LAS VEGAS – Standing in the lobby of Mandalay Bay late Tuesday afternoon, veteran Top Rank Boxing publicist Lee Samuels paced back and forth, a frown creasing his face.
In a few moments, I was to meet Mike Alvarado to watch a replay of his epic 2012 loss to Brandon Rios.
Alvarado, Samuels warned me, had only watched a replay of the Oct. 13 bout in Carson, Calif., once. It was one of the great fights of the 21st century, but Rios won it by seventh-round stoppage.
It was the first loss of Alvarado's career. He'd agreed to sit and watch the fight with me, but Samuels repeatedly warned me to be cautious.
"Dude, that was a tough fight," Samuels said, chuckling nervously. "And he hasn't seen it that much. Bad memories. Be careful."
Alvarado arrived in the lobby with manager Henry Delgado and we walked to the VIP room, adjacent to the casino, where I popped the DVD of the first fight into my MacBook Pro and we began to watch.
What followed was a fascinating look inside the mind of a fighter, which I was fortunate enough to repeat in Rios' suite the next day.
The two will meet Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center for the interim WBO super lightweight title, and I had the opportunity to get inside their heads just days from the big fight.
On Tuesday, I watched the battle and got the chance to understand how it played out from Alvarado's perspective. On Wednesday, I watched it with Rios and trainer Robert Garcia and got to hear what they thought and felt about the fight.
It was like watching two different fights. Sitting with Alvarado and Delgado, it seemed like Alvarado's fight and that it just slipped away from them near the end.
With Rios, though, my thoughts changed. Hearing it from his perspective, I left with the impression it had unfolded exactly the way he had wanted it to.
"I have watched this fight so many times," Rios said. "I watch it because I have to fight this guy again. That's my job, to be prepared. But you know what? I really watch this fight so much because I love it. Who doesn't love to watch a war like that? That's what I love to do."
Both boxers move quickly to the center of the ring as the fight starts. Rios is seated on a couch in his suite, his legs crossed, grinning as he watches himself flick a jab in Alvarado's direction in the opening seconds.
"This is just a feel-him-out round for me," Rios said. "I just want to see what he's got, what he can do."
As he said this, the fighters exchange punches, with Alvarado seemingly landing two good right hands that landed cleanly. I noted Rios' reputation for having a good chin, but he shook his head no.
"He wasn't really punching that hard, man, I'll be honest with you," Rios said. "I spar with a lot of bigger guys – a lot of them – and I haven't really felt one that much."
He mentions sparring with middleweight champion Sergio Martinez and says he never felt Martinez's power.
"You know who really can punch?" Rios asks, tapping Garcia on the shoulder. "Mikey [Garcia, trainer Robert Garcia's younger brother and the WBO featherweight champion]. You can feel his punches."
The first round is fought at a frenetic pace. Mostly, the fight is fought with the men leaning against each other, in close. Alvarado seems to be doing his best when he creates a bit of distance between himself and Rios.
He lands a jab and follows with a right hand.
"Look at that!" Delgado said to Alvarado. "Did you see that?"
Alvarado shook his head affirmatively. With space, he clearly was able to land. He didn't, he said, want to circle and jab.
"The people came there to see a fight and I wanted to give them what they wanted to see," Alvarado said.
The round ended. Rios smiled as he watched himself walk back to his corner. Alvarado grimaced a bit.
Both, though, had the same reaction.
"Great round," Rios said.
A day earlier, Alvarado said pretty much the same thing.
"That was great," he said. "I was like, 'OK, it's on now. This is what we wanted."
The action resumes quickly when the bell sounds to start the second round. Alvarado gets hit by a Rios combination. As he watches, he grimaces, but says nothing.
They're in close and they are battling for position. I put out to Alvarado that Rios was holding his right low. Did he, I asked, notice that and think about throwing a lead left hook?
"I noticed that and we talked about it," Alvarado said. "It was there."
Seconds later, Alvarado fires a four-punch combination and the announcer on the broadcast, Col. Bob Sheridan, raises his voice in excitement.
Hearing Sheridan, Garcia grimaces.
"See, people don't think Brandon has [a good] defense," Garcia said. "But how many of those punches were landing? He had his hands up and they were being blocked. Look."
I push the DVD back about 20 seconds.
"See," Garcia said. "Blocked! Blocked! Missed. Blocked!"
Rios nods in agreement. "People think I was hit there because my head went back," he says. "But it was only because I blocked the punch and my glove went back and pushed me in my face and moved my head back."
He urges me to pay attention to the difference in swelling as the fight goes on. Alvarado's eyes are swollen a lot, but Rios has little swelling.
"Maybe part of it is just that some people swell up more than others, but I think it's showing who is getting hit and who is not," Rios says.
"I'm loving this," Rios said as the third round started. "I [expletive] love it! I could probably tell you every punch that landed in this fight."
Rios burrows into position and is close to Alvarado, as he was just about the entire fight. Alvarado uses his left shoulder to push Rios back and create punching room for himself.
He does this and lands a series of punches. A former state champion wrestler in high school, Alvarado said that is what helps him make such moves.
"I have that athleticism [from having wrestled]," he said.
Delgado said that Rios has to reset every time Alvarado creates space, but says that Alvarado is able to punch whether they're in tight or at a distance.
"It's not a huge thing," Delgado says to Alvarado. "You have that balance. Look at him. Look how his weight's all forward, out of balance. You're nice and balance. You just need to have that distance."
Alvarado just nods.
On Tuesday, as I sat with Alvarado and Delgado watching the fight, I just knew that Alvarado had taken command as the fourth round unfolded.
