Some of the darker trappings of prizefighting—sutures, penlights, butterfly strips, ice packs, smelling salts, abbreviated futures—are almost guaranteed to materialize at some point when Brandon “Bam Bam” Rios and Mike Alvarado meet on Saturday night at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California.
Refreshingly, neither fighter feels the need to boast, berate, or browbeat. They both understand the grueling task before them, and, more important, they understand that everyone else understands as well. Despite the lack of P-4-P palaver surrounding Alvarado-Rios, this fight is the essence of boxing.
Both men put drama into what is, after all, a blood sport (ritualized violence staged for the atavist in all of us), and without that sense of stylized action, you have a Chad Dawson bout. Boxing can be compared to what director Sam Fuller once said about his own profession: “Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word . . . emotion.” Remove “death” (except for its symbolic counterpart, the 10-count) and you have a working definition of prizefighting.
Of course, a fighter like Dawson has been endlessly lauded by the commentariat who labor, most of the time, under a misconceived notion of “skill.” A fighter like Rios, disparaged as a brawler, is, in fact, a highly trained athlete primed to the peak of his capabilities. It takes an entire cyberworld of bloggers who have never seen the inside of a boxing gym to make sweeping assertions about skill. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of spending time in a gym was seeing just how hard fighters of apparent limited ability pushed themselves physically. In some cases, they seemed to work harder than their more gifted counterparts. What a fighter like Rios does takes exceptional stamina, coordination, and discipline. He will need all of those attributes—and perhaps a few others as well—against Alvarado.
In fact, Rios, to his everlasting credit, may be overreaching here. So far, 2012 has been a washout for Rios. First came the Yuriorkis Gamboa debacle; then came his gift decision against Richard Abril; finally, Rios was forced to withdraw from a July bout against Mauricio Herrera due to a troublesome elbow. Now Rios is looking to regain his lost momentum by facing a true hard case in the ring. This is old-fashioned thinking—like duels or blood fueds—but Rios is a legitimate tough guy and facing Alvarado is part of his bravado. “The way I am going to do it, I want to make a big statement,” Rios told ESPN. “So I am going out for a knockout. I am going out to knock him out. I am not going to box him. I am going for a knockout because I want to make a big statement at 140, and I want to shut up everybody who doubted me, all the critics and so on.”
This fight marks his official debut at junior welterweight. After struggling to make weight for his last two starts like a jockey in the days before a race, Rios, once a National Amateur champion at featherweight, will be spared the usual torments of boiling down to a lifeless version of himself, one that is an open target most of the time. Richard Abril, in between armbars and half-nelsons, pilloried Rios. Brave John Murray—with an even braver trainer in Joe Gallagher—whacked Rios consistently before the return fire left him a tottering mess. Even Urbano Antillion, despite being unable to reach the fourth round, shook Rios occasionally in their 2011 donnybrook, swift and violent as the shootout at the O.K. Corral.
At 140 pounds, Rios, Oxnard, California, is likely to be spryer than he has been in his last few fights. But will that matter? Mike Alvarado, 33-0 (23), weighed 157 pounds when he faced Breidis Prescott last year, and he will put that burly middleweight body to violent use in close, where he works his shoulder effectively, throws ripping uppercuts with either hand, and pounds the body with zeal. As a former wrestler, Alvarado, Thornton, Colorado, has the kind of physical strength that forces fighters to give ground eventually in the trenches. However, in struggling to defeat the limited Prescott—who reached his level as an ESPN2 fighter a few years ago—Alvarado revealed the flaws that Rios is hoping to exploit: mediocre defense, an arcing right hand, and a lack of head movement. Prescott hit Alvarado often and he hit him hard. By the middle rounds, Alvarado was ready to exhaust the contents of a first aid kit. With a bloody nose, a cut on his left eyelid, and a hole in his lower lip, Alvarado looked like he belonged on the cover of Fangoria instead of The Ring. Despite his limitations, however, Prescott is rangier than Rios and is capable of working effectively from the perimeter.
This is the dilemma Rios faces in going heads-up against Alvarado: “Bam Bam” will be facing a skillset so similar to his that an edge will be difficult to find. Shortfalls in height and reach are also problems for Rios, whose game is predicated on pressure and a consistent body attack. If Rios, 30-0-1 (22), decides to box more will that benefit him or harm him? When Rios works behind his jab from mid-range, he is susceptible to overhand rights. Because Alvarado often swings his right like a man cracking a whip over a team of huskies, Rios may be hoping to duck inside the arc of these blows and score on the inside. If so, it will be a risky plan. Still, Rios is the crisper puncher, puts his combinations together well, is a good finisher, and has faced superior opposition. Whether that will be enough to stop Alvarado, who can also work from the outside a bit, remains to be seen. This fight may come down to who can take the most for the longest. In the end, perhaps fighting fire with fire will not serve Rios well.
Having lost momentum for what Downbeat used to refer to during the heroin epidemic in jazz of the 40s and 50s as “personal problems,” Alvarado is a man in a hurry. Now a decade into a stop-and-go career, Alvarado, at 32, is looking to make a move into the top money ranks, and to do so, he must endure the boxing equivalent of a chariot race gone awry. Until the survivors crawl out from the dusty wreckage, it should be a white knuckle ride for as long as it lasts. Who would have it any other way?