Canelo Alvarez is boxing.
I don’t mean in the sense that Tiger Woods was golf or Michael Jordan was basketball; Canelo is without question a superstar, but he’s not indispensable to the sport at large. I mean in the sense that if some weirdly ontological scientists crawled out of the cave and crammed the Platonic ideal of boxing into a man-shaped mold, Canelo would emerge from it alongside toxic fumes and a handful of miniature Don Kings as precipitate.
He’s got all the right adjectives: handsome, charismatic, heavy-handed multi-division champion. He tends to put on entertaining fights and has, even if you give him as little credit as possible, given some very strong fighters everything they could handle.
But looking at his record gives an Uncanny Valley impression, the same sense of off-ness you get from two fighters trading artificial beef. It’s an airbrushed glamour shot, sufficiently attractive to begin with but creeping from dazzling to unsettling as you notice all the little touch-ups.
Since leaving 154 pounds, where he commendably took on terribly risky challengers in Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara, everything Canelo’s done has been engineered with startling precision. Meticulously arranged catchweights, rehydration limits, and a remarkable knack for putting together “big-name” fights at a time when the opponent is at their most vulnerable. If you told me that Canelo and his team had, through some Jon Bois-ian feat of statistical malfeasance, managed to reduce risk/reward to a quantitative value sabermetrics-style, I’d believe it.
As this micromanagement engine chugs along, Golden Boy and the WBC sing Canelo’s praises in a fashion more reminiscent of propaganda than promotion, and all the while the scorecards keep going Canelo’s way. Even if the whole world knows that Floyd Mayweather schooled him and that Gennadiy Golovkin deserved at least one win against him, the majority decision, draw, and win will survive on the record longer than the memory that challenge them.
Don’t take this as yearning for some “purer” ideal of boxing; the sport is designed to reward this behavior. Its most legendary moments are malfunctions, products of its pieces acting sub-optimally in their pursuit of maximum capital for the sake of pride or entertainment. Said malfunctions are usually only made possible by prior (and oftentimes subsequent) adherence to standard operating procedure. Beyond the selfish perspective of a consumer craving entertainment, I can’t really criticize Canelo for seeking to maximize his value, just as Gary Russell Jr. has built a sustainable career out of fighting once every 364 days.
Nor is this meant to imply that Canelo hasn’t accomplished some great things. Asterisks or no, he still boasts an impressive résumé, and even if he didn’t pursue the likes of Golovkin and upcoming foe Sergey Kovalev until they’d shown mortality, fighting them is still a risky endeavor.
But enjoyment of this sport requires at least a bit of separation between the purity of face-punching and the turbulent hellscape of politicking that makes it all possible. Canelo is blatantly a creature of both worlds, and in him is uncomfortably laid bare the difference between the “boxing” we love and the boxing that is.