Unification fights are a rarity in boxing. That is why those frenzied acolytes with a predilection for straining their eyes in the wee small hours of the morning have to put up and shut up with the spectacle of Vasyl Lomachenko dismissively ending Anthony Crolla’s career, or Terence Crawford hungrily obliterating the heart and soul of Amir Khan. The big fights — the truly big fights — do not come around often.
Canelo versus Danny Jacobs, for the IBF, WBA and WBC middleweight world titles, is a big fight. That doesn’t mean each man has an equal chance of success. That doesn’t even mean the fight will be especially close. But it is the best fight that can currently be made in the middleweight division, as well as an intriguing clash of styles and personalities.
It should come as no surprise to learn that, on the weekend of Cinco de Mayo — officially a commemoration of the Mexican Army's victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla, now a celebration of Mexican-American culture and legalised ultra-violence — Canelo is the overwhelming favourite. Ignore the dubious decisions against Gennady Golovkin and a dodgy drugs test: Canelo is a thoroughly mean man entering his fighting prime, an improbably experienced 28-year-old fighting only to secure his place in the empyrean of greats.
One of boxing’s many, many problems is the ridiculous use of ethnic stereotypes that shackle fighters from different countries to certain expected fighting styles. So Cubans are exceptional counter-punchers. Asian fighters will always go out on their shields. Americans are a slick mix-match of everything. And so on, ad nauseam. It’s dumb, unhelpful and usually downright racist.
But, most of all, those tasked with flogging overpriced pay-per-views to the great unwashed adore eulogising the ‘Mexican style’ — a brutal, brave, balls-on-the-table approach characterised by the likes of Julio César Chávez and Rubén Olivares, true warriors who retired with more professional contests on their ring résumés than remaining brain cells. Nowadays, whenever boxers behind expensive sunglasses promise to fight in the Mexican style, it is Canelo they have on their minds.
The thing is: he doesn’t fight like that. Not really. Those who make a fortune each year from Cinco de Mayo are loathe to admit it, but Canelo is a far more cautious, canny fighter than he is given credit for. And it should not go unnoticed that against his better opponents — the likes of Floyd Mayweather, Golovkin, Miguel Cotto and Austin Trout — he has never secured a stoppage victory.
Instead, Canelo blends an intoxicating contradiction of styles: an instinctive counter-puncher who can stalk, swarm, stand and slug depending on the opponent. He is a carrot-topped M4 Sherman in boxing shorts, rumbling forward behind an active guard, feinting the jab so that he can unleash his monstrous howitzer of a left hook, usually slammed spitefully into his opponent’s body. Just ask Rocky Fielding.
His occasionally statuesque footwork has been criticised. And he lacks the natural rhythm of his spurious pound-for-pound rivals, such as Lomachenko and Crawford. But it’s hard for any opponent to take advantage of his feet while a sledgehammer hook is busy battering them into unconsciousness.
Herein lies the difficulty for Jacobs, a bone cancer survivor who skyrocketed to fame when he took Golovkin the distance in 2017. To stand in the pocket and trade with one of the most reliably dangerous punchers in boxing is, at best, a decidedly dubious strategy. And yet he knows that the odds of winning on points against Canelo in Las Vegas — where the Mexican has twice profited from exceptionally generous decisions against Golovkin — are perhaps even smaller than surviving osteosarcoma.
An even bigger problem for Jacobs, a reactive fighter who waits for mistakes, is that he is susceptible to getting hit. He was dropped and stopped by Dmitry Pirog before his cancer diagnosis in 2010. He was down in the first against Sergio Mora. And, for long periods, he was comprehensively outboxed by Maciej Sulecki in his own Brooklyn backyard last year. None of those men are even remotely close to the level Canelo operates at.
Naturally, Jacobs insists that the script he has read does not end that way. “What will take the win will simply be me being the best version of myself. My physical advantages in itself can win me the fight, but I also have the mental capacity,” Jacobs said at a restrained and respectful final press conference. “I am in my prime. I’m the only fighter Canelo has faced since Floyd Mayweather to be in his prime. I’m super confident and I’m going in there with the ability as well.”
It is a fair point. And, generally speaking, the better the fight promises to be, the more boring the final press conference. Neither of these men has any need to whore themselves out, screaming obscenities down the barrel of a camera until the end credits roll. Not when the fight sells itself. Not when, after so many lopsided contests of questionable quality, 2019 finally has a fight that absolutely needed to be made.
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