Canelo vs. Golovkin: A fair analysis of the upcoming mega-fight

This Saturday, the T-Mobile arena in Las Vegas will host the much-awaited showdown between Gennady ‘Triple G’ Golovkin and Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, two of the most respected fighters in boxing today. Despite being overshadowed by the Mayweather-McGregor spectacle, just about everyone in the fight game is expecting a classic.

When the fight was announced, it was Golovkin that the oddsmakers, fans and fighters gave the edge. However, there has been a change in the air over the last month or so, with many now insisting that Canelo has what it takes to inflict Triple G’s first defeat as a professional. Will Canelo do it? Have we been caught up in the hype? Here, we focus on the attributes that matter, before considering the cases for each boxer and trying our best to make a balanced and fair prediction in what is a hard fight to call.

First, some assumptions. In a recent interview on BoxNation, WBO middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders touted the possibility of Triple G or Canelo simply not ‘turning up’, leaving us with a one-sided affair. For the purposes of this piece, we’ll assume — and hope — that the best versions of the fighters enter the ring. That means that everything written below is predicated on a complete absence of injuries, illness, weight-drain issues and so on. And just so that our final prediction isn’t a snore, we’ll rule out a draw.

Records and experience
There is no question that Canelo is an accomplished fighter. Analysts and fans accuse his promoters, Golden Boy, of ‘soft’ match-making, highlight his modest knockout percentage and point out that he often enters the ring at over 175lbs. But, in the end, we are still talking about a 27-year-old boxer with 51 fights to his name and only one loss — to the undefeated and brilliant Floyd Mayweather Jr. Some of Canelo’s detractors seem hell-bent on convincing the world that he is a fraud, but his victories over highly-regarded operators such as Shane Mosley, Austin Trout, Erislandy Lara and Miguel Cotto suggest otherwise.

If there are any question marks around Golovkin’s professional résumé (and nobody is denying his absurd 345–5 record as an amateur), they are around the level of opposition that he has faced. Triple G has ruled an otherwise very average middleweight division, with Daniel Jacobs one of a small handful of top fighters that he has faced. Still, Golovkin has fought with an exciting intensity that has delighted his fans and earned him a perfect record, with 33 of his 37 victories coming by knockout.

When it comes to their opposition, there’s little argument that Golovkin hasn’t faced quality boxers as often as Alvarez has. It would be unfair to describe many of Triple G’s challengers as poor, but very few of them are close to the likes of Lara and Cotto on a pound-for-pound basis.

However, it isn’t quite that simple. Almost as telling as the list of fighters Golovkin has fought in the professional ranks is the list of those that have avoided him. Plus, there’s the fact that the men who have stepped in the ring with Triple G have lasted an average of just 4.6 rounds compared to 6.9 for Canelo’s opponents. And let’s not forget the amateur experience, culminating in a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, that dwarfs the Mexican’s.

So how do we call this one? Extremely close. Including his amateur contests, Golovkin has had far more fights, but Alvarez has come up against tougher opposition. But because this fight is at middleweight, a division in which Golovkin has better experience, he just shades it.

Abilities in the ring
Canelo is often lauded for his counter-punching ability, but that is not all he has. As a solid all-rounder, the Mexican tends to control his aggression and energy by fighting in short bursts, getting in and out of distance in impressive fashion. Equally (if not more) comfortable on the back foot, he is able to slip and block shots using his quick and effective upper body movement, while timing his opponent’s punches to find openings. Few telegraphed or ‘fat’ shots go unpunished, and on the occasions that Canelo does get hit, he absorbs punches with few signs of damage.

While perhaps not blessed with devastating power, there is no doubt that Alvarez is physically strong and can punch concussively — just ask James Kirkland or Amir Khan. He might be a little flat-footed, as his detractors will stress, but he is rarely off-balance and generates good leverage. The difficulty in pinpointing Canelo’s best punch is testament to his variety, which he demonstrates fight after fight through eye-catching and accurate combinations. And while Golovkin is almost certainly the bigger puncher, it’s Canelo that possesses the greater speed.

