TURLEY on TUESDAY: Honest Smith betrays boxing’s bluff

For the second time in a couple of weeks a plucky Brit came up short. But while Kell Brook had the odds of two weight divisions stacked against him, Liam ‘Beefy’ Smith was simply not quite good enough. He lost “fair and square”, to use his words.

‘Canelo’ (‘cinnamon’ in English) Alvarez was a level above the likeable scouser on the night. Amazingly, at 26 the latino phenomenon is already a 50 fight veteran and his experience proved telling, as did his hand speed and power. In truth, he just had a little too much of everything.

There were moments when Smith backed his man up, but somehow his punching never impressed like Canelo’s. The muscular Mexican, strongly built at 5ft 9, has a rare snap and vitality in his work. His shots even sound hard.

After a tough opener, the Liverpudlian did well to reassert himself, but his moments of success were few and he often had to take several to land a couple of his own. It was like watching a man shoring up a dam with his finger. You hoped he could last but feared the tidal wave would come soon. Knockdowns in the 7th and 8th were followed by a murderous 9th round body-shot to seal the deal.

Smith made for a forlorn figure at the post-fight presser, cut over both eyes and relieved of the WBO super-welterweight title he won 11 months ago. He spoke of struggling to find his timing, how ‘cute’ Canelo was at close range, but then, as he came to terms with his first pro loss, he said something which should give everyone pause for thought. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again” he said. “There’s world champions and then there’s elite fighters”.

The hacks in attendance nodded, made notes and waited for their next soundbite, but Smith had just laid bare a truth at boxing’s heart. Kids might dream of growing up to be world champ, but in the real world that’s been old hat since the 90s. The top boys aren’t that bothered about championships any more. All they need is their name.

Remember that in this particular fight, Smith was the defending champion and Alvarez the challenger. Yet it can be confidently assumed that only a handful of the 50,000 in attendance at Arlington’s AT&T stadium had bought tickets to watch Beefy. The fight was held in the United States, in an area with a huge Mexican population. It took place on the weekend of Mexican Independence celebrations. Despite the fact that he was the one with the belt, Smith walked to the ring first, allowing Canelo the champion’s privilege of coming after and not having to wait.

It didn’t feel like Alvarez was challenging Smith, it felt like Smith was challenging Alvarez. And that’s because he was. Titles, frankly, are more-or-less irrelevant in modern boxing. Smith was challenging Canelo for a piece of the real action.

Since relinquishing the WBC Middleweight title rather than box Gennady Golovkin earlier this year, Alvarez retained his place in boxing’s financial stratosphere. His enormous popularity guarantees his spot as the A-side in any promotion. Floyd Mayweather Jr used to reside there too and still might return to it one day. Golovkin is about to move in, as arguably, is Sergey Kovalev if he beats Andre Ward in a couple of months. Bizarrely, in the UK, our occupant is IBF heavyweight champ, Anthony Joshua, truly remarkable considering his level of opposition to date.

The most marketable fighters form a super-strata where purses come in at least 7 digits and sponsorships or marketing deals are worth similar. They are men who will never have to work a day in their lives once their careers are over. They grace magazine covers and chat shows, they are national and international celebrities. In tandem with the biggest promoters and TV companies, this is what boxing is all about. If Smith had managed to upset Canelo, some of the gold-dust might have rubbed off on him.

So how did Canelo achieve this exalted status? Like Smith he was born into a boxing family in which all 7 of his brothers box or have boxed professionally. He began throwing hands at 13, became national Junior amateur champion and by the time he won his first pro world title, outpointing Matthew Hatton in 2011, he already looked set to inherit the mantle of Julio Cesar Chavez and Oscar De La Hoya. His red hair, unusual for a Mexican, made him easily recognisable, a trademark. His style was aggressive and exciting.

So it has proved.

In a nation that loves boxing and makes Gods of its top fighters, Alvarez has become the numero uno attraction. Promoted by De La Hoya’s Golden Boy company, his fights now usually take place on Mexican holidays to allow for maximum exposure. He beat Amir Khan on Cinco de Mayo prior to Smith’s Independence Day defeat.

Make no mistake, however, unlike some others, there is proven substance behind the hype. At light-middle, Alvarez is a fearsomely strong fighter. 34 inside-the-distance wins tell their own story. Golden Boy and HBO have built all that, along with his easy, boy-next-door charm to the point that stadiums are filled with ease, PPV receipts plentiful. At the present time he is not just his country’s number one draw, but boxing’s. There may be better fighters, (Rigondeaux? Gonzalez? Golovkin?) everyone has opinions about that, but nobody pulls the fans like Canelo.

His problems will only come as the demands of the business make him jump weight divisions. At 154 it would take a very special fighter to beat him. But at 160, against GGG? Would he be as strong? Would his tendency to box in bursts let him down? One day, we might just find out.

Already a three-time world champion, Canelo has boxed and beaten huge names such as Shane Mosley and Miguel Cotto. He has crushed dangerous contenders like bugs (James Kirkland, Kermit Cintron). His only blip came against the mercurial Mayweather, in which he was made to look clumsy. Yet it is difficult to begrudge Alvarez his place in the stars. PR and marketing have played a part but he is a special young fighter, one whose brand endures regardless.

Liam Smith hoped to be able to compete at that level, to show he belonged with the multi-millionaire kings of the ring, the elite who exist above trivialities, like titles, the pay-per-view aristocrats. But he couldn’t. He was just a world champion.


My book, ‘Wiped Out? The Jerome Wilson Story’ is available from Amazon and bookshops now

My book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ was longlisted for William Hill Sports book of the year and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.

Please listen to this excellent and very topical podcast about the darker side of boxing, featuring interviews with Ryan Rhodes, Paul ‘silky’ Jones, Glyn Rhodes MBE and Jerome Wilson.


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