Junior middleweight Saul Alvarez has long endured the criticism that he was a pampered and protected golden calf, a fighter whose popularity and earnings were disproportionate to his achievements. And this is true. The response to such cries, of course, is that Alvarez is a defense in himself: he makes truckloads of money grinding the husks of the welterweight division because he is worshiped for more than his performances. Nor, for that matter, is his godliness self-ascribed, but rather bestowed by the sanction of the masses. In a sport where all pursue maximum reward for minimum risk, Alvarez need not apologize for anything. Included under this all-encompassing “anything” is the hard-fought decision he earned last night when 39,472 fans packed the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, to see him win a unanimous decision over Austin Trout.
Trout—the first legitimate threat to Alvarez—started well, handcuffing his opponent with a shower of jabs that provided little opportunity for Alvarez to volley back. Left out of range, Alvarez circled pondering the geometry Trout imposed. Soon Alvarez, Juancatlan, Mexico, solved some of the variables, and ventured some offense in the second round, scoring with an uppercut, and right hands to the head and body. Still, Trout—and this would be a theme throughout the fight—managed to control much of the action with his jab and a sprinkling of left hands, particularly to the body. In a fight that was expected to pit Alvarez’ flashy arsenal against Trout’s muted blend of evasion and payback, it was Trout, Las Cruces, New Mexico, who was having the early success. But while Trout was controlling the majority of the opening rounds, Alvarez was landing the better punches, heating up the debate between ring generalship and effective aggression.
This dialectic persisted unresolved into the sixth round, when Trout made his first concerted assault. After landing a number of right hands, Alvarez was driven to the ropes by a Trout uppercut. His opponent pinned down, Trout unloaded, only to see Alvarez parry and slip Trout’s assault and bury home an uppercut to end the round. This exchange was telling: Alvarez, 153 1/2, is the superior offensive fighter, but on this night it was his unexpectedly effective defense that was his most impressive attribute. Having scavenged on a series of no-hopers, it is understandable that this novel element of Alvarez’ game had gone largely undetected. Yet, against his sternest opponent, his stamina at odds with his intentions, he unveiled it to great effect. For long stretches of the remaining rounds Alvarez uncharacteristically drew on his ability to avoid, rather than inflict, punishment. That changed, however, courtesy of a right hand early the seventh round. Sent breaking to the canvas, resembling what Henri Bergson might call the incarnation of laughter, Trout, 153 1/4, responded with the unflappability that buttresses his success. Welcomed back to action by an uppercut, Trout weathered Alvarez’ surprisingly meager onslaught—no doubt an indication of the Mexican’s suspect conditioning—before reciprocating with fervor. A microcosm of the fight, the seventh round saw Alvarez land the more telling blows, yet to his credit, Trout had wrested control of the round by its end.
And there Trout would largely stay, strapped into the driver’s seat, staying his lane, both hands on the wheel, while Alvarez intermittently pestered him from shotgun. Even in the late rounds, with open scoring disclosing that he needed a knockout, Trout never put his foot on the gas. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind.” Alvarez, expected to invest fully in altering Trout’s matter instead altered Trout’s mind, discouraging him from punching with an unforeseen elusiveness and the ever-present threat of retaliation. This is not to suggest that Alvarez is great—he most certainly is not—but he was greater on this night. In a fight that highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of both fighters, scores of 115-112, 116-111, and 118-109 awarded Alvarez the victory.
One may legitimately take issue with the 118-109 score submitted by judge Stanley Christodoulou, but Trout, 26-1 (14), dismissed the card as the red herring it was: “He was quicker, he was stronger, he was the better man,” conceded Trout, perhaps boxing’s classiest practitioner. He also expressed some interest in a rematch but Alvarez is surely headed in a different direction.
Having passed his first legitimate test, Alvarez, 42-0-1 (30) will look to bigger names, if not bigger foes. Welterweight Floyd Mayweather, Jr., certainly figures heavily into his agenda, but he fights Robert Guerrero on May 4th, and hasn’t fought twice in one year since 2007. Expect recent Trout victim Miguel Cotto to get the call later this year. Cotto, having lost almost all of his former menace, is the perfect foil for Alvarez: a plodding, undersized junior middleweight whose popularity grossly exceeds his ability. Alvarez should look spectacular against him, and will be paid handsomely to do so. And while Cotto is certainly a regression, Alvarez will be forgiven his easy pickings because he is coming off the toughest fight of his career, and because Cotto represents the biggest payday available to him outside of Mayweather. Not that Alvarez, boxing’s latest golden calf, needs defending, of course.