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Canelo vs Kovalev preview: What’s at stake, how they got here, and how the fighters match up

Canelo Alvarez steps up two divisions to face Sergey Kovalev this Saturday on DAZN.

Tom Hogan-Hoganphotos/Golden Boy

This Saturday night on DAZN, Canelo Alvarez moves up to the light heavyweight division to face Sergey Kovalev. It’s a risk either way, but is it foolish or calculated?

What’s at stake?

Kovalev (34-3-1, 29 KO) is defending the WBO light heavyweight title, while for Alvarez (52-1-2, 35 KO) every fight, no matter what belts are at stake, is him defending his status as arguably the biggest star in boxing. A loss in a fight like this could really hurt, even if logically it’d be perfectly understandable. DAZN paid $365 million for 11 fights in his career, thinking an investment in him could help anchor their launch in the US. It’s at the very least debatable whether or not the investment has been worth what he’s been paid to fight Rocky Fielding and Daniel Jacobs, but there are still a lot of big fights out there, and this is a big fight.

How did Canelo Alvarez get here?

Canelo has been on the US radar for nearly a decade now, and he doesn’t even turn 30 until next summer. It all started with an HBO pay-per-view co-feature win over Jose Miguel Cotto in May 2010 on the Mayweather-Mosley undercard. His star was born that night, and he’s lived up to the billing from those teenage years.

After a lot of fights where he was supposed to win and did, facing veterans and winning titles at 154 pounds, Alvarez faced Floyd Mayweather in a massive money fight in Sept. 2013. Mayweather schooled Alvarez a bit that night, which everyone but judge CJ Ross saw — Ross scored the fight even, and never worked again.

Canelo Alvarez v Daniel Jacobs Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Fights like Mayweather-Canelo have really hurt young fighters before, even those thought to be rising stars. But the young Mexican fighter proved plenty capable of bouncing back. He got a favorable matchup with lead-footed brawler Alfredo Angulo first, but then took a serious risk against Cuban southpaw Erislandy Lara, a guy nobody has ever been dying to fight and certainly weren’t lining up to face at the time. Alvarez won split decision.

After a vicious thrashing of James Kirkland in May 2015, Canelo scored the first real marquee pay-per-view main event win of his career in November of that year, topping Miguel Cotto by decision. Amir Khan and Liam Smith were both knocked out in 2016, and then he took a 164-pound catchweight fight with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, beating an opponent who was bigger but fought like he had the flu.

Canelo had played around with the idea of the middleweight division, fighting at “Caneloweight,” a 155-pound catchweight, but in Sept. 2017 he took the full plunge to 160 to face Gennadiy Golovkin, a highly-anticipated bout that many felt Canelo and Golden Boy had avoided for some time. Alvarez fought well, but the result was a draw in a fight that many thought Golovkin deserved to win.

The two were supposed to meet in an immediate rematch in May 2018, but Alvarez failed a VADA drug test, blaming contaminated beef. The fight was canceled, but was rescheduled for four months later. The fight was tight and intense once again, this time Alvarez getting the majority decision nod, once again many feeling GGG had earned the nod. After 24 rounds, there was basically nothing separating the rivals.

There is a market for Canelo-GGG III, and we know well that DAZN want the fight (Golovkin signed with them this year to secure the trilogy), but it hasn’t happened yet, with Alvarez dismissing Golovkin as no longer being a challenge.

In Dec. 2018, Canelo went up to 168 pounds to face secondary paper titleholder Rocky Fielding in New York. He smashed through the overmatched Brit in three rounds, decimating him with body shots, then moved back down to middleweight in May 2019 to face Daniel Jacobs in a three-belt unification. Alvarez won a competitive but clear decision. After some talk of a third Golovkin fight — none of it seemingly very serious from the Canelo side — and talk of a unification with Demetrius Andrade, Alvarez signed to move up to 175 and face Sergey Kovalev.

How did Sergey Kovalev get here?

The 36-year-old Kovalev is past his prime, there’s really no question about that. The question is how far, and if it’s enough to eliminate a pretty significant size advantage.

The Russian started to break through in 2013. He’d started putting together some impressive-looking wins the year prior, but it was a three-round wipeout of crafty veteran Gabriel Campillo that really gave him the buzz. He smashed through Cornelius White in much the same manner, then went to Cardiff, Wales, for his first world title fight in Aug. 2013.

Kovalev vs Yarde boxing show in Chelyabinsk, Russia Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

That night against Nathan Cleverly, Kovalev continued his brutal climb to stardom with a fourth round stoppage of Nathan Cleverly, taking the WBO light heavyweight belt for the first time.

