Even in a sport with more than a taste for the absurd, CJ Ross’s card was ridiculous: a draw, 114-114, after twelve rounds in which Floyd Mayweather had made Canelo Alvarez look less an open-eyed dreamer and more a stupefied insomniac. Alvarez, from Guedalajara, Mexico, was willing and game, but he came no closer to threatening Mayweather, Grand Rapids, Michigan, than the myriad other fighters who have seen their hopes angle away like shadows under winter streetlamps.
Mayweather, now 45-0 (26), was simply too good. Even at 36, he operates on a level that few can touch, with a set of skills so finely tuned that the few signs of aging he exhibits are of little to no consequence. Of course, since first establishing himself as boxing’s premier fighter, Mayweather has changed. No longer does he exasperate viewers by dancing away from opponents for long stretches, no longer is he capable of the knockout except in extraordinary circumstances. But with time and age, Mayweather has adapted suitably: he has become not easier to hit, but harder, just as he has grown more dedicated to his craft, not less.
Yes, as Mayweather has slowed, he has also advanced. Now we can call that moment of madness in the second round with Mosley a fleeting thing, now we can call that brief lapse a mirage – and even if it was not, even if it was evidence of a body in decline, it has since served only to compel him to a more concentrated form of defence. As he stands today, Mayweather is one great compendium of the most intricate defensive movements, the unifying principle of which is not the shoulder roll, or the high guard, or the slip and slide, but simply the avoidance of punishment at all costs. In the course of twelve rounds, Mayweather exhausts each and every defensive posture, a thorough anomaly in the contemporary fight game where most rely on one predominant structure.
Of course, time has its way with everyone eventually, whether between the ropes or outside them. As the years pass by, the body deranges and the muscles unwind and everyone meets an end one day. But right now, time’s chase is futile: inside the ring, Mayweather is both here and not, both there and not, both flesh, to borrow a phrase from David Foster Wallace, and not. Like Shakespeare’s Prospero, that conjuror, that carnival illusionist, Mayweather controls the ‘abysm of time’: he can slow a fight down, or speed a round up, with an unrivalled capacity to set the rhythm of the ring to the pace he desires. Opponents are lulled and mesmerised, so that they fight like sleepwalkers, while the magician opposite them switches from one time zone to another.
Indeed, there is perhaps no one better at structuring a fight than Mayweather, whose narrative tends to fall into three distinct parts: the set-up, the swoop, and the escape. On Saturday night, at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas, Nevada, he set Canelo Alvarez up, he swooped when he saw an opening, and then he escaped without risk at the end.
To Alvarez’s credit, Mayweather was still setting him up by the end of the fourth round. In spite of his youth, Alvarez is patient within the ring, as willing to wait on the back foot as he is ready to hit off the front, and when Mayweather began working his pattern, the Mexican was prepared to tarry. Make no mistake, Alvarez is well-schooled. For a while, he refused to bite when Mayweather dropped his guard and reared towards him, choosing instead to feint back, or step out, in a laudable effort at restraint. He avoided the lead right, he landed a few jabs. He fought, frankly, well.
But after four rounds, he was losing. Alvarez’s head movement is better than assumed, but he proved largely incapable of escaping the jab, poked out from one trajectory by Mayweather, then quickly delivered from another. And as the traps continued to be laid, Alvarez assuredly began moving into place: jumping more and more into arched right hand counters, waiting more and more for incisive lead hooks. Mayweather had started to swoop.
Reality, when dealt like this, can be difficult to take. "Every time I sleep I dream of a win," Alvarez had told El Universal in the week of the fight. But once a dream has been explained, once a vision proved an illusion, it cannot be constructed again. As Mayweather threw increasingly in combination, now in perfect synchronicity with the rhythms of the Alvarez attack, all thoughts of a win became wishful. How different Alvarez’s dreams must have been to the truth unfolding before him: how those barriers of impossibility must have been broken down, how the thick wall separating desire from reality must have been little more than a thin membrane, how the unattainable must have seemed so easily obtained. "But it is better to dream your life than to live it," as Proust once wrote in Les Plaisirs et les Jours, for we love what we dream, and when we try to live it, it will always slip achingly from our grasp…
This, of course, was not how the fight was supposed to progress: Mayweather working seamlessly toward victory, whacking his opponent with jolting right uppercuts and check left hooks, and Alvarez all the while growing confused, and with that confusion becoming frustrated, and gun-shy. By the ninth round, the action had grown processional.
If there is comfort to be found for Alvarez, it is in knowing that he lost to the best fighter of his generation. At 23, he did not acquit himself badly. He merely fell victim to the deception of dreams. For Mayweather, his future path remains clear. With four fights left on his unprecedented contract with Showtime, he stands to achieve unparalleled riches while burnishing further a lustrous legacy. A meeting with Danny Garcia, who splendidly beat "La Maquina" Matthysse on the undercard, cannot be too far away.
Like Borges’s narrator in The Circular Ruins, Alvarez must return to his dreams. He must perceive them with clarity: he must witness them, observe them and correct them, before trying to make reality again. But he must understand that, as Borges claims, "the effort to mould the incoherent and vertiginous matter dreams are made of is the most arduous task a man can undertake". Until then, while he works on illusion, we must understand something too: that for us as well, Alvarez was but a "mere appearance, dreamt by another."