In life, there are many things we can't control. This is true regarding the external factors that influence the sport for boxers. All the fighter can control is preparation and performance when the bell rings. On Saturday night in Las Vegas, light heavyweight titleholder Dmitry Bivol (20-0, 11KOs) gave an exhibition in boxing control to hand undisputed super-middleweight king Saul “Canelo” Alvarez his second career defeat.
While Canelo (57-2-2, 39KOs) remains the number one box office draw in boxing, his second visit to the 175lb division saw him convincingly handled by Bivol's expert boxing. Bivol's display of pugilistic excellence was punctuated with violent bursts of aggression at the right moments. On the night, there was nothing Canelo could do to impose himself on the contest.
Canelo had succeeded in his previous outing at light heavyweight in 2019. On that night, Sergey Kovalev was vanquished in the eleventh round. Despite the positive result, it was far from an easy fight for Canelo. Perhaps more attention should have been paid to this by those who couldn't see anything, but a Canelo win this past weekend – myself included.
Bivol, 31-years-old and in his prime, had underwhelmed in boxing to routine decision wins over mandatory opponents in his previous two bouts. Defeating the pound-for-pound king would require a different level of performance.
Bivol found this level on Saturday.
Against his toughest foe to date, Bivol had all parts of his game in top gear. His jab, his best asset, was employed from the opening bell in order to set the tone for the evening. The message had to be sent to Canelo that walking Dmitry down in order to land his crushing body shots wouldn't be easy. Bivol made use of his jab to reset defensively when required – his fluid delivery of boxing's bread and butter punch enabled him to move out of Canelo's wheelhouse so many times I lost count
In an attacking sense, Bivol's jab controlled what Canelo was doing. There is true light heavyweight power in Bivol's range finder. His jab broke through Canelo's guard and stopped the Mexican star from advancing on many occasions. Bivol also used his jab to control the tempo of the fight. If Canelo was looking to rest for a few seconds, Bivol would throw a few jabs at him to prevent this from happening. It made sure Canelo remained disorganized throughout the evening. The final punch statistics showed that Bivol threw 418 jabs over the twelve rounds. Canelo fired only 229 jabs as his work got more ragged as he looked to land power punches to swing proceedings back into his favour.
Bivol's jab would have caught the eye of anyone just glancing at the action but looking in more detail made one appreciate his footwork. Dmitry's superb fundamentals begin from the ground up. Balance and space control enabled Bivol to land with authority all night long. His swift, economical movements also allowed him to stay away from the ring's outer edges. Canelo loves to trap opponents on the ropes before demolishing their bodies. He couldn't do this to Bivol.
Long before the end, Canelo cut a dejected figure as he realized that solving the Bivol puzzle was beyond him. Bivol also controlled his emotions perfectly. Remember the 15-punch explosion of power shots Bivol unleashed in round five? Canelo took them and motioned Bivol towards the ropes to throw some more. Sensing a trap, Bivol sensibly caught his breath, invited Canelo to step to him, and held his ground.
Emotion could also have got the better of Bivol in round eleven when Canelo hoisted him onto his shoulder out of frustration. Bivol didn't let it rattle his cage, though. Once the referee instructed them to box, he remained composed and continued with his measured game plan.
This moment encapsulated much of Bivol's calculated performance on Saturday. Never once did he look like he was straying from the tactics given to him by his coaching team. It was discipline personified. There were moments when Canelo did get into range, but Bivol blocked most of the incoming headshots with his high guard. Discipline. The superbly conditioned forearms of Bivol thwarted Canelo's thudding body attacks. Preparation and discipline.
During the build-up to the fight, Bivol was content to take the role of B-side despite being the titleholder. Canelo was the man the organizers and broadcasters used to sell the Cinco de Mayo weekend event. In the first fight of his two-fight (third fight optional) deal with global streaming provider DAZN, Canelo was calling the shots. DAZN wisely used Canelo's star power to drive subscriptions worldwide and sell pay-per-view to customers in Canada and America. Despite being the challenger, Canelo walked to the ring and was introduced second.
Bivol took all of this in his stride, never for a moment allowing these small details to distract him from his fight plan. Bivol showed himself to be smart, funny, and humble during fight week and after the bout. He embraced the underdog status while maintaining a strong belief that he would prevail. Bivol even apologized to promoter Eddie Hearn for potentially ruining the trilogy fight between Canelo and Gennadiy Golovkin. That was booked for September pending a Canelo win on Saturday.
When the final bell rang, control passed to the ringside judges. All three scored the fight 115-113 for Bivol. The fact that they scored five rounds for Canelo has been rightly criticized. Bivol was so good on the night that even awarding Canelo three rounds felt generous. Also largely outwith Bivol's control will be the terms and conditions of a potential rematch should Canelo decide to enforce his contractual right to face Bivol again.
In the immediate aftermath of the fight, Canelo said he was up for the challenge again: “Of course, I want the rematch. This doesn't end like this.” Bivol, again displaying his likable personality, was courteous yet cutting: “Rematch, no problem. I took this fight because I wanted the opportunity, and I appreciate the opportunity. I'm ready for the rematch. I just want to make sure I can be treated like a champion now.”
It remains to be seen whether Bivol and Canelo tango again. It was one-sided, but a proud warrior like Canelo will believe that a different outcome is possible with some adjustments. Canelo deserves credit for challenging himself and aiming for generational greatness by winning titles in numerous weight classes.
The man of the moment, though is Dmitry Bivol. The outside factors he can't control, but once he steps through the ropes, he has shown that he can control 36-minutes of action against one of the best in boxing almost perfectly. If Bivol and Canelo do the rematch, expect to see Bivol keeping his opponent under control once again.