Defenses against Ismayl Sillah, Cedric Agnew, and Blake Caparello further established the “Krusher” as an emerging cornerstone star for HBO boxing, and he was cemented as a franchise player in Nov. 2014, when he was matched against the legendary Bernard Hopkins in Atlantic City. Kovalev shut Hopkins down over 12 rounds; despite his skill and experience, there was just nothing Hopkins could do with Sergey, and eventually it became a fight where he was just doing his best to not get knocked out.

Jean Pascal gave Kovalev a little resistance in March 2015 before Kovalev stopped him in the eighth round, but Kovalev was by that point running out of viable available opponents. He knocked out Nadjib Mohammedi and then faced Pascal again, showing a vicious side, admitting he was punishing Pascal as much as he could before Pascal trainer Freddie Roach stopped the fight after seven increasingly ugly rounds.

A much-desired fight with Adonis Stevenson never materialized, with each side blaming the other, and Kovalev went home to Russia to beat veteran Isaac Chilemba in July 2016, winning a decision.

That set up Kovalev finally finding another big fight, though, as super middleweight ruler Andre Ward moved up to 175 pounds for a Nov. 2016 meeting. Ward wound up winning a decision, 114-113 across the board, despite going down in the second round. It was a decision many disagreed with, and a rematch was signed.

In the rematch, there was again controversy. But unlike Canelo with Golovkin, Kovalev did not come out on top the second time around, this time getting stopped in the eighth round in June 2017. The controversy here was that Ward threw and landed a lot of body shots that strayed low, which hurt Kovalev and ultimately played a big hand in his defeat.

Since those fights with Ward, Kovalev has had a rocky go of it. He’s had issues outside the ring, spats with trainers, and a pretty natural decline given his age. He did win a pair of fights over Vyacheslav Shabranskyy and Igor Mikhalkin, who weren’t top-tier opponents, but he was stunned and upset in Aug. 2018 by Eleider Alvarez, who rallied to knock Kovalev out in the seventh round of a fight the Russian was winning on the cards.

After recalibrating with new trainer Buddy McGirt, Kovalev won a rematch with Alvarz in February of this year, boxing sharply and taking a decision to regain the WBO light heavyweight title. He went back to Russia to make a mandatory defense against young Brit Anthony Yarde in August, and despite a game effort from the somewhat green challenger, Kovalev got him out in the 11th round, and moved quickly to secure the date with Canelo.

How do the fighters match up?

This is a genuinely intriguing matchup on paper. Yes, Kovalev is 36 and not the fighter he was four or five or even three years ago. There’s no getting around that. But Sergey is genuinely bigger than Canelo, too. Kovalev is a natural, career light heavyweight, and still a top fighter and titleholder at 175 pounds.

Alvarez has gone 2-0 in fights north of 160, but those opponents were not Kovalev. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr isn’t very good to begin with, and put in probably a career-worst “performance” against Canelo, barely seeming as if he had shown up in any wore more than dragging his physical being into the ring. And Rocky Fielding, with all due respect, was a very safe choice for a fight at 168. He’s tall but lanky, and his skills are not near Canelo’s class.

Kovalev can still box and he can still punch. At 6’0” with a 72½” reach, he’s about four inches taller than Alvarez and will have a couple of inches in reach on him, too.

But stylistically, Kovalev could have some problems. Promoter Kathy Duva scoffs at the idea that Kovalev “doesn’t like body shots,” wondering if any fighter does, and while she has a valid point that no, nobody likes being hit to the body, some fighters handle it better than others, and Kovalev doesn’t seem to handle it particularly well. Add in the fact that Canelo can really rip to the body, and that it makes all the sense in the world for that to be a main part of Alvarez’s game plan, and Sergey may have a problem there.

Canelo Alvarez v Daniel Jacobs Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

As for Kovalev’s power, it’s very real, but Canelo has so far in his career shown he can take a hell of a shot. Gennadiy Golovkin, who has smashed up a lot of opponents, never really dented the Mexican. Daniel Jacobs landed a monster shot in May that didn’t seem to bother Alvarez at all. Kovalev is bigger than Golovkin or Jacobs, but Alvarez’s thick neck and legs — he’s a thick-bodied guy for his size all around, really — seem to give him excellent ability to absorb blows to the head, and he doesn’t get hit to the body a ton.

On the one hand, you’ve got Kovalev as probably the most serious physical threat Alvarez has ever faced. On the other hand, Canelo may be picking Kovalev at exactly the right time, and he may have the exact sort of flaws Alvarez can take advantage of to overcome any problems Kovalev’s size might give him.

Who’s the favorite?

As of this writing, the oddsmakers are favoring Canelo, with lines between -400 and -500. That means he’s a firm, solid favorite to win this fight, enough so that you can say he’s clearly expected to be victorious. Kovalev is listed between +250 and +400. It’s the first time Kovalev has been the underdog since his rematch with Ward, and those liners were a good deal tighter than these.

Who will win?

Check back on Friday at Noon ET for our staff picks!