had signed up on the promise that fights like this would be seen at no extra cost. And non-subscribers in the U.S. were asked to pay $84.99.
Some reports state that the fight engendered between 550,000 and 575,000 buys in the United States (hundreds of thousands of buys below DAZN’s break-even point). DAZN sought to put a good face on things, issuing a press release that declared, “The Canelo vs. GGG III fight night saw a global audience in the millions with more than 1.06 million buys generated worldwide including PPV and DAZN subscriptions.” But these numbers indicate a meager half-million “buys” (including pre-existing subscriptions) outside of the United States. And many of these buys were in countries where the purchase price for a pay-per-view fight is minimal.
There’s an old proverb dating to the 16th century that counsels. “A fool and his money are soon parted.” DAZN’s principal owner Len Blavatnik isn’t a fool. But his company is parting with a lot of money.
Golovkin still has the WBA and IBF 160-pound belts and has suggested that he’ll keep fighting. But age is not just a number. It’s a fact of life – a determinative fact of life for an athlete. Prior to Canelo-Golovkin III, Gennadiy declared, “I don’t think that my rivalry with Canelo Alvarez is the only thing that characterises my career. Just to point out a few things; I am the record-holder for the number of defences, twenty-one defences. I have the biggest number of knockouts. There are people who will remember me by that.”
They will indeed. Now would be a good time for him to retire.
Meanwhile, Canelo is readying to undergo hand surgery for a condition that has bothered him since he fought Caleb Plant and will return to the ring next year. Prior to fighting Bivol, he declared, “Boxing is part of my life, part of my routine every day. I want to fight maybe six, seven more years.” Then, at the kick-off press conference for Canelo-Golovkin III, he acknowledged, “It wouldn’t be a bad idea to maybe bring it down a notch and, instead of fighting three times a year, fight just once.”
It’s unclear who Canelo’s next opponent will be. A rematch against Bivol is possible. “It’s very important for my legacy, for my country, for my family, for everything,” Canelo has said. “I will beat him.”
Thomas Hauser’s email address is email@example.com. His most recent book – In the Inner Sanctum: Behind the Scenes at Big Fights – was just 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, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.