This feature originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of The Ring Magazine.
“This bout is a draw, ladies and gentlemen!” It’s a phrase no one wants to hear.
An even prizefight leaves one completely unfulfilled and, except for bookies and the confident few who gambled on the long odds, nobody wins. Two quality athletes have trained themselves to the bone, only to be rewarded with what is essentially a stalemate. Fight fans have endured weeks, months, or even years of pre-fight anticipation and, in the end, all that’s left is a knockout dose of nothing.
And controversy is never far behind.
When a bout is declared even, one of the fighters is usually adjudged the winner by the public. Marvelous Marvin Hagler should have begun his middleweight title reign in November 1979, but Vito Antuofermo retained on a tie verdict. In September 1993, Pernell Whitaker clearly won his draw against Julio Cesar Chavez, but two of the three judges missed the fight. And in March 1999, Lennox Lewis had to settle for a draw after he appeared to have dominated Evander Holyfield.
On September 16, 2017, at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the consensus among ringsiders was that unified middleweight titleholder Gennady Golovkin had outpointed lineal and then-Ring champion Canelo Alvarez with room to spare. Predictably, when ring announcer Michael Buffer notified 22,358 fans that the bout was a draw, the reaction was beyond hostile. Alvarez was booed incessantly for the first time in his decorated career.
Former five-weight world champion and boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard can relate. On June 12, 1989, Leonard was dropped twice by archrival Thomas Hearns in a thrilling world-title rematch contested at super middleweight. Despite having stopped Hearns in their classic welterweight unification showdown in September 1981, Leonard appeared to have fallen way short in the return. However, “The Sugarman” was rescued by a notorious draw and left the arena with chants of “bullshit” ringing in his ears.
Sugar Ray Leonard felt the sting of public scrutiny after battling rival Thomas Hearns to a controversial draw (which many thought he lost) in their 1989 rematch.
“That reaction was a lot more painful than Tommy’s punches,” said Leonard, who now freely admits that Hearns should have been given the verdict that night. “When I go into the ring, I go in to do my job. When I don’t get the best out of myself, or if I don’t give the fans what they deserve, it’s painful. I contemplated quitting the sport because of that.
“Canelo will have felt that fan reaction. Fighters are just like anyone else in that respect; they don’t like that kind of thing. The sound of booing or the negative words will have bothered Canelo, without question. It’s very uncomfortable to be on the end of that. You don’t want to hear booing when you’re accustomed to cheers.”
Leonard wasn’t the first great fighter to be granted a favor when the numbers were collated. In 1976, the same year he took gold at the Montreal Olympics, Leonard’s boxing idol, Muhammad Ali, was deemed fortunate to retain his heavyweight championship in close calls against Jimmy Young and Ken Norton. Many felt that Ali’s popularity and glamour gave him an unfair advantage with judges, and Leonard’s escape in the Hearns rematch was viewed in much the same way.
“The public looked upon that result as a bit of a con,” said journalist Wallace Matthews, who covered the fight for Newsday. “It was obvious to me who had won that fight, although I admit I was a Hearns fan back then. I liked him as a puncher. I liked him as a person and, at that time, he was a bit more real than Ray.
“The Leonard-Hearns rivalry reminded me of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Leonard was flashy and glib, whereas Tommy was always being real. He wasn’t polished and he said what he felt. Ray came across like an athlete, but when you spoke to Tommy, you felt like he was a real guy. Because of that, you wanted to see him win. But he got fucked over pretty good that night.”
Both Canelo-Golovkin and Leonard-Hearns II took place in Las Vegas, a glitzy locale synonymous with dubious decisions in boxing. However, our next draw took place 3,500 miles away in the city of Quito, capital of Ecuador.
In May 1993, Bernard Hopkins lost a bout for the vacant IBF middleweight title when he dropped a 12-round unanimous decision to fellow American Roy Jones Jr. in Washington, D.C. The Philadelphia boxer-puncher regrouped well to win four fights – three by knockout – and when Jones moved up to super middleweight, Hopkins was offered another shot at the vacant belt against Ecuador’s Segundo Mercado on December 17, 1994.
Despite being dropped twice – in the fifth and seventh rounds – Hopkins appeared to have banked enough sessions to capture his first world championship. However, the bout was declared a draw and, this time, personality and glamour had nothing to do with it.
“If I had won, I don’t think I would have got out of there alive,” recalled Hopkins. “It was a very hostile crowd and they were obviously pro-Mercado. There was a lot of trouble between Peru and Ecuador at that time (the Cenepa War broke out the following month), and it wasn’t pleasant.
“Being honest, the draw probably worked out better for me, but I was very upset at the time. The challenge, then, was to prove I had it spiritually and mentally to become champion and reach greatness. But I don’t believe I would have got to where I did in my career if I didn’t come through that experience. I think overcoming that setback was testimony to my drive and determination.”
Just as Canelo and Golovkin will have the chance to settle their argument in a direct rematch, so too did Hopkins. Four months later, “The Executioner” battered Mercado to a seventh-round stoppage, and a legendary 10-year title reign at 160 pounds had begun.
