The shadow of Dmitry Bivol looms over Canelo vs Ryder

Half-heartedly, Saul Canelo Alvarez raised his left arm, sweat sliding over the ink portrait of his daughter Emily. He chewed his tongue in anticipation. The eyes, though, rarely deceive. Their vacancy and wandering gaze betrayed the truth that “Canelo” knew: He was beaten.

It was not the first time, and there have been occasions in his long and increasingly illustrious career in which the Mexican has known the same truth but seen himself named a winner anyway. Still, hearing another man’s name echo around an arena at the end of 12 rounds – or any number – is a rarity for Canelo. And on this Cinco de Mayo weekend, 2022, there was to be no reprieve for the undisputed super-middleweight champion. Eyes glinting, Dmitry Bivol punched his right fist into the air, the victor “by unanimous decision, still undefeated, and still the WBA light-heavyweight champion of the world”.

For the first time since Canelo’s 2013 loss to Floyd Mayweather, the only other defeat of his professional career, the Mexican was tasked with rebuilding. That rebuild is still ongoing, and it continues on Saturday – 364 days since that loss to Bivol – when Canelo returns home to face John Ryder.

The 32-year-old’s title defence against Ryder in Guadalajara is Canelo’s first fight on home soil in 12 years and his second outing since losing to Bivol. In September, Alvarez retained his super-middleweight belts with a comfortable yet unconvincing win against an aged Gennady Golovkin, rounding out their trilogy. Their saga had begun with a draw that disrespected “GGG” in 2017, and it continued almost a year to the day later, when Canelo was a disputed decision winner. There was no controversy in their third clash but rather apathy; for all of Golovkin’s attributes and accolades, this was a predictable result in a trilogy bout that came three years too late – for the Kazakh, for the sport, and arguably for Canelo, who gained little in victory.

Yet in lieu of an immediate rematch with Bivol, which would likely have brought a second successive defeat for Canelo, the reunion with Golovkin was a sensible move. It was low risk, high financial reward for the Mexican.

Canelo (right) beat Gennady Golovkin on points in their trilogy bout in September (Getty Images)
Canelo (right) beat Gennady Golovkin on points in their trilogy bout in September (Getty Images)

And what of Saturday’s main event at the Estadio Akron, where 50,000 fans will gather to watch and worship their icon? Southpaw Ryder, who holds the WBO interim title, will be a game challenger to Canelo, but as a close-range fighter taking on the sturdiest and most clinical counter-puncher in boxing, the Londoner may prove the perfect opponent for a star in need of a stoppage win. Caleb Plant, in November 2021, was the last man to find himself staring down at the canvas then up at the lights in a duel with Canelo. With the loss to Bivol and uninspiring win over Golovkin following that trademark victory, Canelo is due another demolition, and the locals will demand it in the Akron cauldron.

Should Alvarez oblige, his next move should take care of itself.

While it was wise for the 32-year-old to return to super-middleweight after failing to dethrone Bivol, that rematch is looming and should not be put off any longer – for any reason.

Some may suggest a warm-up bout for Canelo at light-heavyweight, but that would have been an option for last September, or indeed this very weekend. Alvarez, who previously fought in the weight class in 2019 and stopped Sergey Kovalev emphatically, opted this year to regain confidence and a degree of momentum at his preferred weight. Still, he has insisted that any rematch with Bivol must take place at light-heavyweight.

Dmitry Bivol thoroughly outboxed Canelo en route to a points win last May (Getty Images)
Dmitry Bivol thoroughly outboxed Canelo en route to a points win last May (Getty Images)

“Can you imagine people’s response if Canelo made Bivol drain down to 168lbs and beat him?” the Mexican's promoter, Eddie Hearn, asked iFL TV this week. “What would they say? ‘Oh, he couldn’t beat him at 175lbs, so he made him come down to 168lbs.’ Canelo says: ‘Same terms as last time. You beat me, I need everything the same to prove I shouldn’t have lost that night, and to prove I can beat you.’ That’s what he’s thinking.”

Regardless of the time, location and weight class, perhaps a rematch with the Russian is fated to play out in the same manner as their first contest, with an unblinking Bivol trapping Canelo against the ropes, overwhelming the shorter fighter with extended output and refusing to engage on Alvarez’s terms.

That bout awaits, but 364 days on from Canelo vs Bivol 1, Alvarez will hope for an altogether different experience when he squares off with Ryder. The Briton, 34, is a deserving challenger but will naturally be dismissed by Canelo’s casual and committed followers alike.

Unless it is with a combination of punches, Canelo himself cannot afford to dismiss Ryder.

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