It happens like this:
Brandon Rios comes out stalking. Mike Alvarado switches between southpaw and orthodox. Halfway through the round, Rios closes the distance, splitting Alvarado's guard with an uppercut, hooking around his gloves. He pumps a jab here and there to keep Alvarado off balance. Alvarado is low volume, can't seem to decide whether to move, fight, or hold. He takes a shot, claps his gloves together in a bring-it gesture, but he's blinking, looks uncomfortable. Rios' uppercuts snap back his opponent's head. He burrows his gloves into Alvarado's sides and temples, three, four at a time. The bell rings. Rios has thrown 80 punches and landed 29. Alvarado has thrown 23 and landed 6. When his corner wipes his face, he leaves blood on the towel.
In the second round, Rios is on top of him within ten seconds. Alvarado tries to hold and Rios keeps punching. Alvarado leans in behind a peekaboo guard and Rios keeps punching. Rios throws hooks and uppercuts. Alvarado's body wobbles back and forth. Alvarado's head snaps back. Rios slips the return fire, sinks a jab through Alvarado's guard that makes his limbs tremble. Alvarado is squared up while Rios works behind his left shoulder. They clinch. They break. Alvarado shows his opponent his back, walks toward his corner. Rios jogs after him. Alvarado turns and hits him with a groin shot. Rios goes to his knees. Alvarado jogs to a neutral corner, wiping his nose. The commentators suggest the foul may be a tactical decision. Rios rises. The fight reconvenes. Rios goes back to work. Throws hooks and uppercuts from close range. Slips Alvarado's shots. Throws hooks and uppercuts from mid-range. Alvarado limps back to his corner at the bell. In the crowd, his mother looks horrified. He's thrown 34 punches, landing 10. Rios has thrown 95, landing 39. Shann Vilhauer, Alvarado's trainer, barks in his monster-truck-announcer voice, "You're going out there this round."
Bell rings. Rios closes the distance. Hooks and uppers. Wheels Alvarado around. Hooks and uppers. Alvarado's gloves are open, he's trying to catch his opponent's shots. Every few seconds, his head snaps back. He throws a few punches. Lands nothing. Rios lands a sweet uppercut. A couple more blows and Alvarado goes to his knee. Hard to say whether he's lowered himself, or if he's just been propped up on Rios' shoulder. He makes the count. Rios bores in. Hooks and uppers. Bell rings. Rios has landed 45 of 115. Alvarado, 4 of 30.
Back in his corner, Alvarado is shaking his head as they remove his mouthpiece. Says something about his eye. The ring doctor comes over and examines him. The referee comes over and examines him. Alvarado makes a gesture and shakes his head. "Does that mean you want to quit?" says the ref. "No, no, no," says Vilhauer to his fighter, "No, you're going out there." The ring doctor passes a finger across the fighter's eyes. Holds up two fingers, says "How many do you see?" Vilhauer says, "No-" Alvarado mouths "four." Curtains.
Where was Mike Alvarado on Saturday night? As a corporeal presence, he was at the FirstBank Center just outside Denver, Colorado, his home turf, in the ring against Brandon Rios, a man he'd faced twice before, a man whom he'd once beaten, a man he knew well. But as a dynamic force, he was barely a shadow.
It was the second time Denver boxing fans had seen their fighter quit on his stool before them. He'd surrendered before the eleventh frame of his fight against Ruslan Provodnikov in October 2013, but that occasion was not so ignominious. Alvarado had been in that fight for the first seven rounds until the Russian withered him with a brutal body shot that put him on that canvas in the eighth, and for the next seven minutes, he was just trying to survive.
What did him in on Saturday night? Was it the accumulation of damage accrued by Alvarado in a run of meat-grinder matches and a blood-and-guts career? Was it the extracurricular habits that have garnered him an arrest record nearly as long as his boxing resume- those that saw him spending a night in jail three weeks before his third meeting with Rios?
Prior to the bout, the Alvarado-Rios saga had been held up to some of the classic trilogies of the recent past- Arturo Gatti against Mickey Ward, Erik Morales against Marco Antonio Barrera, to name a couple. We value trilogies, and not only because they extend the chess game, or, as it were, the battle of wills, beyond the usual twelve stanza limit. For us fans, they provide a motif, a lens to reflect on the state of a boxer. In a sport where styles make fights, where it is sometimes hard to determine just how good a fighter is, the repeat encounter is one of the best metrics we have to discern how a fighter has progressed, how they rate against past versions of themselves, and how they are faring against Father Time.
