Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Kovalev-Alvarez: High Risk, High Reward

Over the last year, it is indisputable that one of the biggest players in the broadcasting realm that has emerged in the sport of Boxing has been digital subscription sports streaming network DAZN. One of the key reasons for that in the wake of Home Box Office’s (HBO) decision to exit Boxing in an announcement in September 2019 was the near-immediate signing by DAZN of Saul “Camelo” Alvarez. Alvarez, one of the sport’s biggest stars signed a landmark five year contract worth an estimated $365 Million with the streaming network after coincidentally being one of the key fighters in HBO’s stable and the biggest pay-per-view draw in recent years for the sport.

The signing of Alvarez by DAZN, which coincidentally expanded into the United States last year shortly before HBO’s announcement last September that it would leave Boxing at the end of 2018 ending a forty-five year run, helped usher in a new era for the sport and served as a significant part of the network’s strategy to serve as a more economically reasonable alternative to the long-standing pay-per-view model by successfully signing away the top pay-per-view draw in the sport and using Alvarez’ as the centerpiece of the new subscription-based model where consumers either have the option to pay a monthly or annual fee to access all the content the network has to offer including all of their Boxing cards with the option to view content both live and on-demand.

While It should be no secret to longtime readers that this observer is supportive of this model as it is more beneficial to consumers than paying increasingly expensive pay-per-view prices on a per card basis where only a portion of a full Boxing card is offered. The view of yours truly aside, a challenge that exists not only for DAZN, but also ESPN, who also has taken a similar approach with their ESPN+ digital streaming network, is to provide their respective subscribers with the types of bouts that they were accustomed to paying to see on pay-per-view.

For Alvarez, who has fought twice since signing with DAZN, one might say that one of those bouts were viewed as “Pay-Per-View level”, that fight being his unification bout against IBF Middleweight world champion Daniel Jacobs in May of this year. It was his first bout under the DAZN banner however, which may have given him the confidence to attempt something that some might view as illogical.

The fight that I’m referring to dear reader was his bout against Super-Middleweight Rocky Fielding in December of last year. A fight where Alvarez, a long time Jr. Middleweight who was a unified world champion in the Middleweight division successfully moved up in weight and scored a quick knockout over a theoretically bigger fighter and earned interim/regular champion status in the World Boxing Association (WBA) Super-Middleweight ratings in the process.

Although his bout with Fielding was frankly a case of two fighters of different levels of skill squaring off against each other, the win over Fielding should indeed be viewed as a confidence booster in that Alvarez showed a willingness to go in against a bigger fighter, who theoretically had physical advantages over him. While that fighter is not competitive, it did serve as a way to evaluate how Alvarez would do at a higher weight.

Alvarez will now attempt to move up two weight classes from where he is world champion in the Middleweight division when he faces three-time Light-Heavyweight world champion Sergey Kovalev on Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, NV. This fight carries along with it a significant risk in that after Alvarez knocked out Rocky Fielding last year, he immediately moved back down to Middleweight to resume defending his world championship. Now, Alvarez will leapfrog up to the 175lb. Light-Heavyweight division from the 160lb. Middleweight division.

Even though moving up fifteen pounds may not seem as if it would be that difficult especially in an era where the sport has seventeen weight classes and it is not uncommon to see fighters moving up in weight, it is important to remember that the bulk of Alvarez’ career was fought as a 154lb. Jr. Middleweight after initially debuting professionally as a 147lb. Welterweight. It is rare to see even elite-level fighters move up in weight through multiple divisions without experiencing some difficulty.

Difficulty can come in various forms. In regard to a fighter moving up in weight, one of the most common is that they find that the effectiveness of their punches is not the same as they might have had in fights fought at lower weights. While it is also true that fighters do struggle to make lower weights than what their body may feel more naturally comfortable, it can still be a challenge for one to be able to successfully carry their ability to score knockouts and perhaps other elements of their skills such as the ability to be elusive and the ability to evade punches at a higher weight.

This was not tested for Alvarez in his fight against Rocky Fielding, but will likely be tested early in his fight against Sergey Kovalev. Kovalev, much like Alvarez’ heated rival Gennady Golovkin, carved out a reputation as a feared knockout artist in the Light-Heavyweight division ascending to a unified world champion along the way. The fighter known as “Krusher” however, has seen his career struggle and has suffered some setbacks.

Most Boxing aficionados will likely point to his two losses against Andre Ward as well as his knockout loss at the hands of Eleider Alvarez in their first encounter in August of last year as signs of Kovalev’s decline. Although Kovalev also suffered a controversial stoppage loss in his second fight against Andre Ward prior to suffering the knockout against Eleider Alvarez, he has shown the ability to bounce back including scoring a dominant twelve round unanimous decision over Alvarez in their rematch in February of this year.

Perhaps the significant reason for that was the addition of Hall of Fame fighter and trainer Buddy McGirt in Kovalev’s corner. Kovalev has fought twice since suffering a knockout to Alvarez and has shown more of a well-rounded skill set with an emphasis on Boxing as opposed to the seek and destroy “Knockout Artist” that he built his reputation on.

