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Canelo vs. Lara: The Risk of Greatness

Posted on 07/09/2014

By Tyson Bruce

William Faulkner once stated of risk, “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.”

Photo: Hogan Photos/ Golden Boy

Last September Canelo Alvarez lost sight of the shore only to be drowned at the hands of Floyd Mayweather Jr. Many wondered whether Golden Boy would rein-in the highly profitable Alvarez by putting him back on a steady diet of washed up contenders and blown-up lightweights. Not so, as Alvarez, at his insistence, is taking on one of the most feared and avoided fighters the sport has to offer in the Cuban, Erislandy Lara. The lights may not be as bright this time but the water is just as deep.

Most boxing insiders were skeptical that the match would ever happen because Lara presents many of the same stylistic problems for Canelo as Mayweather. Like Mayweather, Lara has an athletic style that is very defensively oriented. The major criticism against Alvarez is that he is not fleet of foot. That could be bad news as Lara may possess the best footwork of any fighter above 147 pounds. The fight against Lara will be the true litmus test for how much Canelo has learned and improved from the Mayweather fight.

Lara, like many Cuban refugee fighters, is treated with a mutual sense of awe and curiosity by American fight fans. As a result of their extensive amateur careers Cuban boxers are often regarded as accomplished boxers much quicker than most American fighters. The mere utterance of the word “Cuban” connotes a kind of uniform respect in boxing circles. It’s the reason why the promotional material used for Cuban boxers is basically interchangeable by the name. Whether it’s Rigondeux, Gamboa or Lara the byline is the same: deep amateur background, highly skilled, questionable zest for combat. It’s a classic case of the media personifying the virtues or traits of a country (in this case the juxtaposition of totalitarianism and salsa present in Cuba) onto an athlete.

Consequently, in the realm of hardcore boxing fans Lara is regarded as one of the most universally respected fighters in all of boxing. To the casual fight fan, however, Lara might as well be a ghost—that’s how little recognition he has. Losing to Mayweather was acceptable for Canelo because everyone and their mothers know that Mayweather is the best boxer on the planet. In that sense taking the Mayweather fight, though commendable and ambitious, was of little long-term risk to the still 22 year old Canelo’s brand.

Losing to Lara would not be the same thing because for the vast majority of people Lara is just another boxer with a Hispanic sounding name. Hence, losing to him would be a massive blow against Canelo’s viability as the sports next banner carrier. Transversely, Lara has very little to lose and everything to gain by taking on the ultra-famous Alvarez. It’s this precarious ‘risk versus reward’ ratio that’s likely keeping Canelo’s team awake at night. Alvarez, however, seems to understand that in order to be great you must take great risks and for that he must be commended. As time passes the victory and risk that it entailed will gain more significance.

A Common Thread:

The two fighters have two common victims, Austin Trout and Alfredo “El Perro” Angulo, the results of which have only made the fight harder to predict in the eyes of most experts.

Canelo, 43-1-1-(31), flipped conventional wisdom on its head and decided to box instead of slug against the notoriously slick Trout. It was a calculated gamble that barely paid off as Canelo won a narrow but deserved unanimous decision. Lara, 19-1-2-(12), had a much easier time with Trout. It was a case of whatever you can do I can do better, as Lara used his faster hands and feet to easily outpoint a curiously reluctant Trout.

The Angulo fight may be the more revealing of the two bouts in terms of comparing the two fighters. Although many regard Lara as a master boxer the Angulo fight revealed that he is far from invincible. “El Perro” is as basic as they get—a slow, plodding pressure fighter that just keeps on trucking until he lands something big—yet he was able to give Lara nightmares, dropping the Cuban twice and arguably being ahead on the cards when an eye injury ended the fight in Lara’s favor.

Canelo, on the other hand, realized that Angulo cannot fight going backwards and attacked from the opening bell with a withering assault of power punches. Angulo got destroyed from the second the first bell rang until the last left-uppercut connected on his face, causing Tony Weeks to call it a day.

The results of those bouts essentially cancel each other out as both men had a separate stylistic advantage in both bouts. It’s clear that Lara will best be served to try and box from a distance against the harder punching and more physically strong Alvarez. Mayweather wrote the blue print for how to beat Alvarez; it’s whether Lara is good enough to duplicate it that remains to be seen.

For Canelo the key seems to be understanding the correct style and strategy in which to fight. If he tries to box like he did against Trout and Mayweather then Lara will leave him in the dust. As talented and skilled as Canelo is he just doesn’t have the speed to win a boxing match against the slick Cuban. If he learned anything from the Mayweather fight it’s that you cannot play into another fighters strengths just for the sake of trying something different.

Marcos Maidana was successful against Mayweather because he understood that to try and out-box Mayweather is a fool’s errand and instead threw caution (and the rules) to the wind. If you give a truly great boxer time to think he will always find a way to beat you. Canelo was courageous enough to meet Lara’s challenge in the ring but whether he will be courageous enough to sell out his body when things don’t go his way like Maidana does is still unknown.

Going into last weekend’s bout between Terence Crawford and Yuriorkis Gamboa many experts were anticipating a tactical and perhaps dreadfully boring boxing matchup. What we got instead was a leading fight of the year candidate that was packed full of skill, epic swings in momentum and a great knockout. Boxing is an entertaining sport and when you match the best against the best good things usually happen. For the second weekend in a row we get to see two of the very best in their division fight against one another and even if isn’t as entertaining it will still have value and purpose. That doesn’t happen very often in boxing–perhaps explaining the seventy dollar price of admission.

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