"There's certain fighters that are made for each other...in this case, I think me and Alvarado are made for each other," Rios said before the fight.
They came into prominence together, meeting as undefeated fighters on the Nonito Donaire-Toshiaki Nishioka undercard in October 2012. That maiden bout was fought at close quarters and closely matched, with Rios victorious after the referee stopped the fight in the seventh round. Sports Illustrated named it the Fight of the Year. They reiterated their status as exciting fighters in another heated battle five months later. This one saw Alvarado making the critical adjustments, using lateral movement to keep Rios at a distance, earning him a decision victory and a vacant WBO light welterweight title.
They had lifted each other into the A-list; once there, they followed parallel descending arcs. Alvarado lost his title in traumatic fashion to Provodnikov and followed that by dropping a unanimous decision to Juan Manuel Marquez. Rios, for his part, was routed by Manny Pacquiao in his next fight. That loss sent him into a depression, and he appeared only once in 2014 in a bout against Argentina's Diego Chaves. Rios looked out of shape and seemed to have a hard time mustering the ferocity that had been his calling card. Both fighters took a liberal interpretation of the Queensbury rules, and Rios was marked for a win after Chaves was disqualified for executing some combination of a headlock and a body-slam.
During their this period, both Rios and Alvarado faced a similar criticism: that their careers had been buoyed by the dearth of welter- and junior welterweight options available to Top Rank fighters. Thus, with some of the long-standing promotional blockades seemingly dissipating and both men in a slump, Rios and Alvarado entered their third encounter each in a precarious position with a lot on the line. The winner might buy themselves another shot at a big fight; the loser would likely face the boxing equivalent of being stripped for parts- that is, exiled to second-tier networks and eventually fed to hungry prospects looking for name-value notches on their record.
They spoke of each other as counterparts. "We are both similar and fight the same way. We both have heart and wear our hearts on our sleeves," Rios said before the fight. "We are the same kind of people. We are the same person. We know what it takes to be where we are at. We both have our problems outside the ring and we both have our problems inside the ring. We know that and at the end of the day we are both the same person."
But, no, they are not the same person, as Saturday's events indicated. Although at 34, Alvarado is the older man, it was Rios who showed a recognition of the demands of his situation and the willingness to rise to the occasion- in short, maturity. "I got too comfortable at a young age, making all of this money," he said during a pre-fight conference call. "So I had to do some soul-searching and go back to my roots. Go back to what got me here and not to forget." (In fact, this is not the first time we've seen Rios gather himself in this manner. Back in 2012, following his gift-decision over Richard Abril, the ever-candid Rios spoke of getting too comfortable and needing to re-focus. The next fight was the first Alvarado bout.) A good fighter, it's said, can come back from a loss.
The biggest presence in the ring on Saturday night was Mike Alvarado's absence, which makes it a bit difficult to assess where Rios stands in the bigger picture of the division. That being said, I think it was a legitimately strong performance and shouldn't be under-valued.
One way to assess the performance of a fighter after a turn with an overmatched opponent is to ask ourselves, what did we see the we've seen before? What did we see that we haven't seen before?
The medium of Rios' punching power is not the home-run haymaker, but those punches that travel tight, short arcs- those organ-pulverizing hooks and skull-rattling uppercuts. On Saturday night, he dispensed them as effectively as I've ever seen, stringing together his combinations with fluidity and accuracy. As Andre Ward (acting here as commentator) pointed out, Rios has a reasonably good defense at mid- and close range, and I saw him adding some new touches that strengthened his defensive construct without compromising his offensive trajectory. Rios showed head and upper body movement that I haven't seen before, and he frequently used his shoulder as a shield. In spots, I even saw him throw a combination and step to a new angle before delivering the next installment instead of planting and punching like he's oft been wont to do. Even with a style that depletes its practitioners at an accelerated rate, I don't consider Rios a shot fighter. Rather, I think he's still developing.
Rios' limitations (and I do believe that he will have trouble against any A-list fighter who is mobile behind a jab) do not foreclose moments of greatness. It didn't for Gatti or Ward. It seems likely that he'll face another top fighter in his next go-round. Provodnikov and Victor Ortiz are two names that have come up a lot, but there are plenty of other good fights out there for him. It is very feasible to make a fight with Timothy Bradley, who, despite his lack of punching power, does not shy away from rough-and-tumble encounters and is himself an excellent inside fighter. Should promotional politics allow it, I'd love to see him face the Frazier-ite Shawn Porter, or play gatekeeper against Keith Thurman. Should Danny Garcia come up to welterweight, I think he'd find a very competitive opponent in Brandon Rios.