Look, Alvarado said, and he called out shots he landed while it appeared he was taking nothing in return.
"I hit him with those right hands and then I had that hook," he said. "Did you see that?"
A day later, though, watching with Rios and Garcia and hearing them talk during the fourth, it seemed plainly obvious that it was Rios, not Alvarado, who was in command.
Rios ripped a left hook to the body that seemed to push Alvarado back.
The left hook to the body would play a big role later in the fight, both men said. Alvarado said during the fourth that Rios wasn't hurting him, and hadn't hurt him, until Rios caught him with a left hook to the body near the end of the sixth round.
Without prompting, Rios mentioned the sixth-round left hook as pivotal.
"Wait until you see that one," Rios said as he landed a fourth-round left to Alvarado's midsection. "That one in the sixth round, you'll see."
The crowd is chanting "Rios! Rios! Rios!" early in the round. I asked him if the cheering motivated him.
"To be honest with you, I zone all of that out and I don't even hear it," Rios said. "All I can hear is my corner."
Garcia is clearly happy with the way the bout is unfolding at this point, even though Alvarado, a day earlier, seemed to be thrilled with it, as well.
"Brandon's just breaking him down, breaking him down," Garcia said.
Alvarado lands a 1-2 combination and the announcers shriek. Rios grimaces. It's clear he doesn't like the commentary and thinks the announcers are favoring Alvarado.
Former champion Carlos Palomino, doing color, notes that Alvarado is breaking Rios down and that Rios is just going for the home run.
"What the [expletive] does that mean?" Rios said.
He sneers and turns to Garcia.
"Don't you just love when the commentators say something stupid and you go and prove them wrong," Rios said.
The sixth round begins and Alvarado is noting all the shots he's landing.
"This is perfect, the way you're fighting," Delgado says.
Alvarado nods in agreement. I mention that watching the fight live that night in Carson, I scored the sixth for Rios. But as I'm sitting with Alvarado, it seems that may have been incorrect.
Alvarado is boxing smartly and is using his jab. He's using it to set up his right hand, which keeps finding a home.
"I was feeling really good at this point," Alvarado said, about two minutes into the sixth round. "I liked the way the fight was going. I was landing that right hand pretty well. It was a tough fight, for sure."
He landed a clean right and it didn't seem to faze Rios. I asked if that were frustrating.
"No, you can't be thinking that way," Alvarado says, inching forward in his chair to get close to the laptop. "He was taking some shots, but he's a tough guy. I knew that."
Rios, though, says he wasn't being hurt. But he is eager to see the left hook to the body he lands.
As the fighters move toward Alvarado's corner, Rios jumps up from his seat. "Here it comes!" he shrieks. "Watch. Watch. I set him up for it right here."
Rios lands a right hand over the top and then digs a left hook to the body.
"I could hear him go, 'Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh,' and the air was going out of his body," Rios said.
Before he could do anything, the bell sounded.
"It was a great shot, to be honest," Alvarado said. "But I recovered from it."
Both fighters were silent for much of the seventh round. The fight was stopped at 1:57 of the round, with Alvarado with his back along the ropes. Referee Pat Russell jumped in to stop it as Rios collapsed on the floor in celebration.
As the round unfolds, both watch the screen intently.
Rios perks up when he lands a big right hand that sends Alvarado stumbling toward the corner.
"Whoa!" he shouts as the right hand landed. It was the punch that set up the punch that ended the fight.
Delgado, when that punch landed, shook his head. He began to talk of a quick stoppage. He noted that Russell was the same referee in the March 16 Timothy Bradley-Ruslan Provodnikov fight.
Provodnikov pinned Bradley on the ropes in the 11th round of that fight and was landing some heavy punches.
"He let Bradley go on, but he didn't give Mike a chance to recover," Delgado said.
Rios lands another crushing right hand that sent Alvarado slumping back against the ropes, his hands down at his side. Rios, who had been leaning forward, gleefully falls back in his chair, lifting his feet and bringing his hands to his face.
Garcia starts counting the punches that Rios threw – not all of which landed – and notes that Alvarado never responded.
"Play that back," Garcia commands.
I reset the fight to the point where Rios lands the first big right that sends Alvarado staggering toward the corner.
He begins counting, sometimes seemingly getting ahead of the punches. He reaches 23 when the fight is stopped.
"See! See! Of course they had to stop the fight," Garcia said. "He threw 23 punches and [Alvarado] never threw one."
On Tuesday, Alvarado said he would have been able to continue. I mentioned to him that he made no effort to clinch to buy himself time. I theorized that if he had, he might have shown Russell he was still with it and aware of his surroundings, and that might have allowed the fight to go on.
Several times earlier, Alvarado had mentioned it was an early stoppage. Now, though, as he sees Russell bear hug him and wave the fight off, Alvarado silently nods affirmatively.
"You know," he said, softly, "I can't complain. It's his job to protect us. I can't say too much."
As the fight ended and I shut the computer down, a beaming Alvarado said, "Well, I got my film study in for the night."
He smiles, and says he hopes that the rematch on Saturday is similarly as good.
"People love that fight," he said. "As fighters, we want to give them what they want, and I feel like they did."
I mention to him that Muhammad Ali lost the first fight to Joe Frazier, but won the next two. The same was true for Arturo Gatti, who lost his epic first match with Micky Ward before winning the last two bouts. Erik Morales beat Marco Antonio Barrera in their first fight, but Barrera took the next two.
Does that, I asked, give you hope to be able to turn it around?
"I hope," he said, "There is a third fight, that means I did something right in this one [Saturday]."
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