'Canelo' Alvarez has it all to lose and questions to answer against compelling underdog Charlo

LAS VEGAS: In a day and age when typos are more liberally accepted – if still unwanted – and there are occasional faux pas on picture desks, there were a few who saw the Canelo-Charlo fight poster when it was announced and incredulously cried, “They’ve put the wrong brother on the poster”.

The race to fight Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, boxing’s financial franchise player, is always keenly-contested, but those in the frame were the likes of, as ever, David Benavidez, Canelo’s last-remaining but highly-meaningful scalp to take at 168lbs, Dmitrii Bivol in a rematch at 175lbs, and Jermall Charlo.

Canelo-Charlo was not nailed on, but many thought that could be the go-to fight for Canelo for his first one under the PBC banner. The belief, however, was that Jermall – Jermell’s twin – would be the one collecting the call.

When the fight posters went viral showing Jermell, many started posting in disbelief.

WhatsApp groups lit up, and a few commented on social media, stating that an image of the wrong brother had been used until the accompanying press release was distributed. It was not the wrong brother.

Soon, shock was replaced by a cheery acceptance that it’s actually still a really intriguing fight with plenty of talking points.

So it is that Jermell Charlo takes the significant stride up from being undisputed champion at 154lbs to challenge Canelo Alvarez, the undisputed champion at 168lbs.

To get a line in that doesn’t sit well with many, it is the first eight-belt fight in this ridiculous “four-belt era” (Here’s hoping I don’t utter a line comparable to that again as I go and wash my hands from typing it).

Charlo has, of course, cautiously admitted that moving up two weight classes is risky, which could be the mother of all understatements. But he would have worked with bigger fighters in the gym throughout his career. Bigger, of course, doesn’t always mean better, and there have been very few – perhaps even no – better fighters than Canelo in recent years.

Is Canelo still up there? Is he still drinking in that rarefied air as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world? Increasingly, boxing has a Big Three of Naoya Inoue, Oleksandr Usyk and Terence Crawford.

Bivol, who mastered Canelo, is a consensus number four. Canelo might now only lead the way in the “best of the rest”, but there are signs, too, that he is not the force he was.

There are also theories behind why. He could not get rid of a courageous but damaged – with a badly broken nose – John Ryder in a fight in May that would have taken far more out of Canelo than many would have expected or hoped. It was one-sided, yes, but Ryder had success in most rounds, and Canelo was far from a hard target.

There are some who felt Canelo exhausted his reserves with his activity at 168lbs, collecting all of the belts within a year. While one understands the argument, three or four fights a year, even with camps for each fight, was not demanding for fighters of yesteryear – fighters who had far more fights without the same knowledge of recovery, nutrition, hydration and training. It’s not as if Canelo was overly taxed in any of those fights, either.

Canelo damaged his left hand in the Caleb Plant fight, collecting the only belt to elude him at super-middle in the process, but he’s urged his detractors to watch and see that his desire and skills have not eroded – that he will display that on September 30.

P'Canelo' Alvarez has it all to lose and questions to answer against compelling underdog Charlo
Photo Credit: Amanda Westcott / Showtime

The hype for Canelo-Charlo seems to be muted so far, but some said that of Errol Spence-Terence Crawford in July and a few lines at the end of their final press conference, followed by a lively weigh-in – not to mention a majestic Crawford masterclass – soon started to secure the views and column inches.

Maybe that will be how it is this week. The fight is four days away. The grand arrivals are today, but it is less and less common for the big stars to do any specialised or even faintly organised media on fight week. For Spence-Crawford, there weren’t even any opportunities to speak with anyone on the undercard.

This will likely be the same, with everyone feeding off the same scraps and soundbites – which is a shame, because the story in boxing is always what sells, and that is not always the narrative that is told. Fans want someone to pull for, and if the fighters remain hidden in plain sight – with generic media huddles answering the same questions for 10 or so minutes – there is no bad guy or good guy to cheer or boo. Just a few lines from them telling us how big the fight is and how good their training camp has been.

That does not, of course, mean this is not a worthwhile sporting event. This is a unique contest, and not only because Charlo is taking the two-division leap. A pivotal theme remains what does Canelo have left? Is he still Canelo? Is he still a pound-for-pound fighter?