In his last fight however, in August of this year Kovalev did have a scare put into him by McGirt, who threatened to stop his fight against previously undefeated contender Anthony Yarde after the eighth round of that fight as McGirt felt that he was taking too many punches. As some may recall thisobserver’s coverage of that fight, the bout took place shortly after the passing of Maxim Dadashev, a McGirt trained fighter who died in the days following his fight against Subriel Matias. Although I stated that some may have questioned why McGirt would threaten to stop a fight that Kovalev was in control of, with the exception of the eighth round, that it was important to remember that he was the one that stopped the fight involving Dadashev, despite his fighter’s plea to go on and was praised by many including Yours truly for the decision to stop the fight, some may have questioned whether or not under the circumstances and Kovalev’s fight with Yarde taking place one month after Dadashev’s bout with Matias if McGirt should have been working the corner. Although McGirt himself is the only one that could say why he would threaten to stop the Kovalev-Yarde fight, Kovalev did respond and was able to score a knockout in the eleventh round.

Some may also question given what happened after the eighth round in that fight as to whether that is the reason Saul Alvarez chose to face Kovalev and also chose to face him so soon after Kovalev’s last title defense. Whether or not it was a strategic move by Alvarez remains to be seen, but the question is what will happen in the ring?

It is crucial in my eyes that Kovalev get the respect of Alvarez early in the fight. While I do not feel that it would be a smart move for him to revert back to the seek and destroy style that made him a household name and he should show the skills that he has shown under Buddy McGirt’s guidance, he must establish himself early on. Alvarez showed world-class defense and elusiveness in his last fight against Daniel Jacobs and it will be interesting to see how the champion will look to combat Alvarez.

In this observer’s eyes, Kovalev must apply strategic pressure on Alvarez early and must make him feel uncomfortable and unable to dictate the combat. The champion however, must be weary of Alvarez’ ability to counter punch and to attack in compact spurts. Kovalev has also shown that he does not absorb body punches well and this could play into Alvarez’ fight plan.

The fight plan Alvarez executed against Rocky Fielding was one that saw a near non-stop attack to Fielding’s body. Although until he suffered setbacks against Andre Ward and Eleider Alvarez Sergey Kovalev was considered one of the best fighters in the world, it is logical to assume that Saul Alvarez will look to take a similar approach as he did against Fielding.

Alvarez needs to keep in mind however, he is facing a fighter in Sergey Kovalev that is a more well-rounded and complete fighter as compared to Rocky Fielding and the approach that he took against Fielding may not be as easy to accomplish against Kovalev, who has only improved under the tutelage of Buddy McGirt. As he has done in previous fights, Alvarez must be tactical in his approach, but also needs to respect Kovalev’s punching power and as the fighter moving up in weight should resist the temptation to go toe to toe with Kovalev if circumstances emerge.

Although most Boxing fans would likely say that they enjoy watching to be elite-level fighters stand and trade power punches, Boxing is a tactical sport and more often than not it is a fighter’s tactics that win fights and not stictly the ability to take a punch. Alvarez must be elusive and look to outbox Kovalev over the course of the twelve round world championship bout to be successful.

In terms of what this fight could mean for the business landscape of the sport, it is an interesting scenario. Much like Alvarez, Kovalev was tied to HBO prior to the network’s decision to back out of the sport. Kovalev’s last two fights have been on ESPN+ and he has now co-promoted by Bob Arum’s Top Rank Inc., who has an exclusive deal with ESPN.

While the subject exclusivity with networks having contracts with promoters and fighters has led to fights that have significant public demand not being made for in most cases lengthy periods of time, DAZN and ESPN have shown a willingness to showcase each other’s fighters on their respective platforms. In terms of this fight, it has been said by Bob Arum that if Kovalev were to lose to Alvarez that Kovalev’s next two fights would be broadcast by DAZN. If Kovalev does retain his title against Alvarez however, he will go back to fighting on ESPN and ESPN+. Even though win or lose Alvarez will remain exclusive to DAZN, the willingness of competing platforms to do business with each other for the ultimate betterment of Boxing is extremely refreshing and I hope is something that will continue in this new era. Boxing after all is always elevated to a higher level when the best fighters fight the best and when the various political elements that exist in the sport do not serve as roadblocks standing in the way of those fights from happening.

Of course, we don’t know what will happen when Sergey Kovalev and Saul Alvarez square off on Saturday night. One can hope that no matter the outcome, the sport will be able to continue to capitalize on and benefit from the positive things that have come from networks like DAZN and ESPN working together. Boxing as a sport is one with no storage of negativity, but for all the negative things that have been seen in Boxing throughout its history, everyone associated with the sport whether they be journalists/writers/historians who cover Boxing like yours truly, broadcasters, the fighters themselves, promoters, and most importantly the fans who tirelessly support the sport in good times and bad should be able to enjoy some of the good Boxing has to offer from time to time.

One can only hope as we are in the midst of a new era that should benefit the sport and it’s fans for many years to come that we all look back on November 2, 2019, the day Sergey Kovalev and Saul Alvarez did battle for Kovalev’s WBO Light-Heavyweight world championship as one such occasion that everyone will remember fondly. We will see what happens on Saturday night.

“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”

Kovalev vs. Alvarez takes place on Saturday, November 2nd at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, NV. The fight can be seen in the United States and several international countries exclusively on digital subscription sports streaming network DAZN beginning at 6:30 PM ET/3:30 PM PT (U.S. Time.) For more information about DAZN including schedules, list of compatible streaming devices/platforms/Smart TVs, availability around the world, and to subscribe please visit: www.DAZN.com. Check your local listings internationally.

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