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Is Canelo ripe for the picking against Jermell Charlo? Signs of decline are there, but Alvarez still formidable

Jermell Charlo has plenty to study from Canelo’s recent fights as he bids for a huge win on Saturday.

Jermell Charlo has plenty to study from Canelo’s recent fights as he bids for a huge win on Saturday
Jermell Charlo has plenty to study from Canelo’s recent fights as he bids for a huge win on Saturday
Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images
Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

Canelo Alvarez has already had a Hall of Fame career, but the conventional wisdom ahead of Saturday’s clash with Jermell Charlo is that at age 33, we are seeing a version of the Mexican superstar that is past his prime, and no longer the “pound-for-pound king” sort of fighter he used to be.

So how did we get here?

It goes further than simply losing a fight — at 175 lbs, not by any stretch of the imagination a “natural” fighting weight for Alvarez — to Dmitry Bivol in May 2022.

Age, some nagging injuries that simply happen to fighters (and athletes in general), and the fact that, remember, even at 168, Canelo is fighting well above where he started his career — these things have all contributed to Canelo starting to slide down the other side of the hill.

None of this is to say that he isn’t still, at worst, a very good fighter.

Let’s take a quick look back at Canelo’s five most recent fights.

Billy Joe Saunders (W-RTD-8, May 2021)

A genuinely crafty and tricky southpaw, Saunders gave Canelo some problems in Texas, hanging in quite competitively and doing some sound defensive work in particular before the fight was stopped after round eight by Saunders’ corner, their fighter having suffered a broken eye socket.

“When I got hit, I got hit with the shot and I remember it very, very clearly,” Saunders told talkSPORT about a month after the fight. “I thought, ‘Ooh, that’s a good shot, that’s a good shot.’ And I started bouncing about, but my eye had dropped down beneath my lid. I could see, like, two or three all the time and I realized after 30 seconds it wasn’t my legs, it was my eye.”

An emphatic win for Canelo over a good fighter who came in his best form on the night, with Alvarez leading 77-75, 78-74, and 78-74 at the time of the stoppage. He’d landed hard body shots in several rounds, and his power advantage was pretty clear, even with Saunders doing his own nice work behind his jab and landing more in combination than most Canelo opponents.

Caleb Plant (W-TKO-11, Nov. 2021)

A sort of similar outing and result to the Saunders fight, with Canelo fully unifying the super middleweight division by putting Plant away in the 11th round.

Like Saunders, Plant had his moments in the fight, but was just out-gunned when it came to power. Plant’s jab was solid, he got in a few decent power shots, but he wasn’t able to back Canelo down and couldn’t so clearly out-box him as to discourage or even make the Mexican have to reset frequently and figure out his attack.

Plant was dropped twice in the 11th round, where the fight was stopped. Judges had it 96-94, 97-93, and 98-92 for Canelo at the time of the TKO.

Dmitry Bivol (L-UD-12, May 2022)

Though some diehards did believe Bivol was going to be tough for Canelo, the general feeling out there was Canelo would win — either because he earned it, or because he’d keep it close enough as the drastically bigger star, which sometimes means “the benefit of the doubt” when the scores come in.

The cards — 115-113 from all three judges — were closer than they should have been, but this was a clear and clean Bivol win. Some of what worked for Saunders and Plant — using the jab, trying to keep distance, box smart and be defensively responsible — was used by Bivol, who didn’t do anything fancy or unexpected, he was simply better than Canelo, and Alvarez was never able to solve the puzzle.

This fight came at 175 lbs, where Canelo had fought once before, beating a faded Sergey Kovalev in 2019. This was not a faded Sergey Kovalev. But this was not a case of Canelo taking Bivol lightly; he and promoter Eddie Hearn repeatedly told a skeptical public that Bivol was a sincere threat.

Being the clearly, naturally bigger man, Bivol wasn’t overpowered by Canelo, who never got in rhythm or looked comfortable, because Bivol didn’t allow it. The “appearance of control” that Canelo is very good at was absent here, and Alvarez looked frazzled and frustrated often, not at all the confident figure usually seen.

And though not a huge puncher, Bivol was able to back Canelo down. Weight classes do exist for a reason.

“I felt his power. You can see on my arm, he beat my arm up, but not my head,” Bivol said after the fight. “He has good speed, good power. Maybe his mistake is he only threw hard punches. He got tired.”

Gennadiy Golovkin (W-UD-12, Sept. 2022)

The third meeting between Canelo and GGG was nothing like their first two excellent bouts in 2017 and 2018, a long overdue fight that DAZN had paid for years earlier, and had to wait until Canelo was coming off of a loss and a 40-year-old Golovkin was at his least marketable and, frankly, least dangerous.

With GGG coming up to 168 to challenge for Canelo’s undisputed crown, Canelo ended the rivalry quite clearly on scores of 115-113, 115-113, and 116-112. I didn’t think it was that close, really, but also didn’t believe the scores were terribly unreasonable, as Canelo notably faded in the second half of this fight, and if judges — maybe psyching themselves out after the controversy on the cards the first times these fighters met — were looking for close ones to maybe consider GGG in, there were plenty.

The final four rounds saw Golovkin come slightly more alive, but nothing like a prime GGG.

Canelo also came out of this needing surgery on his hand. Golovkin said he would keep fighting, but it’s a year later, and he hasn’t.

John Ryder (W-UD-12, May 2023)

Sold on being Canelo’s first fight in Mexico since 2011, because it was hard to sell it any other way. Ryder was a mandatory challenger and Canelo was looking for, with respect, a fairly soft touch.

He got that in some ways, but in others he did not. Ryder proved incredibly tough here, going the distance when he was hurt and bloodied pretty early in the fight, showing amazing determination and grit.

That’s the good way to look at it from the Canelo POV. The other way is to wonder why Canelo, who used to eventually vaporize opponents at this level, never was able to put Ryder away in this one. More than truly dominating, Canelo wound up grinding this thing out over the distance.

What this could mean for Charlo fight

Charlo’s got plenty of footage to look at in just these fights, and these are the most relevant of Canelo’s career at this moment, in particular the latter three.

Bivol had the obvious successes, but similar approaches from relatively smaller fighters like Plant have not worked the way Bivol made them work. Charlo is not Bivol, either in style or size; though Jermell is not small and we think should carry 168 without much trouble, he’s a 154 lb fighter, not a 175 lb fighter.

More troubling for Canelo might actually be his last two wins. How much of that is injury in his hand/wrist, and how much is just aging and natural decline? GGG is a smart fighter, and one Canelo takes very seriously. The tentativeness is one thing, but the fading in the back half is worrisome. And we saw against Ryder that maybe he just doesn’t have that finishing ability anymore, or he may have to keep more in the reserves instead of pushing for a finish, concerned that if he doesn’t get it, the tank might run dry.

Charlo will have to be a career-best to beat even the exact Canelo we saw against John Ryder, make no mistake. But Canelo is not the Canelo of five years ago, either, and it didn’t happen all at once, and the worrying signs didn’t come just in the loss to Bivol.

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