If there is one thing that just about everyone agrees with in boxing, it’s that Golovkin has the sort of power that most of his peers can only dream of. Stories of him putting down heavyweights reverberate around the boxing world like a death knell for his opponents, and his knockout ratio is amongst the best in the sport’s history. But to view Golovkin as a mere knockout artist would be to hugely underestimate his technical ability in the ring.

Like Canelo, there are many strings to Triple G’s bow. His style — or the style that we’ve seen him employ most often — is that of a composed and methodical ring general who fights according to a set but effective pattern. In the early rounds, he is a more tentative aggressor, trying to test his opponent’s defence, speed and power. Once he has determined that they don’t pose a real threat to his granite chin, he uses his impeccable footwork to cut off the ring and deny his challenger an escape route. From there, Golovkin applies increasing, spirit-crushing pressure, battering his victim into submission or unconsciousness using his famously heavy hands.

Of all Golovkin’s punches, it is his jab that is the foundation on which his success has been built — a true ramrod of a shot that enables him to control distance and subject his challengers to abnormal punishment. Like Canelo, he doesn’t favour a particular shot to incapacitate his foes, but incapacitate them he most spectacularly does.

Comparing Alvarez and Golovkin’s styles, in their most basic forms, is pretty straightforward. Triple G is an intelligent, come-forward, make-you-soil-your-pants pressure fighter who tempers the stereotypical Mexican mano-a-mano brawling style with European solidity and stiffness. Canelo is a fearless, technically-sound counter-puncher who can brawl but often elects to box.

Their styles should make for a great fight, but it’s their skills that should settle the contest. To identify the more capable fighter, let’s reconsider those individual standout talents. Canelo has the better upper body movement, better hand speed, and is the better combination puncher (not that Golovkin is any slouch in that regard). He’s strong for the weight he usually competes at, but probably no stronger than Triple G. And he’s also arguably more adaptable given his ability to score well on the front and back foot. On the other hand, Golovkin possesses a better jab, greater power, and more dominating ring-generalship. And while there’s nothing to suggest that Canelo isn’t durable, Golovkin has consistently faced heavier punchers without ever wilting, so we have to assume he has the better chin for now. Everything else we consider to be about even, including ring intelligence.

Again, this one is a real pig to call. If the fight turns out to be a total war, then it’s reasonable to think that Golovkin’s durability and power wins it for him. If both choose to box, then Canelo’s defensive manoeuvres and speed could be the deciding factors. But as we’re not making predictions (yet), we’ll call this one a draw.

Their last outings
Canelo’s last contest was a one-sided mauling of Julio César Chávez Jr., the son of Mexico’s greatest boxer. Chavez Jr., fighting in front of over a million eager spectators at a catch-weight of 164 pounds, was hesitant and lethargic from the opening bell. In a miserable defeat, he became Alvarez’s punching bag as boos and jeers echoed around the T-Mobile Arena, with Canelo winning all 12 rounds on all of the judges’ scorecards.

Had it been a closer fight, we could have taken a lot from Canelo’s victory. The fact that he dismantled a significantly taller boxer, perhaps, or how he dealt with his compatriot’s reach advantage. But because of Chavez Jr.’s lacklustre display, the only positive for Canelo’s team is that he looked sharp, albeit in a fight that flattered him. Golovkin, meanwhile, was emboldened by Canelo’s inability to knock out his larger, defenceless opponent, but would have to look elsewhere for a blueprint to test the Mexican.

In his most recent outing, it’s fair to say that Golovkin looked more vulnerable than we’ve seen him in his previous 36 fights, and many saw this as evidence that Father Time was catching up with him (cue screams from enraged Golovkin fans that he deliberately held back to secure the Canelo fight). There’s little doubt that Triple G wasn’t at his sharpest, most ruthless best, but Jacobs was a hell of a lot better — and bigger — than most expected. Golovkin has always ‘been there’ to be hit, and it wasn’t a total shock that the taller, rangier, quicker and gutsy Jacobs was able to do just that in their encounter.

