Canelo Alvarez is daring to be great, but he's no Henry Armstrong

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
(Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Yahoo Sports illustration)

There was a lot of talk about history at Union Station in Los Angeles on Wednesday when Canelo Alvarez and Sergey Kovalev met face-to-face to officially kick off their bout for Kovalev’s WBO light heavyweight on Nov. 2 at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas.

Boxing historians have difficult jobs these days because many of the sport’s most cherished records have been bastardized by the explosion of sanctioning bodies and weight classes.

Alvarez holds the WBA middleweight belt, which is the oldest of the four major sanctioning bodies — WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO — and also the most grotesque in the way it makes a mockery of the sport’s rich history.

The WBA has three champions at heavyweight, two at cruiserweight and light heavyweight, three at super middleweight, two at middleweight and super welterweight, one (shockingly) at welterweight, two at super lightweight, one at lightweight and super featherweight, two at featherweight, super bantamweight and bantamweight, one at super flyweight, flyweight, light flyweight and minimumweight.

If math isn’t your thing, that’s 29 men over 17 weight classes who the next time they fight will be introduced as a WBA world champion.

And that’s just the WBA.

It’s difficult to put a modern fighter’s accomplishments into proper historical perspective given the level of nonsense that the sanctioning groups pull.

If Alvarez defeats Kovalev, he’ll become the fourth Mexican boxer and the 20th overall to win titles in four weight classes. He could join Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Mike McCallum as the only 154-pound champions to go on to win the light heavyweight title. It would be a magnificent achievement.

There’s still nearly two months before the bout, which will be streamed on DAZN, but the early guess is that Alvarez will get it done. He’s a great body puncher, a much better defensive fighter than he’s given credit for and has a legendarily strong chin.

Alvarez is too smart to drop his hands and allow Kovalev to tee off. He’ll create angles, move up and down, confuse Kovalev and win a clear decision.

FILE - In this Saturday, Aug. 24, 2109 file photo, Sergey Kovalev of Russia celebrates after defeating Anthony Yarde of Britain during their WBO light heavyweight title bout in Chelyabinsk, Russia. Sergey Kovalev will fight Canelo Alvarez, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Anton Basanaev, File)
Sergey Kovalev celebrates after defeating Anthony Yarde (not pictured) during their WBO light heavyweight title bout on Aug. 24, 2019 in Chelyabinsk, Russia. Sergey Kovalev will fight Canelo Alvarez on Nov. 2, 2019 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Anton Basanaev)

If he pulls it off, it will be an extraordinary feat. He’d hold WBA and WBC belts at middleweight, the WBA belt at super middleweight and the WBO belt at light heavyweight, if he defeated Kovalev.

That, inevitably, will bring up talk of Henry Armstrong, who simultaneously held the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight titles at a time when there were only eight weight divisions in boxing.

Armstrong, who is the second-greatest pound-for-pound boxer behind only Sugar Ray Robinson, won the lineal featherweight title on Oct. 29, 1937 by knocking out Petey Sarron. On May 31, 1938, he won the lineal welterweight title when he decisioned the legendary Barney Ross. And then, in his next fight on Aug. 17, 1938, Armstrong won a split decision over Lou Ambers to become the lineal lightweight champion.

Doing that may be the single greatest feat by one man in boxing history. Anyone who tries to compare what Alvarez is attempting doesn’t understand a thing about boxing history.

Sarron and Ross are members of the International Boxing Hall of Fame and Ambers won 88 fights in a nine-year career. Among those are wins over Hall of Famers Armstrong, Fritzie Zivic, Tony Canzoneri, Baby Arizmendi and Beau Jack.

This is no criticism of Alvarez, but his super middleweight title came via a third-round knockout of the lightly regarded (to be kind) Rocky Fielding.

Alvarez has stood out in an era when champions are everywhere and it’s difficult to make big fights. Alvarez has repeatedly sought the greatest challenges and for that, he’ll one day be enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

His only loss, in 2013 to Floyd Mayweather, helped him improve by leaps and bounds. He learned from the defeat, another sign of a brilliant fighter.

Kovalev promoter Kathy Duva hit the right notes as she spoke of both men during her remarks in the news conference, noting both were what she called “throwback fighters.” A throwback fighter is someone like Robinson, who in February 1943 fought Jake La Motta twice, with a fight against California Jackie Wilson, in between.

“I want to give special thanks to Sergey Kovalev and Canelo Alvarez,” Duva said. “That’s not just on behalf of Main Events. Right now, I’m speaking to both of you as a lifelong boxing fan, not just as Sergey’s promoter. There are precious few throwback fighters like Sergey and Canelo in boxing today. Unfortunately, at some point around the turn of the last century … boxing began to lose its way. Certain fighters, TV executives, critics, [and] members of the media became so obsessed with won-loss records that they began to forget that this is a sport.

“Instead of building a legacy, preserving an ‘0’ and avoiding an unnecessary risk became the goal. To this day, some fighters are actually praised for it, though it blows my mind. Competition suffered because of that.”

That has never been Alvarez. He has uplifted his sport repeatedly by accepting these kinds of challenges.

He deserves to be commended for challenging Kovalev rather than agreeing to a mundane title defense against the likes of Sergiy Derevyanchenko he was virtually certain to win. He was stripped of his IBF belt for not fighting Derevyanchenko because his heart wasn’t in it and it wasn’t much of a fun fight. There’s a cruel irony in there that his one-time rival, Gennadiy Golovkin, had no problem jumping on what should be the easy title win when Alvarez declined it.

But let’s not let the mess the sanctioning bodies have made of the championship lineage in this sport obscure one unassailable fact: What Alvarez is attempting to do is nowhere near on par with what Armstrong did in a 10-month span in 1937-38.

It’s rare in today’s boxing, to be sure; but don’t even start to compare it in any way with what Armstrong did.

That feat has never been replicated and, given the direction of the sport, may never be accomplished again.

And that’s true no matter who wins on Nov. 2 at the MGM Grand Garden.

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