Dmitry Bivol (left) connects on a punch against challenger Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez. Photo: Matchroom Boxing

By MARK LORENZANA

The last time I saw Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez really hurt and in serious trouble inside the boxing ring was against José Miguel Cotto, the older and less-accomplished brother of multiple-time world champion and recent International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Miguel Angel Cotto.

In that fight, the shorter Cotto stormed out of the gate swinging, determined to hunt down Álvarez and take the fight to him. But Canelo, who opted to play the calculating matador to the aggressive and onrushing Puerto Rican bull, was having success early on at taming Cotto’s rushes. After all, Álvarez was younger, taller and rangier, and this left Cotto mostly punching air and hitting Canelo’s gloves.

Until the 1:26 mark of the opening round, that is.

Álvarez threw a left straight, right cross and left uppercut combo that mostly missed and then backed up near the corner to try to stymie another Cotto assault, when the Puerto Rican connected flush with a short left hook to the Mexican’s uncovered face. This immediately wobbled Álvarez, who bounced against the ropes and continued to absorb punches from the emboldened Cotto. Álvarez staggered around the ring for the remainder of the first round, obviously hurt, with Cotto in hot pursuit, but failing to capitalize and, ultimately, let Canelo off the hook.

This proved to be Cotto’s undoing as Canelo found his range and capitalized on his height and reach to win the fight by technical knockout in the ninth round.

That fight was for the lightly regarded North American Boxing Federation (NABF) Welterweight Championship.

What’s amazing, at least to me, was that it happened in 2010, when Álvarez was just two months shy of his twentieth birthday.

That was — as far as I remember, and I may be wrong — the last time I saw Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez really hurt and in serious trouble inside the boxing ring.

What makes this feat even more incredible is the fact that Álvarez, thereafter, eventually proceeded to go up in weight multiple times to face harder punchers and better boxers than — and no offense to him — José Miguel Cotto: Carlos Baldomir, Alfredo Angulo, Erislandy Lara, Kermit Cintron, Shane Mosley, Floyd Mayweather Jr., the younger Cotto, Gennady Golovkin (twice) and Sergey Kovalev. That ledger is impressive; that list includes current, former and future boxing hall of famers and perpetual contenders.

After that hard-earned fight with José Miguel Cotto, Canelo went on a tear: winning 25 fights, drawing one (against Golovkin) and dropping another (a decision loss to Mayweather, one of the all-time greats, a loss that something any fighter worth his salt would be loathe to be ashamed about). In that span, Álvarez picked up titles at middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight, along with a second junior middleweight title reign after losing to Mayweather.

Indeed, before the fight with Dmitry Bivol for the Russian champion’s World Boxing Association (WBO) light heavyweight belt last Saturday night, May 7, Canelo Álvarez has looked virtually unbeatable.

That air of invincibility, however, would come crashing down.

Coming into the fight, oddsmakers had installed Álvarez as the five-to-one favorite over Bivol, but the Russian had other things in mind.

(An aside: Bivol might have been the underdog, but he was still the bigger man; after all, it was Canelo who was coming up in weight to challenge him. In other words, the Russian was a live underdog in that fight. Not as big of a long shot compared to Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike, the horse that won a stunning upset — also last Saturday — despite being an 80-1 underdog. Rich Strike wasn’t even in the field until last Friday, May 6, when another colt was scratched from the race, but the thoroughbred came from behind to win America’s greatest horse race, pulling off one of the biggest shocks in Kentucky Derby history. That’s another story, though — or perhaps another column? What can I say? I love rooting for the underdog.)

In the opening round, Canelo started off fast, with guns blazing. He stalked Bivol and was the aggressor, coming forward and landing power shots both to the head and body of the taller Russian. Álvarez continued his assault in the second and third rounds, and looked to cruise to another comfortable decision victory. But then Bivol started to assert himself.

In the fourth round onward, Bivol began to use his superb boxing skills to frustrate Álvarez; the Russian has good hand speed for his size, and when he started stringing combinations together, the Mexican started to buckle a bit under the onslaught.

“I did feel his power,” Álvarez admitted in a post-fight interview.

In the middle rounds, Álvarez also seemed to run out of steam. His body language was telling: leaning on the ropes and letting Bivol unload on him, throwing nothing in return as the Russian fired off punch after punch, and also dropping his guard for most of the rounds, especially the latter minutes of the rounds — a sign of a gassed fighter trying to catch his breath.

Álvarez tried to rally in the later rounds, but it wasn’t enough. In the end, all three judges scored the fight 115-113 for Bivol.

“No excuses,” Álvarez said. “I think that’s what happens in the sport of boxing — you win or lose. That’s the sport, and that’s what happened. He’s a very good fighter.”

A very good, bigger fighter. There’s an old adage in boxing: A good big man always beats a good little man. At least on that night, this old adage rang true. As much as fighters want to flout weight classes in their quest for greatness — think not only Canelo and Mayweather as the guilty parties, but also Manny Pacquiao and Henry Armstrong — these weight classes exist, after all, for a reason.

Álvarez must have felt what José Miguel Cotto felt those many years ago, but this time with the situation reversed.

“I’m glad I proved myself. I’m the best in my division and I get to keep this belt,” said Bivol. “He’s a great champion, I respect him and all his team.”

The Mexican, however, is looking to bounce back as soon as he can. “Of course I do,” Álvarez answered when asked if he wanted a rematch. “It can’t end like this.”

Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez had been on cloud nine for the past several fights now, owing to his dominance in climbing several weight divisions and leaving bigger opponents bloodied and beaten in his wake. It took a skilled champion, the bigger and equally talented Dmitry Bivol, who was also a five-to-one underdog, to bring the Mexican sensation down to Earth — at least for now.

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