Canelo Alvarez says he is trying to make history. Sergey Kovalev is trying to resurrect some. They meet Saturday at a crossroads, one driven by ambition to be the undisputed best and the other by a personal quest to recover what was lost.
Other than the ring they’ll share at the MGM Grand, there’s not much in common. They speak different languages and grew up on opposite sides of the world, Alvarez in Mexico and Kovalev in Russia. They are even coming at each other from different spots on the scale.
Alvarez is moving up, jumping from middleweight to light heavyweight, in an attempt to become the third Mexican champion at four weight divisions. Kovalev, always a light-heavyweight, is trying to reestablish the feared, dominant identity he once had as the “Krusher.”
They arrived Tuesday at the MGM Grand, opposites in almost every way except for one. Both believe they’ll win. No surprise there. How they arrived at the same belief, however, is a different story.
Alvarez’s pursuit of history is just beginning. It’s a victory that would further his claim to being the best pound-for-pound boxer. For now, he’s just among the contenders, usually behind lightweight Vasiliy Lomachenko and welterweight Terence Crawford in most of the pound-for-pound ratings. But Alvarez knows he has his critics, even among Mexicans, who booed him in his draw with Gennady Golovkin in 2017.
“Those who don’t support me for what I’ve done, they’re never going to do it,” Alvarez said. “I’ve never lost sleep about people who don’t like me or whether they’ll make me No. 1. I train and I fight like I’m No. 1.”
For Alvarez, the respect is often grudging. But it is respect, nonetheless, for a fighter who manages to get better, almost by the fight. At, 29, he is still a careful student, who adds one element to his skill-set almost every time he answers an opening bell. It’s a learning process that is a sure sign of a high ring IQ. More defense has been added to his ferocious body punching. In his last victory in May, there was head movement that frustrated Danny Jacobs. Alvarez is known for his ability to take punch. He took several from Golovkin in their two fights, the draw and then an Alvarez victory by majority decision.
“I trust my endurance, my strength,” Alvarez said as he rubbed his chin. “But I must now try avoiding punches.”
It is the ongoing evolution in Alvarez that has the betting odds heavily stacked in his favor, nearly 5-to-1 Tuesday.
The question for Kovalev, 36, is how much is left of a light heavyweight who was a pound-for-pound contender before Andre Ward beat him twice, first in a controversial decision in November 2016 and then in an eighth-round stoppage in June 2017. Those losses were followed by a downward spiral, personally and professionally.
“He’s been through a lot,” Kovalev promoter Kathy Duva said.
“Learned a lot, too,” Kovalev said.
He still faces an assault charge in San Bernardino County. He was arrested on June 9, 2018, on suspicion of punching a woman. His next court date is scheduled for Nov. 25. Neither Duva nor Kovalev will comment on the ongoing legal process.
Meanwhile, he has taken refuge in the gym with a new trainer, Buddy McGirt, and conditioning coach, Teddy Cruz. They’ve worked with him, trying to rebuild lost fundamentals while also teaching him that his body no longer can withstand the spartan-like routines of amateur days.
Duva gave him a book, “Play On.” It’s abouthow aging athletes are able to play into their late 30s and even into their 40s. There’s a chapter about New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. There’s a chapter about Mackie Shilstone, a conditioning coach who worked with the seemingly ageless Bernard Hopkins. Kovalev is hoping to write his own chapter.
“Buddy gave me back what I need,” said Kovalev, who has won his last two fights after a devastating knockout loss to Eleider Alvarez. “Technique, power and experience. Buddy and Teddy have put those three things back together for me. Training camp has been much easier. I save my energy.”
Fatigue did in Kovalev in his loss by unanimous decision to Ward in their first fight, Duva said.
“He was gassed over the final six rounds,” said Duva, who believes he was over-trained.
Hence, the book and more work on fundamental technique than sparring. It was a method that some believe was a key to the 40-year-old Manny Pacquiao’s decision over Keith Thurman in July. But, Duva concedes, that it’s sometimes hard to get Kovalev to accept new routines. There’s a streak of defiance in him.
“Is it difficult to train me?” Kovalev said to McGirt as both sat in front of a room full of reporters after they arrived at the MGM Grand.
“No,” McGirt said, in what might have been interpreted as a yes on whether Kovalev has changed enough to have a legitimate shot at springing a significant upset.