Canelo and Golden Boy will no doubt have taken heart from Golovkin’s close fight with Jacobs, but they’re also smart enough to realise that his age wasn’t the only factor. Yes, most boxers start to slow in their early thirties and yes, most are past their best by thirty-five, but his supposedly depleting tank still carried him to victory over 12 gruelling rounds. Even if he is slowing, there’s another irritating but accurate boxing cliché that we can apply here. ‘Power is the last thing to go’, and Golovkin has power in spades.

So what information does the Jacobs fight present to Canelo’s team? Quite a lot, but it’s not likely to be useful. Golovkin’s ‘off’ performance might have convinced Golden Boy to make the fight, but it would be dangerous to build any assumptions about Golovkin’s age and deteriorating ability into their game plan. Jacobs’ disciplined ‘negating’ style meant that he could frustrate and occasionally befuddle the Kazakhstani, relying on his quick feet to glide out of trouble. For Canelo, the problem is that he just doesn’t do gliding. And to mimic the Brooklyn native would be to resist getting into many tear-ups. Is that in Canelo’s fighting DNA?

Who takes this one? On performances alone it would be a tick in the box for Triple G — frankly, he beat a genuine threat in Daniel Jacobs rather than Chavez Jr.’s ghost. However, there’s no doubt that Canelo took greater confidence — however misplaced it may or may not be — from the Jacobs fight than Triple G did from Alvarez’s one-sided domination of Chavez Jr.

So it’s a dead heat, again.

The intangibles
What about all of those things that are harder to measure? The nutrition. The training camps. Canelo’s increased muscle mass and capacity for rehydration. Triple G missing the birth of his baby daughter to focus on his training. What about tales of Golovkin’s childhood hardship and heartache, or of the immense pressure on Mexico’s most-prized sporting asset? What about the fighters’ mind games, or rather, the mind games of Oscar De La Hoya and Abel Sanchez?

These are all further reasons why the fight is unmissable for any boxing fan, but to speculate on how they could affect the result — with literally no data — would be misleading to say the least. To put it another way, we don’t know how a bigger Canelo performs because we’ve not seen him compete with this physique before. And we similarly don’t know how Golovkin will perform on the biggest stage of his career. For that reason, we can’t objectively score this one. A no contest, then.

A prediction
Here comes another cliché. For both fighters, this is huge. This is it. Victory for either fighter would propel them to the very top — perhaps even the #1 spot — in the pound-for-pound ratings. It will mean being referred to as that all-important word — special. For Canelo, victory gives him the credibility to be hailed as a living legend in his native Mexico, and it’s this recognition that he seems to crave above all else. For Golovkin, this is about validation as an all-time middleweight great alongside the likes of Marvin Hagler and Carlos Monzon, a status that has eluded him due the level of opposition he has typically faced. It could also be the victory on which he bows out of the sport, although he is quick to deny that he has any plans of retiring.

Make no mistake, this should be a close encounter between two fighters who have enormous respect for one another. It’s hard to predict, but predict it we must, and we’ll start by looking at what probably won’t happen.

A knockout victory for Canelo: The duo’s records and performances tell us that Canelo’s best chance of victory is by decision. Anyone can be rendered unconscious in boxing, but there are no accounts of Golovkin being knocked out or down in over 380 fights as an amateur and professional, with scant evidence of him even being wobbled. Canelo stopping Triple G would mean him achieving a feat that he couldn’t accomplish against several considerably smaller competitors such as Matthew Hatton. On past evidence, it would take a massive amount of punishment to seriously test Golovkin’s chin, which is why a Canelo KO/TKO victory is rightly somewhere around the 8/1 mark with bookmakers.

A points victory for Golovkin: It’s a shame, but it can and does happen. The A-side fighter appears to lose or very narrowly win a close encounter, and the judges give him a landslide victory on the cards. Is it the noise from the fans, a different perspective on the fight or just filthy corruption? Whatever the case, boxing can be a cruel sport to the less popular fighter, and Golovkin is undoubtedly the B-side draw this time around. If the fight goes the distance and — as we hope is the case — both fighters are treated fairly, we would still favour Canelo for a points victory simply because his superior speed, both offensively and defensively, should see him out-land his opponent. A decision victory for Golovkin wouldn’t be as shocking as a knockout victory for Canelo, but it would be a little surprising nonetheless.