Incredibly, however, lightning struck twice when Hopkins faced Canadian Jean Pascal for the Ring and WBC light heavyweight titles on December 18, 2010. At 45, Hopkins harbored the unlikely dream of eclipsing George Foreman’s record of being the oldest fighter to win a recognized world championship. Again Hopkins was in enemy territory, this time Quebec City. Again his opponent had him down twice. Again he appeared to have taken command, only for the bout to be declared a 12-round majority draw.
“The Pascal draw pissed me off,” snapped Hopkins, who, incredibly, at 46 years old, outpointed Pascal in a rematch on May 21, 2011, to break the record Foreman had held for over 16 years. “That felt unfair, and I had to dig deep and remind myself that I’d been there before. You must fight through adversity and never give up. That’s my motto in life and in the sport of boxing.
“That was Bernard’s personality,” said Matthews, who first encountered Hopkins not long after the fighter was released from a five-year stint in prison for armed robbery. “He’s a contrarian, and if he can prove you wrong, he’s going to do it. That was his motivation, and there are a lot of guys like that in this sport.”
If Hopkins was a contrarian, then the show-stealing Leonard was your ultimate nonconformist. While he never had the chance to get Hearns back in the ring following their infamous draw, the Hall of Famer knows all about switching tactics for a direct rematch. Never was that more evident than when he made Roberto Duran surrender at the Superdome in New Orleans on November 25, 1980.
Five months earlier, Duran had defeated Leonard by 15-round unanimous decision and claimed his WBC welterweight title. It was a ferocious battle that saw Leonard attempt to match Duran on the inside, a strategy that cost him heavily. The defeat was painful, physically and emotionally, and the former champion, not for the last time, considered retirement.
That didn’t last long, because Leonard, just like Canelo and Golovkin today, became obsessed with proving his superiority. “Initially, I was reticent because the first fight was so hard,” acknowledged Leonard. “I probably got hit more times in that fight than any other. I had to reach down deep and go to places that very few fighters have gone. But I knew I could win if I fought the right fight.
“Winning that rematch was even sweeter than if I’d won the first time. It was bizarre. It was satisfying. It was every adjective you could possibly think of. It was an amazing victory. They tried to take it away from me, but no matter what way you want to call it, Duran quit and I made him quit.
“It was a natural rematch, and so is Canelo-GGG. This truly means something. People are looking forward to this fight, and this is a chance for both fighters to get it right. There should be even more desire now, and when you have two guys this talented, with everything that’s at stake, you should get one hell of a fight.”
Realistically, given the controversy that forced the original May 5 fight date to be pushed back, Alvarez will enter the T-Mobile Arena on September 15 as the bad guy. Most observers feel that the Mexican boxer-puncher was lucky last time, and the positive tests for clenbuterol and subsequent suspension by the Nevada Athletic Commission have marked him, for many, as a fistic pariah.
However, the controversy has only made the rescheduled rematch a bigger event, and Golovkin has been installed as a pre-fight favorite. The majority of experts also seem to be leaning in that direction. However, there are those who are leaving the door wide open for the underdog.
“Having watched the first fight, I think Canelo can win the rematch,” said Matthews. “I know the Golovkin camp hates this narrative, but he is aging. He wasn’t the same guy against Canelo, Danny Jacobs or Kell Brook. If Canelo can start the same way he fought Rounds 11 and 12, then he can win this.
“The big variable is, were those last rounds down to Canelo, or were they down to Golovkin? Did Golovkin run out of steam and did that give Canelo a chance to do things he couldn’t do earlier in the fight? If I thought those rounds were real, as in a product of Canelo figuring out his man, then I would say he’s going to win on points. But, if Golovkin wasn’t as conditioned as he should have been, or if age was an issue, he’s a smart guy and he might come out more aggressively and knock Canelo out. It’s all about those last two rounds.”
Gathering a prediction from Hopkins seemed somewhat futile. The former champion has a promotional interest in Alvarez and he wasn’t about to wax lyrical about Golovkin’s chances in the fight. However, Hopkins was eager to point out that the Mexico theme surrounding Canelo and the Mexican Independence Day weekend will have no influence on the atmosphere or the outcome.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s two Mexicans in that ring,” said the future Hall of Famer. “The Mexican fans have embraced GGG because he uses the Mexican style. When and why he started that, I don’t really know, but it was a great promotional hook because Mexicans love guys who put themselves on the line.
“There’s no real favorite in terms of the crowd in Las Vegas. You have one fighter from Mexico against another who uses the Mexican style and they are fighting on (a Mexican holiday). GGG may as well be named Golovkez; that’s how close he is to the Mexican fans.”
So, what about the combat itself? Will a tactical adjustment be enough for one of these fighters to get over the line? Can Golovkin, The Ring’s No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter, apply even more pressure and suck the will and ambition from his opponent? Can Alvarez exploit the openings more ruthlessly this time and come away with a historic victory?
Sugar Ray Leonard knows only too well that a fight isn’t always decided on who gets it right tactically. A showdown of this magnitude often comes down to character. Who’s willing to take risks and deal with the potential consequences? Who’s willing to dig that little bit deeper when it matters most? There are a variety of intangibles that make up a great fighter, and Leonard utilized all of them during his own career.
“I often tell people that we all have the ability to release strength and power from within,” said the former champion. “What separates us is having the ability to activate it.”
It remains to be seen who can activate on September 15.
Tom Gray is Associate Editor for Ring Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing
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