June, 2011 is some kind of golden age for young Mexican brawlers about whom you can say the following three things: 1. They’re usually pretty fun to watch because they’re aggressively offensive-minded and sinfully hittable; 2. They’re wildly popular in some measure because of something they were born with; and 3. There’s hope for their future, but there’s also a strong chance that they won’t ever be very good.
Earlier this month on HBO it was middleweight Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., he who was born with the name of his legendary father. This Saturday on HBO, it’s junior middleweight Saul Alvarez, he who was born with red hair atypical for a Mexican.
Chavez got himself a stern test from European interloper Sebastian Zbik. And like Chavez, Alvarez this weekend figures to be in against the toughest opponent of his career, European interloper Ryan Rhodes.
Rhodes is no joke, you see. There’s been some criticism of Alvarez’ opposition as being too old, too small, too feather-fisted or too slow, and while Rhodes is getting advanced in the years, he’s none of those things. Ring Magazine ranks him #4 in the division, compared to #9 for Alvarez. Granted, few people in the division have tremendously deep or untarnished resumes, but Rhodes can fight, and after a career of ups and downs, he isn’t easily dissuaded. At age 34, he’s dying to prove himself on the world stage. The impression has been made back in the United Kingdom: His 2009 war with domestic rival Jamie Moore was a British classic, the culmination of his boxing life to that point.
Alvarez, age 20, has 37 fights already to Rhodes’ 49, but the vast majority of those were against the dregs of Mexico. For someone of his age and with no amateur career to speak of, his competition has been steadily climbing up the charts over the past two years. But no one really thought it was highly dangerous for him to face Matthew Hatton, his last opponent, or anyone before that. There is a section of the boxing world that views Rhodes as highly dangerous. I’m of the mind that this is the first fight where Alvarez could lose and I wouldn’t be surprised.
Rhodes is a quick-fisted and quick-footed boxer with power and some tricks in his bag, and he’s battle-tested to boot. A southpaw, Rhodes can fight right-handed and often does, and he has power in both hands — he decked Luca Messi a couple times with lefts, but did in Moore with his right. He’s an avid body puncher, too. He’s been KO’d twice (albeit back in 2002 and 1999) and got rocked by Moore, so he’s vulnerable when he gets hit, but he also can counter someone who gets too aggressive — like Alvarez often is — and he has shown that he’ll fight back when things get rough.
Where he runs into trouble, from what I can tell, is that he often makes the wrong choice about where to put his quick hands and quick feet while on defense. He can be backed into the ropes, which kind of nullifies the whole idea of having good feet. And he often holds his hands too low, making him very hittable, or he holds them just plain in the wrong place when he does manage to get them up — too far apart and too far away from his head.
Alvarez isn’t quick of hand or foot, although he’s reportedly been working on improving his speed, the thing that is one day expected to be his downfall among those who think he doesn’t have a bright future. Where he thrives is with his power, which is at least above average; his work rate, which is high; and his offensive timing, which is good. For a fighter as aggressive as he is, he’s also patient. He doesn’t take a ton of unnecessary risks, and sees openings well. So far, he’s been bigger, stronger, fresher and/or faster than everyone else he’s faced, which includes a list of veterans like Carlos Baldomir and Lovemore N’Dou, not exactly a murderer’s row of people who are noted for, say, their speed or youthful qualities. But they are the kind of people who one way or the other could get him ready for opponents who are better in those departments, save perhaps speed.
Where Alvarez is particularly deficient is that he’s very stationary and therefore not too hard to hit. And there are worries about his beard: He once was rocked by Jose Miguel Cotto, a fighter who had spent most of his career at lightweight. It’s entirely possible that this was simple a case of a young boxer getting caught cleanly and learning a lesson from it — to his credit, he did come back and win the fight by knockout — but it’s enough of a ding on his resume to make people wonder.
I am sorely tempted to pick the upset here. Sorely. No matter how much faster Alvarez has gotten, Rhodes is going to have a big advantage there, and Rhodes’ movement, power and counterpunching ability combine to stylistically produce the kind of threat that I have most thought could one day spell huge trouble for Alvarez. Alvarez has been sparring with better opponents than he usually does, like Gennady Golovkin, but Golovkin is still relatively green, and Rhodes is a crafty veteran.
Instead, I’m going to pick Alvarez to win, largely on the basis of his youth and volume — an effect that could be magnified by Rhodes getting a late start training for the altitude at which the fight will be held in Mexico but one way or the other, he’s going to get stretched to his limits. I can see Rhodes hurting Alvarez a few times, only for Alvarez to surge back and stop Rhodes. Alvarez has the power to do so, and as open as Alvarez often is, so too is Rhodes. But Alvarez also has the kind of work rate that could mitigate whatever cleaner punching Rhodes does — an effect that could be magnified by Alvarez fighting on his home soil — and doing enough to pull out a controversial, close decision.
Whatever the case, it’s good to see these young Mexican brawlers testing themselves a bit more these days. Maybe they’ll make it, maybe they won’t. But they won’t know their ceilings unless they try to keep finding them, and that’s what Alvarez-Rhodes is about. You still hope they one day meet each other in what would be a great brawl and a huge event for Mexico. But until then, I can live with them inching upward in the difficulty of their competition.