By Tyson Bruce
Quality of Opposition and Experience:
While opinions vary on who the victor will be in the Canelo Alvarez-Erislandy Lara fight, almost everyone concedes it’s a genuine 50/50 matchup.
Photo: Gene Blevins/Hogan Photos
Despite being just 23-year-old of age one can make the argument that Alvarez is the more experienced boxer of the two fighters. Lara is a former amateur world champion, a star of the prized Cuban amateur boxing squad. Alvarez, however, has literally grown up as a professional boxer, turning pro at the tender age of 15 and has already competed in nearly fifty professional bouts.
Lara, who turned pro at the mature age of twenty-six, has made up for lost time by facing stiff competition right out of the gate. In just twenty-three bouts as a professional Lara has faced Carlos Molina, Vanes Martirosyan, Austin Trout, Alfredo Angulo and Paul Williams. In doing so, Lara has gained the reputation (especially amongst hard-core boxing fans) as one of the most respected and skilled fighters on the planet. Lara is often referenced as one of the most avoided fighters on the planet and the uncrowned king of the junior middleweight division.
Alvarez has been at the center of a great deal of media attention from the very moment he made his United States debut on HBO at the tender age of nineteen. While Alvarez has a great deal of fan support, he has also been the source of intense media scrutiny and skepticism. Many boxing critics focused on the fact that Alvarez was carefully spoon-fed a variety of carefully chosen opponents that were either naturally much smaller men or former contenders that had seen better days, such as Lovemore N’Dou and Kermit Cintron.
This criticism peaked in 2011 when Alvarez won the vacant WBC championship, an organization notorious for its bias towards Mexican fighters, by defeating the dubious Mathew Hatton—a career junior welterweight and welterweight—at a catch-weight that Alvarez didn’t even bother to make. Many justifiably considered the bout a symbol of everything that is wrong with the sport of boxing.
The early part of his career in front of American TV audiences belies the fact that Alvarez, while essentially fighting professionals as a kid, defeated some solid fighters on his rise up the ranks in Mexico such as: Luciano Cuello, longtime lightweight titleholder Miguel Vasquez and Lanardo Tyner. If it weren’t for boxing politics and the need to create a marketing smoke-screen that Alvarez was already a championship fighter, his prodigious rise up the ranks would have likely been hailed as a great achievement. Instead Alvarez, with his good looks and red hair, has been viewed as a carefully manufactured product for much of his career.
Since the Hatton match, Alvarez has steadily raised the level of his opposition. The initial step up being his convincing defeat of a faded Shane Mosley, followed by his shellacking of European champion Ryan Rhodes, then, in a streak that showcased both Alvarez’s desire for competition and his would-be opponents bizarre and tragic misfortune, he tried and failed to complete fights with: Victor Ortiz (who was knocked out by Josesito Lopez in what was perceived as a tune-up bout before Alvarez), Paul Williams (who suffered a debilitating injury in a freak motorcycle accident), and James Kirkland (who inexplicably priced himself out of the bout).
Following the ‘Canelo Curse,’ Alvarez’s newfound competitive desire was finally made a reality in his selection of Austin Trout. Fresh off of his upset Miguel Cotto in Madison Garden, many viewed the undefeated and relatively unknown Trout as a great threat to Alvarez, but would be proven wrong when he out-boxed Trout to victory. Alvarez’s last bout and perhaps his most impressive performance of this run was his punishing TKO of fellow Mexican Alfredo Angulo. In his prior bout to the Angulo blood-letting and, transversely, Alvarez’s least impressive performance of his streak of credible opponents, was his virtual shut-out defeat to Floyd Mayweather.
Despite Alvarez failing to set any new precedents in the sport of boxing outside of a financial context, the silver-lining to his clinical loss to Mayweather was the invaluable experience of fighting an all-time great in an event of incredible magnitude – and in rebounding from the loss with his a respective shut-out victory of his own over Angulo, and now answering Lara’s challenge he has proven once and for all that he is willing to take on all comers.
Much of the credit for stepping up the level of competition must be given to Alvarez, who has often gone against the advice of his team and demanded the best possible opponents. Taking on the dangerous Erislandy Lara, someone Mayweather wouldn’t fight for all the silk in China, is testament of his desire to prove he’s among boxing’s elite. Alvarez could make the same or better money fighting nearly anyone else yet chose to face Lara because of competitive pride.
