Erislandy Lara has been agitating to fight Saul “Canelo” Alvarez for the better part of two years. He’ll finally get his wish on Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada, but it may be too late for him to capitalize on it.
While Lara, 19-1-2, with 12 knockouts was trudging his way through Carlos Molina, Paul Williams, and Vanes Martirosyan with mixed results, Alvarez was feasting on HBO’s Pu Pu platters and hors d’oeuvres three times a year. It’s easy to see why Lara was rankled. As a decorated amateur hailing from Guantanamo, Cuba, he began facing serious opposition three years after landing on American shores. Alvarez, 43-1-1 with 31 knockouts, bypassed an amateur career to turn pro as a teenager, and beyond a few worthy tests early on, hadn’t faced anyone deemed a threat until last year.
The budding Mexican star finally started fighting meaningful opponents, and the last 20 months have provided a handful of jumbled clues as to how these two match up against each other. Lara cleanly handled Austin Trout, while Canelo’s tussle with Trout was an amorphous ball of wax. “Canelo” treated Alfredo Angulo as target practice, while Lara had to reach into untapped reserves to beat him. In between, Alvarez got humbled by Floyd Mayweather, Jr., during an $80 Pay-Per-View that felt more and more like a swindle as the night progressed.
Still, clear patterns emerged. Lara’s right hand, a predictable precursor to the straight left against orthodox fighters, becomes dynamic against fellow southpaws. Meanwhile, aggressive orthodox opponents tend to put him in a shell, where his head is well protected in lieu of his abdomen. Angulo, along with Molina more than two years ago, felt they had free rein at his rib cage and took full advantage. Lara may take shots to the liver better than most, but they still sap his energy and lead to staggering blows upstairs.
Alvarez has the talent to build on the blueprint Molina and Angulo sketched. He’s a sharp body puncher who uses left hooks to the ribs to set up combinations that end with uppercuts or looping shots around the guard. More creative offensively than he gets credit for, flashing a stationary guard against him is a foolhardy experiment. His combinations are eye-catching and varied, and while head movement gives him issues, Lara’s head only moves periodically.
Nevertheless, the talented Cuban has quick hands and feet, and Canelo had difficulty with the only speedy southpaw he has faced. But there are key differences between Trout and Lara. Trout’s offense against orthodox opponents is centered on his right jab and hook. As a complement, his defense revolves around head movement, and one of his primary goals is staying off the ropes. Lara is one-two heavy, scrapes against the ropes often, and spends a significant amount of time in a parked pose.
In the middle of the ring, Lara’s mechanical attack should make headway. Alvarez is slippery, but not impossible to find by shifty practitioners, and he’ll take full rounds off once fatigue sets in. Lara will have to fulfill his vow to occasionally push Alvarez on his heels if he wants to upset the 23-year-old. He can score points by being busier, making sure Canelo’s increasingly sparse combinations aren’t the most memorable moments in the stanza. Moreover, he has the pop to hurt most of his opponents, and Canelo may be vulnerable late in the bout.
But Lara is a counter-puncher at heart. Barring truly damaging blows, Lara will have to dominate the action near the middle of the ring as he did against Angulo, and Canelo’s elusiveness is level 100 in Duck Hunt compared to Angulo. Lara will have to step out of his comfort zone far more than he has in the past.
No longer a coddled young veteran, Alvarez has likely grown enough as a fighter to take advantage of Lara’s weaknesses. Lara will have to grow as well to make the most of his dream fight.