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Canelo vs Bivol tactical breakdown: Can the WBA champion cause an upset in Las Vegas?

The Canelo Alvarez roadshow continues this weekend as he steps into the familiar bright lights of Las Vegas to take on Dmitry Bivol in what could well be his toughest test since a prime Gennady Golovkin.  

A genuinely competitive match-up for the sport’s No 1 isn’t the easiest find; he demolished Callum Smith, Billy Joe Saunders and Caleb Plant one-by-one to etch his name in boxing folklore after setting out on a quest for super-middleweight domination. 

But in WBA (Super) light-heavyweight champion Bivol, a legacy-hungry Canelo, who stands at just 5ft 8in, finds himself against a legitimate 175lb champion coming into his prime, one who is hell-bent on claiming boxing’s most rewarding scalp. 

Canelo Alvarez (left) and Dmitry Bivol (right) go head-to-head this weekend in Las Vegas

Canelo is hunting more glory after becoming undisputed super-middleweight champion

To be clear, this is a challenge Canelo personally chose; in opting to sign a two-fight deal with Eddie Hearn and Matchroom, a deal that will see him fight Golovkin in September if he wins, the Mexican turned down a £100million package by PBC to stay in the 168lb division and defend his newly-claimed jewels. 

Yet, as Canelo embarks on a new journey to undisputed, having outlined his intention to steamroll through another division, there are some who believe he could fall at the first hurdle. 

Included is supremely confident Bivol, who after seven successful defences of his WBA crown faces by far the biggest test of his young professional career. 

Though the betting odds may tell you otherwise, there are plenty of viable arguments to make for Bivol – the significantly bigger man at 6ft – ahead of Saturday night’s battle. 

The 31-year-old Russian, albeit coming in with just 19 fights on his pro record, was as experienced as they come upon turning over into the pro ranks in 2014, winning a staggering 268 of his 283 bouts as an amateur. 

Included in his list of accolades are two U17 World Championships, two Russian national amateur championships and a World Combat Games gold medal – and his pedigree and expert fundamentals are immediately evident each and every time he takes to the ring. 

It’s these fundamentals which could cause Canelo problems this weekend; his thudding jab, sharp right hand and intelligent movement will certainly give the Mexican food for thought in the squared circle. 

Bivol puts his WBA (Super) light-heavyweight belt on the line against the pound-for-pound No 1

Bivol puts his WBA (Super) light-heavyweight belt on the line against the pound-for-pound No 1

A 6ft tall Bivol comes into the bout with a significant height advantage over a 5ft 8in Canelo

A 6ft tall Bivol comes into the bout with a significant height advantage over a 5ft 8in Canelo 

What Canelo likes to face is a fighter willing to engage, willing to stand and trade, willing to exhaust themselves while the defensively-savvy fighter slowly but surely breaks them down as he steadily ups the tempo. 

What Canelo doesn’t like – if there is such a thing – is a fighter who can make him miss, a fighter capable of staying on the outside, able to avoid his power punches and negate his energy-sapping pressure. 

We’ve seen examples of this perhaps just a handful of times throughout the Mexican’s career, with only Floyd Mayweather holding a victory over Canelo – and that came when he was 23. 

On that night, down all the way at super-welterweight, Mayweather proved too elusive, as a hapless Canelo simply couldn’t find the target. ‘I didn’t know how to get him – it’s extremely simple,’ he said after the fight. ‘We tried to catch him but he’s a great fighter, very intelligent. There was no solution for him.’ 

We’ve also seen Canelo struggle in patches against Amir Khan, who he eventually knocked out with one punch, Saunders, who also suffered a stoppage defeat, and Erislandy Lara, who he marginally defeated by split decision in 2014. 

It should be noted, though, that while Canelo cut a frustrated figure against Mayweather and Lara – two fights now long in the past – he was never in any danger against Khan or Saunders, and ultimately, certainly in his mind, the result was always foregone conclusion.  

Canelo's only defeat came against Floyd Mayweather Jr back in 2013 when he was just 23

Canelo’s only defeat came against Floyd Mayweather Jr back in 2013 when he was just 23

Canelo stopped Saunders en route to super-middleweight domination

Canelo demolished Khan with one punch in their 2016 encounter

Canelo struggled at times against Billy Joe Saunders (left) and Amir Khan (right) but claimed stoppage victories in both

Nevertheless, Bivol does have the tools to make this a long, uncomfortable evening for Canelo. 

You could point towards Bivol’s rather lackluster victory over Craig Richards in Manchester last year and make a case for a Canelo walkover. But Richards is certainly no mug, and in truth it was a pretty comfortable evening for the Russian. 

Richards has recently explained what it’s like being in the ring with Bivol, insisting Canelo isn’t in for an easy night.  

‘Canelo won’t be able to close the distance as easily as he does with other people,’ Richards told talkSPORT. ‘Bivol always throws when he can, he’s very busy with his hands and he’s a sharp shooter, so it won’t be an easy task for Canelo.’

More notably, Bivol breezed past former world champion Jean Pascal in 2018, and though getting clipped and hurt against Joe Smith Jr, ultimately strolled his way to victory. He also looked brilliant as he defeated fellow countryman Umar Salamov late last year. 

Put simply, while Bivol hasn’t exactly blown the roof off in any of his profile encounters, no one has come even close to beating him as of yet. 