While the debate has raged on as to whether Canelo is the most overrated fighter in boxing, no one seems to question Lara’s position among boxing’s elite. In fact, many critics have been outspoken in their belief that he is, if anything, underrated. This contradicts the fact that there is strong argument for Lara being slightly overrated—at least in terms of how he has performed on the big stage relative to his high ranking. While Lara looked brilliant in a bogus decision loss against Paul Williams and in his one-sided decision victory over the top-rated Austin Trout, many of his other high-profile fights have left something to be desired.
Lara was the benefactor of his own controversial decision when he received a draw against the rugged but modestly talented Carlos Molina. In that bout Lara was extremely passive and many, including the ESPN commentators and the vast majority of the press, felt that Molina won the bout comfortably. Lara took on fellow Olympian Vanes Martirosyan on HBO, in what could best be described as a passionless affair. Although many felt that Lara was unlucky not to get the decision (it was officially scored a draw) both fighters failed to seize the moment. Demetrius Andrade has since defeated Martirosyan in a relatively one-sided fashion.
At best one could call Lara a talented fighter that performs to the level of his opponents and at worst you could label him as slightly overrated. Realistically, Lara is a fighter that has earned a big money fight by facing top-notch opponents, despite not always being the most consistent performer.
Style and Numbers:
The style matchup definitely favors the more skilful Lara, who will go into the Canelo fight with the exact same game plan he’s had for every other pro fight: box and move. Canelo, on the other hand, may be forced into the awkward position of having to change his natural fighting style and temperament to beat Lara.
Early in his career Canelo was falsely classified as a pressure fighter but has since proved to be an offensive minded counter puncher—comparable stylistically to his compatriot Juan Manuel Marquez. Canelo likes to take his time and wait for his opponents to make mistakes and then capitalize with powerful combination-counter punches. It’s only when Canelo has a much smaller or slower opponent that he wades right in, as was the case against Josesito Lopez and Alfredo Angulo.
Against Lara he will be facing an opponent with quicker hands and feet, making a successful counterpunching strategy a tall order. In a tactical fight Lara will able to use his better reflexes and speed to slow the bout down and pick Alvarez off from the outside. Canelo’s counter-punching style, much like Marquez, is dependent on his opponent being the aggressor and is therefore most at-risk when facing fighters who possess good footwork. It’s hard to throw those beautiful four and five punch combinations when your opponent isn’t within punching range.
Alvarez will be best served to move forward aggressively, behind a stiff jab, pushing Lara towards the ropes where his body-punching and physical strength can make the biggest impact. Lara needs distance in order to be successful because he typically only throws straight punches and has a limited ability to fight on the inside. Canelo’s own hubris is what allowed him to do the unthinkable and outbox Austin Trout but it’s also what got him humiliated by Floyd Mayweather. It’s paramount that Alvarez understands his own limitations and is willing to go out of his comfort zone in order to hunt Lara down.
The numbers of the two fighters reflect the evenness of the bout. The most effective statistical tool for evaluating boxing’s number one principle of ‘hit and not get hit’ is the plus/minus rating, which subtracts a fighters connect percentage with that of his opponents. Both Canelo and Lara rank among the very best of all tracked fighters. In order to create the most accurate picture of where a fighter stands at the present, Compubox uses a boxer’s last five bouts when establishing the numbers. What makes the number especially compelling for this bout is that Alvarez and Lara share two common opponents, Angulo and Trout, in their last five fights.
Of the two fighters Alvarez is the more accurate puncher landing 42% of his overall punches to Lara’s 36%. Despite being thought of as the more aggressive and reckless fighter Alvarez only throws an average of two more punches per round than Lara (47-45), both on the low-side of the division average. Lara, however, has the edge when it comes to the defensive side of things, limiting his opponents to a remarkably low 20% connect ratio, while Alvarez limits his opponents to a respectable 24%. This gives Alvarez a plus/minus rating of +18, second only to Mayweather’s ridiculous +25 and just ahead the feared puncher Gennady Golovkin at +17. Lara doesn’t fall far behind at fourth place with his +16 rating.
The odds, which currently sit around 2.5 – 1 in favor of Canelo, are very even considering how much more well-known Canelo is than Lara. The odds also reflect the relative strength of each fighter’s performance against common opponents and the statistical similarities between the two. The typical fight-week gamesmanship is at play with rumors flying around that Alvarez is taking Lara lightly, but considering what’s at stake for him that seems far-fetched. The bottom line is that this is one of the most evenly matched fights in years and despite the outcome being a matter of debate ambiguity the matchup’s compellingly competitive appeal is a certainty invulnerable to skepticism.