No one would mistake Mike Alvarado for a saint, but then again, no one would mistake boxing for a beatific calling. Still, it's hard not to wonder how Alvarado's career would have turned out had he found some equilibrium. It's not speculation to suggest that Alvarado's lifestyle has affected his career, or that he might have some awareness of the fact. "I wasn't living right, like I should have been. I was partying, I was drinking...I wan't grounding myself. I had to open my eyes," he told reporter Terry Frei. That was back in 2010, on completing a 90-day program at the Buena Vista Corrections Complex.
Between May 2000 and January 2014, Alvarado racked up 24 arrests, most of the them for driving-related incidents, as well as a domestic violence charge. Those who caught Alvarado's second meeting with Rios might recall the Colorado fighter entering the ring with cuts on his face and neck from a recent bar fight. Those who recall the Provodnikov match might recall that Alvarado turned up heavy at the weigh-in (he shed the weight in time for the fight), despite the Russian having established himself emphatically as a fighter not to be overlooked in his previous bloodbath bout with Tim Bradley. In the aftermath of that fight, Alvarado's team told the press that their he had not been adequately prepared, and the fighter said, "I have to go back to my training. I have to go back to being healthy and focus on getting it back." A few months later, he was tied to a bizarre incident wherein a Cadillac Escalade he'd purchased was dumped into a lake following a non-injury hit-and-run.
Alvarado's most recent spate of trouble began in October, when he was jailed for seventeen days in Las Vegas for, in his words, "procrastinating on a driving ticket." At the beginning of January, at 4:15 AM, police stopped Alvarado's Hummer for having expired plates. Alvarado, who was in the passenger seat, was seen to be placing something in the glove compartment. A search revealed a handgun, possession of which is a crime for a convicted felon. Alvarado also had outstanding warrants from a neighboring country for possession of a weapon by previous offender, as well as a traffic offense. Alvarado's long-time manager Henry Delgado told the press he was "dumbfounded," and told The Denver Post, "I'm at a loss. I don't know what to do with this guy. After this fight, that's it."
Asked about the incident in a pre-fight meeting, Alvarado, lips pursed in a hand-in-the-cookie-jar expression, shrugged and denied any wrong-doing. "Adversity's been one huge thing in my camp. Something bad always has to happen. It's just the way it's been in my career. That's what helped me develop the perseverance I have within me."
Once the opening bell rang, that perseverance seemed to evaporate. Lampley, never subtle, played the Raging Bull card, remarking, "Alvarado has the look on his face- we've seen it in the movies- of an old fighter who almost wants to be punished."
Interviewed after the match, Alvarado offered a weak explanation. "I was looking at my physical condition, and I didn't want to- I could have showed heart, but who knows what would have happened after that?" Then his tone shifted. "I wasn't training like I should have. That's what I get! I got to get back to the drawing board. I'm not at peace with myself. I'm not going to say I did everything I could to win. I didn't do everything I could. That's what I get."
Alvarado takes his surname from his stepfather, Gabe Alvarado, the man who raised him and got him started in his original sport, wrestling. But, of late, his saga resembles that of his biological father, Ron Cisneros. Cisneros, nicknamed "The Rocky Mountain Assassin," was a successful Colorado boxer in the late 70's and early 80's who went undefeated for his first eighteen professional fights. After a loss to Richie Sandoval in 1982, Cisneros was derailed and lost twenty-two of his next twenty-seven fights. Cisneros was not in his son's life, but Alvarado knew of his history. "He was a tough guy," Alvarado wrote. "He could have gone a long way, but just kind of let it get to him after a while and didn't take training as seriously as he should have."
"I'm not done yet at all," Alvarado said after the fight on Saturday. "I guarantee everyone here that I'll be back." But Alvarado is thirty-four years old, a weathered thirty-four. Perhaps he can stage a late-career turnaround, but it looks like a long-shot from here. One senses that feat would take an adjustment more constitutional than just a better training routine.
"The only person who can beat me is me," he told The Denver Post last May. Here's hoping he finds some peace, in and out of the ring.