Canelo Alvarez vs. Sergey Kovalev preview: Why size won't matter

Kevin IoleCombat columnist

LAS VEGAS — Size matters in boxing, or at least that’s what Oscar De La Hoya told us when he wasn’t yet ready to pit Canelo Alvarez against Gennadiy Golovkin.

In 2015, when it seemed the perfect time for Alvarez and Golovkin to clash for the middleweight title, Alvarez instead fought Amir Khan at a catchweight of 155 pounds. Khan, who wouldn’t have beaten Alvarez on his worst day, also was nowhere near big enough for the weight class and was cold-cocked by Alvarez in the sixth round.

The reason Golden Boy chose Khan instead of Golovkin at that point, De La Hoya said, was to allow Alvarez to get comfortable at middleweight. That fall, instead of facing Golovkin on Mexican Independence Day weekend, Alvarez stayed at super welterweight to make a largely meaningless title defense against Liam Smith.

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And then the following May, De La Hoya still didn’t think it was time. He put Alvarez in another catchweight bout, this time at 164 pounds, against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., a big talent who didn’t have anywhere near the discipline and dedication it took to defeat an elite fighter like Alvarez.

Getting comfortable at the weight was, once again, the reason.

But now, at a time when Alvarez and De La Hoya aren’t talking and don’t bother to acknowledge each other when they’re seated next to each other, Alvarez chose not to fight again at middleweight, where he is a world champion. Instead, on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, DAZN) at the MGM Grand Garden, he’ll jump to light heavyweight to face Sergey Kovalev for the WBO title.

Asked about it, Alvarez sneered and said size isn’t the only thing that matters in boxing.

Oddsmakers seem to agree. The MGM Grand sports book has Alvarez as a minus-400 favorite, with Kovalev at plus-310. At SportsBook USA, Alvarez is a minus-450 favorite, with Kovalev at plus-360.

Alvarez by knockout is plus-150 at the MGM, not that big of a price considering Alvarez has only fought three times above super welterweight, while Kovalev has been a light heavyweight for his entire career.

Canelo Alvarez (right) and Sergey Kovalev pose for photographers during a news conference Wednesday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Canelo Alvarez (right) and Sergey Kovalev pose for photographers during a news conference Wednesday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Kovalev, who is widely regarded as the bigger puncher of the two, is plus-500 to win by KO. That speaks volumes about the respect that bookies and bettors have for Alvarez’s chin, but it also has much to do with Alvarez’s ability to close distance and work the body when he needs to do so.

Normally against a bigger and stronger opponent, a fighter will want to stay on the outside and use lateral movement and a strong jab to control the pace.

Alvarez, though, figures to attack, for numerous reasons. The best way to blunt Kovalev’s offense is to back him up and force him to try to counter. He’s not a guy known for fighting off his back foot, and he’s not used to having an opponent on his chest pressuring him.

Alvarez’s two best attributes, though, are the sturdiness of his chin and his ability to work the midsection. If he’s working the inside, Alvarez will be able to score points while avoiding that big straight right Kovalev likes to throw behind his jab.

Kovalev’s antidote to that is to throw a double jab that not only blunts Alvarez’s forward charge, but also will be clean scoring blows the judges can see. Alvarez’s history in Las Vegas tells us that he’s likely to get the benefit of the doubt on most of the close rounds; one of Saturday’s judges is Don Trella, who somehow scored the seventh round of Alvarez’s first fight with Golovkin for Alvarez when everyone else in T-Mobile Arena that night felt it was Golovkin’s best round of the fight.

So fighting on the inside where the punches aren’t so obvious may simply lead the judges to go for Alvarez in a given round.

But if Kovalev can keep a consistent jab in Alvarez’s face, he’ll be able to use it to set up his straight right hand.

Kovalev has extraordinary faith in trainer Buddy McGirt and together, they’ll figure out a way to try to neutralize the inside work by Alvarez.

But even if Kovalev can keep the fight at a distance, Alvarez has more ways to win. He’s younger and has not faded late in bouts like Kovalev has tended to do. He’s also got an edge in quickness and will be able to work at a brisker pace.

Alvarez took a risk by taking this fight. He could have gone with the plan that Golden Boy and DAZN officials would have preferred and fought Golovkin. That would have been a more lucrative fight and one that Alvarez had to feel comfortable he’d win given their history.

But while he’s confident he’ll beat Kovalev and regaled reporters with a story of knocking out a heavyweight in sparring, fighting at 175 pounds is the land of the unknown for him.

Alvarez, though, is great because he takes risks like that and is good enough, and smart enough, to figure a way to make them work. He’ll do that again this time, too.

Look for Alvarez to score a clear decision over Kovalev and, in the process, become just the 20th boxer in history to win a world title in four weight classes.

More Canelo-Kovalev coverage from Yahoo Sports:

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