Bivol has the height, reach, jab and temperament to make it a difficult evening for Canelo

Bivol has the height, reach, jab and temperament to make it a difficult evening for Canelo

Craig Richards, who was beaten by Bivol last year, insists Canelo is not in for an easy night

Craig Richards, who was beaten by Bivol last year, insists Canelo is not in for an easy night 

Canelo Alvarez 

Age: 31

Height: 5ft 8in

Reach: 70.5′

Stance: Orthodox

Record: 57-1-2

Knockouts: 39

Rounds: 436

Debut: 2005

Dmitry Bivol 

Age: 31

Height: 6ft 

Reach: 72′

Stance: Orthodox

Record: 19-0-0

Knockouts: 11

Rounds: 148

Debut: 2014

And what will help him on Saturday night – or the early hours of Sunday morning, depending where you’re viewing the fight – is his temperament. 

A number of fighters have lost before they’ve even stepped into the ring against Canelo, with the stage, the hype, the potential rewards all too much for them. Bivol, though, looks cool, calm, collected – and ultimately confident – as fight night approaches. 

‘I believe in my skills,’ he told The Ring. ‘I have beaten everybody that I have fought in my career, I believe that I can beat Canelo as well. 

‘Every boxer has their strengths and their weaknesses. Nobody is perfect. My goal is to focus on my strengths and use them to my advantage.’

One thing Bivol won’t do is try to appease the crowd. The Russian would not care if the fight goes down as one of the least entertaining in history, so long as he gets his hand raised at the end. 

And with Canelo a typically cautious starter, as he uses his clever footwork and relentless feints to drain his opponents, we could well be looking at a bit of a chess match early on in the fight.  

Indeed, Bivol presents a new test for Canelo, being significantly fresher than Sergey Kovalev in the Mexican’s only other venture up to 175lbs, also a much tougher target to hit than Smith – who is actually a fair amount taller than the Russian. But Saturday’s underdog has never faced anything even close to his impending opponent. 

Canelo didn't have it all is own way as he stepped up to 175lb against Sergey Kovalev in 2019

Canelo didn’t have it all is own way as he stepped up to 175lb against Sergey Kovalev in 2019

But the pound-for-pound star got the job done as he stopped the light-heavyweight in round 11

But the pound-for-pound star got the job done as he stopped the light-heavyweight in round 11

Primarily, Canelo’s mentality sets him apart from almost anyone in the fight game today. ‘I like it… Why not?… I’ll fight everyone. I don’t f***ing care,’ he told reporters this week after being asked about a match-up against Oleksandr Usyk. 

Yes, you read that right, Oleksandr Usyk – the guy who ripped away Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight belts last year. A guy Hearn revealed Canelo would like to fight 1lb above the cruiserweight limit – or, in other words, for the heavyweight belts.  

Canelo genuinely believes he could pull off what would surely be a near impossible task – and not in the same way a certain Jake Paul “genuinely” believes he could beat the Mexican.  

That inner belief, crucially, never diminishes throughout a fight, regardless of how it’s going. 

Such is Canelo's belief, the Mexican insists he could beat Oleksandr Usyk at heavyweight

Such is Canelo’s belief, the Mexican insists he could beat Oleksandr Usyk at heavyweight

Against Kovalev, it was very close before he found a stoppage in the 11th round, but he remained patient throughout. All the work he puts in – from his gut-wrenching body shots to his calculated pressure – is all deliberately designed to mentally and physically reduce his opponents to a fraction of what they entered the ring as. 

Callum Smith – who had won all 27 bouts before sharing a ring with Canelo – later explained just how difficult facing Canelo is. 

‘When I stood in front of him he didn’t look big physically. I thought: “I can’t lose to a man that big”. He is thick-set, he has a good presence, he closes the gap,’ he said.

‘He is very clever in terms of the jab,’ he continued. He walks you down. With anybody else, you would jab. But he wants you to jab because he’s a counter-puncher. So you don’t throw as many jabs and while you are waiting, he closes the space down without throwing anything.’

‘He takes away what you are good at,’ he concluded.

Canelo was significantly smaller than a 6ft 3in Callum Smith when they fought in 2020

Canelo was significantly smaller than a 6ft 3in Callum Smith when they fought in 2020

But Smith, who suffered a points loss, later insisted Canelo 'takes away what you are good at'

But Smith, who suffered a points loss, later insisted Canelo ‘takes away what you are good at’

Not only is Canelo masterfully intelligent in the ring, he’s also got dynamite in both fists, with 39 of his 57 wins coming by knockout. And certainly, particularly with his body work, he has the power to hurt Bivol.   

However, while Bivol has enough power to keep Canelo honest, he perhaps doesn’t have enough to stop him. And with that, as is so often the case in boxing, the Russian will likely have to deliver a comprehensive beating if he’s to be awarded a decision victory in at the T-Mobile Arena. 

Ultimately, picking anything other than a Canelo win is perhaps not the sensible bet. But neither is assuming he won’t have to go through periods of genuine adversity throughout.

Particularly early on, with Bivol fresh and his awkward style new to Canelo, it could be an intriguing but maybe not action-packed affair. But, as the fight develops, as Canelo works Bivol out and gets into his rhythm, you feel the Mexican superstar could prove just too much once more. 

Whether it’s by knockout, or by a hard-earned points win, a September trilogy against Golovkin – after Canelo claims another win to move to 58-1-2 – is the safe bet.  

With victory, Canelo will likely go on to face Gennady Golovkin, for a third time, in September

With victory, Canelo will likely go on to face Gennady Golovkin, for a third time, in September

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