It’s a little-known law of nature: Because crusty, bloated sportswriters are biologically predisposed to pearl-clutching, the survival of the species depends on the periodic rant about The Sanctity of the Game. In boxing, that means screeds about sanctioning bodies, state commissions, promoters, managers, yahoo judges, YouTubers, referees, Saved By the Bell refugees, various and sundry unspecified sources of incompetence and corruption, and — the pièce de résistance — PEDs. This mountain of sustenance, incidentally, is why fight bloggers and cockroaches will rule a post-apocalypse world.
It also explains a recent news cycle within the sport, in which the International Boxing Hall of Fame announced its 2021 inductees and HOF voters took to the internet to chitter over the details like the world’s worst-dressed knitting circle. The juiciest bit: James Toney, a two-time Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year, multi-division wrecking ball and transcendent defensive fighter — a man who bested Michael Nunn, Mike McCallum and Evander Holyfield — was deliberately ignored on the ballots of some HOF voters because he tested positive for steroids.
Cue Blanche Devereaux in full swoon.
In a sport that elevates glove stuffers, bag men and domestic abusers to kings, boxing’s unforgivable sin, to some, is the use of performance-enhancing drugs. It’s a helluva rabbit hole to hop down, but if that’s where we’re headed, I’ll lead: PEDs are dangerous. They are complicated. But they are not inherently evil. And, crucially, the outrage surrounding their use is inconsistently applied across offenders. Don’t take this as a pro-PEDs treatise or a defense of Toney’s actions — or the decisions of any other fighter, for that matter. Think of it as an old-school courtship, a meandering, arm-in-arm stroll at the end of which I lead you to a simple question: What should we do with Canelo Alvarez?
In the main event of Saturday’s card in San Antonio’s Alamodome — fought before an actual crowd of human onlookers — Alvarez (54-1-2) did what he does best: splatter pasty Englishman who stand a head taller than him. OK, that’s not entirely fair. Over the course of his career, Canelo has splattered an array of diversely complected opponents from around the globe. Also, Liverpool’s Callum Smith (27-1) did manage to withstand a sustained beating for 12 rounds without hitting the canvas. But the result — a unanimous decision for Alvarez that was as wide as the Texas prairie — was just the same.
As for details, there isn’t much to tell. Canelo scuttled every hackneyed storyline that might have provided the narrative arc for the night. At 5-foot-8, Alvarez cut down the 6-foot-3 Smith with shocking ease. Any vengeance that might have been earned for Canelo’s 2016 stoppage of Liam Smith, Callum’s brother, was altogether out of reach by the end of the first third of the fight. And any notion of the poor bloke defending the oft-offended honor of the Queen’s fighters probably goes best left unsaid. Alvarez landed wincing body blows, head-snapping uppercuts and left hooks that seemed geo-targeted by NORAD. He slipped, ducked and stayed just out of Smith’s gangly reach, countering with elegance and an assassin’s accuracy — a total of 126 power shots for an astonishing 57.3-percent connect rate. Simply put, Smith spent 36 minutes on Saturday night as a very large chew toy clamped in the jaws of a freckled, ginger Mexican superhero.
All of which is to make what should be an extremely uncontroversial statement: Canelo may, indeed, be juiced to the gills. That’s not an accusation, but an educated observation. Alvarez was popped for clenbuterol by the Nevada State Athletic Commission in 2018. No matter what you think about his explanation of the positive test, he hasn’t skipped a beat — and, perhaps tellingly, has carried his power — across a five-division journey from 140 to 168 pounds. Of all the fighters with airplane-hangar foreheads, distended bellies by He-Man™ and bacne resembling roadmaps of the Eastern Seaboard, Canelo falls well short of mutant status. But pharmacologically enhanced is pharmacologically enhanced, and taken on the whole, the circumstances of Alvarez’s career leave reason to doubt whether his accomplishments are completely above board.
But consider this: PEDs are, for better or worse, damn near ubiquitous across boxing. Your favorite fighter? Yeah, he probably deserves a side-eye. Juan Manuel Marquez worked with outed steroid dealer Memo Heredia. Manny Pacquiao has been at least semi-credibly linked to gym gear. Vitali Klitschko and Shane Mosley have admitted using. Even “nice guys” Andre Ward and Nonito Donaire worked with doper to the stars Victor Conte. Unfair as it may be to boxing’s truly clean fighters, the sport long ago passed the tipping point at which you shouldn’t just suspect, but assume everyone is gassed up.
Still, no amount of magic powder, goofy pills or hot injections can shift a fighter’s head, guide his footfalls, sharpen his timing or galvanize his chin. Canelo has sharpened iron with iron, taking his lumps against Floyd Mayweather Jr. and returning stronger. He has molded himself into a fantastic defensive fighter and instinctive, hair-trigger counterpuncher. Even Alvarez’s harshest early detractors — and, yes, they existed — must accept that he has, at age 30, already met or exceeded the greatest of expectations projected on him.
You don’t have to love that we’ve reached a point at which boxing’s biggest (and best?) star can, theoretically, over long stretches between fights, clandestinely hulk out on illegal, and arguably immoral, substances. But perspective is everything: Boxing is a Wild West donkey show staged for knaves and fools. And so it goes. You’d do as well attempting to uphold the sport’s purity as Boo Boo Andrade, with a mic and camera shoved in his face, trying to explain the JFK assassination.
So what should we do with Canelo Alvarez? Here’s a take: Just watch. Or judge. Measure him against history’s other greats, against the best of his contemporaries, or against Andre Berto. Look, knock yourself out. But just know that on the day the comb-overs and fleeces and fat men vote on whether to send Alvarez to Canastota, you won’t have a say. Why sweat it? Toney is an all-time great fighter who won’t be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Arturo Gatti was the opposite. Arguably, boxing fans cherish them equally. It’s possible to appreciate the level of craft Canelo brings to bear on his fights without condoning his past (and current?) chemical transgressions. We know boxing is a 747 with two blown engines, a hole ripped in the fuselage and a full drink cart. It’s OK to sit shotgun for the ride and just let the wind blow your fucking hair back.
(Photo via DAZN)
Corrected: reference to Toney’s positive tests.