Floyd Mayweather and the Sweet Science of aging gracefully
Midway through the 10th round of his lopsided loss to Floyd Mayweather, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez drifted the ropes in the ring at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and retreated into a defensive shell, hoping to tease a mistake out of Mayweather.
Instead, the 23-year-old ate leather, as Mayweather peppered him with precise punches and punctuated the exchange with a straight right to the face.
Seconds later Mayweather put his back to the ropes and Alvarez unloaded. But Mayweather smothered nearly every punch before firing off a couple of sharp jabs and gliding safely to the middle of the ring as if to say, “that’s how it’s done, Canelo.”
That’s how a pugilistic genius turns a superfight into a sparring session; how the consummate craftsman transforms a competition into a boxing master class.
Let’s forget the scorecards. All three judges were generous to Canelo, and the scorecard of CJ Ross, who said the bout was a draw, reads like a plea for help from the state athletic commission (“stop me before I judge again!”).
Saturday night the previously undefeated Alvarez learned about the chasm between what’s supposed to work against Mayweather — steady pressure and a sold jab — and what actually does derail him.
Nothing so far.
And as the 36-year-old Mayweather took Alvarez to school he provided lessons for the rest of us.
1. He’s no cherry picker…
… even though that storyline emerged in the weeks leading up to the fight and gained momentum as the opening bell approach. According to this argument, Alvarez, who at 23 is already a seven-year veteran, was too young to face Mayweather, and that the champ was picking on the younger fighter before he’d had a chance to ripen.
Which would be a completely valid position if Mayweather were, say, 27. Then he’d be in his prime taking on a fighter yet to reach his own. Delay the fight two years and you’d get two fighters near their peaks, and a much clearer view of who is superior.
But Mayweather is 36 — thirty-six!!! — years old, and clearly on the wrong side of chronology against Canelo.
There’s no spinning this, and no reframing it.
When a 36-year-old enters a sports competition with a man 13 years his junior, the younger man has the upper hand, especially when that competition is a fist fight, and especially when that younger man also has a 15-pound weight advantage.
Let’s remember Canelo is a 23-year-old world champ, and not some novice straight out of the Olympics. Before Saturday night most observers listed him as the top junior middleweight on the planet.
Let’s also remember there’s no guarantee Canelo will reach his prime in his mid 20’s, since fighters who start early often peak early, too. Mike Tyson wasn’t a better fighter at 27 than he was at 21, and neither were Meldrick Taylor, Ray Mancini or Wilfredo Benitez.
But if Canelo indeed is set to peak in three or four years, what exactly would he prove if he defeated a 40-year-old Mayweather?
Nothing, except that time gets the best of every fighter.
But it hasn’t cornered Mayweather yet.
2. Mayweather is the Satchel Paige of boxing
Aside from Archie Moore, has any other boxer looked so good at so advanced an age?
Nobody doubts Sugar Ray Leonard’s Hall of Fame credentials. At 34 he challenged the world’s top 154-pound fighter, Terry Norris, and received a thorough beating.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Pernell Whitaker was what Mayweather is today — a master boxer with a defense so flawless he could win rounds without throwing a punch. Still, 35-year-old Sweet Pea had lost several steps, and it showed against Felix Trinidad.
And fans of Roy Jones Jr. still cringe when reminded of how sharply his skills declined after age 35.
Mayweather, meanwhile, is still making world champions look pedestrian. It’s the sort of late-career resurgence that makes baseball columnists start lobbing steroid accusations. And if there’s another fighter who won a title so young (Mayweather won his first belt at 21) and aged so gracefully, I don’t know his name.
3. It’s not that everybody is that bad…
… Mayweather is seriously that good, and there’s no shame in recognizing it.
The months between Mayweather’s thrashing of Robert Guerrero and this whitewash of Alvarez saw a discernible shift in how media members not sold on Mayweather’s greatness portray his opponents.
Up to and including the Guerrero fight we would hear that (INSERT OPPONENT HERE) had the size, toughness, attitude and strategy previous foes had lacked, and that this was finally the guy to give Mayweather a scare, if not spoil his perfect record.
And after another Mayweather victory we’d hear that (INSERT OPPONENT HERE) never, in fact, posed a credible threat. That he was too young, too old, to slow-moving or too slow-thinking to do anything but lose.
This time, however, came a litany of pre-emptive dismissals of Alvarez and his chances to lay a glove on Mayweather.
Doesn’t mean this Grantland profile of Canelo wasn’t absolutely on target, or that Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix was off base in pointing out that Canelo’s skill set would leave him outclassed against a master like Mayweather.
But after a certain point I wonder if folks trashed Alvarez in advance to avoid giving Mayweather full credit for dismantling him. It’s especially curious given what Mannix wrote last December about Mayweather’s prospects for surviving 2013 undefeated.
4.Floyd Mayweather will lose: Mayweather’s relentless, often bizarre, work ethic and his slick defensive style has beaten back Father Time the last few years. But Mayweather will be 36 when he steps back into the ring next May, is coming off a two-month jail sentence that took him out of his routine for the first time since, well, ever and has a pair of possible opponents — Robert Guerrero and Saul Alvarez — with the skills to beat him. Mayweather clearly won his last fight, against Miguel Cotto, but equally as clear was that Mayweather no longer has the same bounce in his legs. Next year, as it did with Pacquiao in ’12, that decline will catch up to him.
Here’s a theory:
Maybe it’s not the opponents.
Maybe Mayweather is simply an all-time great.
He’s certainly better than he was 16 months ago, when he survived a few tense rounds before gutting out a decision win over Miguel Cotto. Canelo would have won a few rounds against that Mayweather — the one who lay on the ropes, accepted punishment to the body and had struggled with the timing of Cotto’s jab.
But he’s not that fighter anymore.
He’s back to mixing movement and pressure, and back to using his own jab — which is quietly among the best in the sport — to control tempo and distance.
And, with his father, Floyd Sr. as chief trainer, he has returned to the defense-first Mayweather shell that allows him to strike from a short distance without taking needless punishment.
As Canelo learned first-hand on Saturday.
“It was simple,” Alvarez told reporters in the moments after the fight. “I couldn’t catch him… I felt frustrated…I tried to connect on him, but I just couldn’t.”
That’s not Alvarez’ fault.
That’s Mayweather’s mastery.
Credit earned. Credit given.
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