Now that we’ve eliminated the two least likely outcomes (other than a draw), we’re left with two scenarios to hone in on. One is a points victory for Canelo, and the other is a Triple G knockout. For each, we’ll think about the game plan that could lead to victory, before considering how well each boxer could execute the strategy we describe.

A points victory for Canelo: If Canelo is going to go 12 rounds with the hard-hitting Kazakhstani, his first priority ought to be survival. He’ll need to earn Golovkin’s respect with some big shots of his own, yes, but he shouldn’t overcommit or try to establish control of the ring too early. Upsetting Golovkin’s rhythm is also key, and will require Canelo to keep his opponent guessing by responding differently to each attack — backing off, closing the distance, slipping and countering, perhaps even switching stances. And if Alvarez can go to Golovkin’s body, then he should find that the shots coming towards him become less frequent and potent as the rounds progress. As we get past the mid-way point of the fight, this groundwork should allow Canelo to evade Golovkin more easily — making him look slow — and land his own excellent combinations more consistently, outscoring the veteran and ultimately getting the nod from the judges.

But could Canelo ‘fight this fight’? Physically, he has almost all of the attributes, but might lack the lateral movement to be as evasive as necessary, as well as the stamina to keep Golovkin off him in the later rounds. It’s probably achievable, but it sounds a little more like Andre Ward than Saul Alvarez. “Spoiling” isn’t a word that comes to mind when you think of Canelo, and experience tells us that he does like to stand and trade more often than would be safe in a fight against Triple G. So it’s a yes and no — Canelo could fight and win this way, but he probably wouldn’t.

A knockout victory for Golovkin: For Triple G, the path to victory is a little more familiar. In a similar fashion to his fight against David Lemieux, he needs to start tentatively by his standards, boxing Canelo into corners and setting the pace with his jab, while remaining cognisant of his opponent’s superbly timed counters. Alvarez’s quality might mean that it takes a lot longer than usual to find openings, and that he loses a few of the early rounds, but it’s important that Golovkin remains patient until he is comfortable that Canelo can’t seriously hurt him. From there, it’s the relentless pressure and ferocious shots that we’ve come to expect from Golovkin, earning a stoppage victory late in the fight.

Is that a strategy that Golovkin can employ? Yes, that is more or less the Golovkin-way, with some tweaks to account for Canelo’s undoubted class. The real problem with this approach is that there is a huge dependency on Canelo being unable to withstand Triple G’s pressure and punishment. What does Golovkin do if Canelo is too hard to hit or doesn’t buckle? At what point does Golovkin switch to a style that will earn him points rather than a knock out? Being too reliant on a stoppage victory could be Golovkin’s undoing, so he may need to be cuter in his work.

Picking a winner in a fight like this is by no means a science, but we’ve hopefully demonstrated a little more objectivity than we’ve seen in most of the fight preamble. For us, it will all come down to Canelo’s durability. Some of Triple G’s shots will eventually get through, and Alvarez will likely win if he can take them. Our view, however, is that he won’t be able to withstand the pressure and punishment as he starts to tire, and will likely be stopped in the later rounds after a spirited effort. The Mexican is one tough fighter though, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the referee stopped the contest without Canelo ever hitting the canvas. Whatever the outcome, let’s just hope for some incredible action as two serious talents face-off.

Prediction: Gennady Golovkin wins by TKO in round 10

In our view, the oddsmakers have called this fight just about perfectly, meaning that there isn’t a great deal of ‘value’ to be found. If you do fancy a flutter though, why not consider the Billy Joe Saunders vs. Willy Monroe Jr. contest earlier on Saturday? There’s a lot on the line for the WBO champion — most pertinently a potential shot at the winner of Alvarez vs. Golovkin — and Saunders should win if he is in good form. The worry for Saunders’ fans, however, is that he looked awful during his last outing against the little known Artur Akavov. If you expect Saunders to forget his A-game again, 11/4 on Monroe Jr. seems like good value. But remember, please gamble responsibly.

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