Sometimes, in modern boxing, a fighter might not seem himself, and instantly the feeling is that they have either gone off the boil or they no longer are what they once were. But for Canelo, it is not a rash consideration or a snap decision to believe he is not the fighter who for years was boxing’s franchise player; the champion who shouldered the load after Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao retired.

First, there was the resounding loss to Bivol. Then, when he was expected to impress against his old rival – and by then much older – Gennady Golovkin, he toiled and did not dazzle. In May he failed to look like the old Canelo against Ryder.

He might have had hand injuries, but this is not an overnight decline. Sure, the Bivol defeat could be put down to fighting a top opponent at 175lbs, but Canelo did not seem to have any answers to the Russian. He was not just too small; he wasn’t good enough, hence there was no urgency to book a rematch. It was also such a commanding win that that there was no real public appetite for a return, either. 

I’ve read that some feel his four fights in 11 months to unify the super-middleweight titles took it out of him, but I don’t subscribe to that. The camps would have taken their toll, but Callum Smith, Avni Yildirim particularly, Billy Joe Saunders and Plant did not force Canelo out of anything other than third gear.

You could contend that Canelo’s zenith was the Miguel Cotto fight here in Las Vegas, and that was a whopping eight years ago.

Maybe he didn’t get up for Golovkin the way he had in their previous two fights, when their grudge was at its most bitter. Maybe he did look beyond Ryder. But maybe Canelo simply is not what he was. He has heard the naysayers, and reckons his camp in Lake Tahoe has been fabulous.

But it is a damning indictment that fight week starts and Canelo – for the first time in a long time – will not be shown live in the UK. That is, in part, because PBC – who Canelo is fighting under for the first time – doesn’t have a deal with a UK broadcaster. TNT Sports showed Spence-Crawford as a one off.

You get called “negative” or “a hipster” if you are not on a fighter’s bandwagon these days, but there are signs of decline. The issue is whether Canelo can reverse them, or whether this time he will simply be too big for his opponent? It is important to acknowledge that Canelo being as good as ever is good for the sport. If he can get back in the mix of the conversation as a top-tier fighter – along with Inoue, Usyk and Crawford – that is good for business.

But a win, and certainly an impressive one, is not a foregone conclusion. Ryder is a good, tough 168lbs fighter, but I’d suggest Charlo, although smaller, is better and cracks harder. Charlo is also more athletic, and he’s been waiting for the type of fight to make him a star for years. For too long, one could argue; for years, there was criticism that the Charlos were being matched too softly.

Although you can’t fault his work at 154lbs, Charlo has benefitted from being the best in a division that is not wall-to-wall with future Hall of Famers. Will the inactivity he has encountered over the years – one fight in each of 2020, 2021 and 2022 – play a part? Will Canelo’s dimensions prove too great to navigate? Will the jump in class from the likes of Brian Castano, Jeison Rosario and Tony Harrison to Canelo be too great, because that is quite the quantum leap?

As a sporting event it sells because there are plenty of questions about both fighters and, inevitably, what will happen when that big-fight first bell rings.

But as an event, it will be fascinating to see how much meat is left on the commercial bone that is Canelo as an attraction and as a draw. Have his last three fights snapped his momentum? 

He’s 33-years-old – the same age as Charlo – but he is a 63-fight veteran who has been boxing as a professional since he was 15. Charlo has had 37 fights, and at a time when we learn more and more about neurological trauma, Jermell’s more relaxed schedule – also dubbed inactivity – might see him better preserved. 

That was an argument I used for Spence ahead of the Crawford fight, but Errol had not lived the life outside of the ring. Charlo is a family man who has even taken his family into training camp with him – a daily reminder of his “why”.

You can make strong, erudite cases for each fighter. That is always the sign of the sport at its best.

But there will be more than a few tracking analytics and metrics and wondering whether Canelo is still boxing’s leading global icon and, if he is not, what that means for the sport and where the next young crossover star will come from?

Because while Charlo might not be the next big thing, he can make sure that Canelo never again returns to that top table. Putting the loss to a bigger man in Bivol down to size is one thing. Explaining defeat by a fighter two weight classes lower than his is another thing entirely.

In a fight town like Vegas, Canelo might have stacked the odds in his favour on the scales, but it’s a high-stakes game for him with much to lose. He will be hoping Charlo’s numbers don’t come up on Saturday night.