This Saturday, May 4th, Canelo Alvarez makes his return to the ring eight months after his decision victory over Gennady Golovkin. That fight saw Alvarez walking the infamous aggressor down, going toe-to-toe with one of the most fearsome punchers in the sport, and lifting his titles in the process.
After that, easily the apogee of his professional boxing career, a fight with Daniel Jacobs can’t help but feel a little underwhelming. Yet, however much the lead-up to this contest lacks that special, big fight feel, Jacobs is a sneakily dangerous matchup for the Mexican idol. Alvarez will be wagering his WBA and WBC titles against the IBF strap borne by Jacobs, and while the Miracle Man is no Gennady Golovkin, he is no feather duster, either.
The evidence lies in Jacobs’ own fight with GGG, in 2017. While there was no question of the victor, with Jacobs suffering the only knockdown of the fight, he made the contest surprisingly competitive, and managed to be the first man in nearly nine years to go the distance with GGG, snapping a 24-fight knockout streak. There is some reason to think that Jacobs might have similar success against Alvarez. It was his long frame and footwork that frustrated Golovkin, and while Canelo’s aggressive approach to Golovkin was remarkable, it did not test his footwork the way Daniels will. At times, Alvarez has struggled to cut off the ring against skillful movers.
The last such occasion, a controversial and closely contested bout with Erislandy Lara, was decided by body work. Canelo is one of the best body punchers in the sport today, and his routes to the ribs are as clever as they are numerous. Let’s take a look at a few of Canelo’s favorite rib-roasting tricks, and analyze how they might help him solve the frustrating riddle of Danny Jacobs.
The root of Alvarez’s difficulty with out-fighters is simple: not unlike the great James Toney, Canelo has excellent defense, quick and powerful hands, and sharp footwork. What he does not possess are fleet feet. Offense and defense both require him to plant his feet, and this can allow a clever mover to outmaneuver him.
Typically, Alvarez works around this problem using the assets already in his possession, namely, timing and combination punching. If he knows his opponent is going to cut an angle when he engages, he will use sweeping hooks to intercept their movement. To borrow the parlance of UFC analyst Dan Hardy, Canelo attacks space, rather than attacking his opponent. These wide, arcing shots work like a clothesline, creating an obstacle that cannot simply be walked through.
Hooks to the head, however, are not always effective. Fighters like Jacobs, and Erislandy Lara before him, can duck and pivot at the same time, allowing the clothesline to pass harmlessly overhead while they find the angles they’re after.
Enter body work: while the head moves easily, the body does not. Take a look.
In this sequence, Alvarez stalks Lara into the corner. Anticipating the pivot, he leads with a throwaway right hand. As expected, Lara pivots away from the perceived threat, and right into a hard left hook to the ribs. (Side note: Lara wore his trunks as high as he possibly could in this fight, so while the shot may appear low, it is in fact perfectly placed).
The set-up here is as important as the final, effective blow. Part of cutting an evasive fighter off with offense is understanding which way he will move, and when. In the early going, many of Alvarez’s right hands were frustrated by Lara’s defense and footwork. Rather than pouring all of his energy into making that shot work, Canelo turned the problem to his advantage. By throwing the right hand with lots of speed but very little power, he loads weight onto his left leg without having to fight his own momentum. When the right hand convinces Lara to move, the left hook follows with power and speed aplenty.
If Canelo once again struggles to advance on diagonal lines, attacking and cutting off the ring at the same time, then these well-timed body shots will be positively essential to his attack against Jacobs. Lara may have gotten the angle he wanted, but he had to pay for it. Which brings us to our next point.
Body shots hurt. They hurt bad. Most fighters will tell you that they would rather take a clean punch to the head than a good dig to the body. And if they don’t feel this way at first, they always do once exhaustion starts to set in.
Aside from the withering pain, the great advantage of body shots is that they directly cause that exhaustion to set in. Attrition is a factor in nearly every fight, but body shots have a particular way of not only causing, but intensifying that attrition. And the thing about frenetic movement is that it requires a good bit of energy. If Canelo, who often struggles with stamina issues of his own, hopes to avoid being outworked down the stretch, he must concentrate on taking away Jacobs’ legs, bit by bit. And in boxing, the way to the legs is through the gut.
Here, Alvarez takes full advantage of a brief clinch with Lara. Entering behind a strong jab, he takes a deep step to the outside of Lara’s lead foot, lining him perfectly for the right hand. Lara recognizes the danger, and keeps his eyes on the punch, but at this range, footwork is not the answer. In fact, an ill-timed retreat might off-balance him just as the shot connects. Thus, he bends at the waist, slipping what he expects to be an uppercut to the head.
The uppercut does not go to the head, however. Alvarez’s own style may result in a pair of fairly static feet, but he recognizes that the same is true of Lara. Whenever the Cuban slips, he is momentarily rooted in place. Canelo also recognizes that Lara’s head is a very difficult target in the best of circumstances, and chooses to spend his brief time in the pocket wisely. As long as he has Lara in front of him, he bangs the body with a string of savage punches, working around Lara’s guard (even illegally hitting his back with that left hook as Lara tries to turn).
The same logic will apply against Jacobs. Whenever Canelo does close the distance long enough to get off a combination, body shots will simply be a better investment of energy—especially in the early rounds. And the more consistently he strikes that target, the more often he will be able to keep Jacobs in front of him as the fight carries on.
And that brings us to our final, and perhaps most obvious point.
Exposing the Head
We have mentioned that body shots hurt like hell. As a result, they demand the attention of the opponent. No professional fighter, having had his liver compacted by a crushing left hook, will allow the same shot to land a second time in quick succession. Body shots are their own reward, but they also create openings elsewhere.
Let’s pivot away from Erislandy Lara, and take a look at the final moments of Alvarez’s fight with Amir Khan. Another skillful evasive fighter, Khan’s diminutive frame was always going to be a profound disadvantage against Alvarez. Nonetheless, Canelo set him up for the knockout with a beautifully simple tactic.
Repeatedly, in the five rounds leading up to the end, Alvarez banged Khan with straight right hands to the body. By the time round six had rolled around, the effects of this assault were already evident. Khan had begun to slow down, and he was having a harder and harder time ignoring the right hand that had already tattooed his ribs with dark bruises. In the final exchange,
Again, the throwaway feint is as essential as the final impact. By entering with a faked jab, Alvarez makes it more difficult for Khan to think his way through the exchange. He reacts to the left, and by the time he realizes he has bitten on a feint, he is already playing catch-up, dancing to Canelo’s rhythm rather than his own. While he does not do a good job of defending the ribs he expects Canelo to attack, he does think to land a counter to the head while his opponent is busy downstairs. That’s the left hook you see sailing over Canelo’s head as Khan, already unconscious falls to the floor.
Body shots are a staple of Canelo Alvarez’s game, and they are effective whether he is fighting Amir Khan or Gennady Golovkin. Against a skillful, evasive fighter, however, they are absolutely essential. The body attack will allow him to intercept Danny Jacobs’ footwork. The more often he does this, the more Jacobs will be forced to slow down and stand in front of Canelo. And the more often he stands in front of Canelo, bracing for the body attack. the more likely it is that Canelo will find his chin eventually.
For more in-depth analysis of strategy and technique, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the original podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.