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Why Canelo Alvarez Is Sports Illustrated's 2019 Fighter of the Year

Boxing is a sport with problems.

Titles are a problem. The WBC and WBA quite literally make them up, confusing casual fans and watering down the caché of being a world champion.

Bad blood between promoters are a problem. Recently, we celebrated the official announcement of the rematch between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury because it meant two longtime rivals—Bob Arum and Al Haymon—came together to make a rare deal.

The number of networks in boxing is a problem. Oh sure, the sport is as visible as it’s ever been, with DAZN, Fox and ESPN joining longtime boxing broadcaster Showtime as outlets airing high-level boxing content. But networks overpaying for top talent has killed major matchups.

No one, you see, likes to share.

There’s a solution to boxing’s problems, though. All of them.

Fighters wanting to fight.

There’s a perception that fighters work for promoters. Fighters feed that perception, robotically repeating in interviews that they will get in the ring with anyone their promoter puts in front of them. It creates a shield; when a major fight fails to materialize, the promoter shoulders the blame.

It’s bogus, of course. The top fighters wield an enormous amount of power. Errol Spence and Terence Crawford are the two top 147-pound fighters in the world. If Spence and Crawford decided they would fight each other and no one else, if they ordered Arum and Haymon into a room to hammer out a deal, a deal would get done. Same with Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder, or Jermall Charlo and Demetrius Andrade.

Fights don’t happen because one fighter doesn’t really want the fight.

Canelo Alvarez is an example of what a fighter should be. Alvarez has been aligned with Golden Boy Promotions since 2010. Oscar De La Hoya has been his promoter—Canelo has been the boss. He fought Austin Trout, in 2013, when a Trout fight had little commercial appeal. He took on Erislandy Lara, in 2014, despite Golden Boy officials advising him not to. He made Gennadiy Golovkin wait a little longer than most liked, but eventually he went 24 rounds with the most fearsome middleweight in the world.

Last year was another banner year for Alvarez. In May, Alvarez took on Daniel Jacobs, out-pointing Jacobs to unify three pieces of the middleweight title. In November, Alvarez leaped up to 175 pounds to face Sergey Kovalev. After a cat-and-mouse game for 11 rounds, Alvarez finished Kovalev with a highlight reel knockout.

For those accomplishments, Alvarez is Sports Illustrated’s 2019 Fighter of the Year.

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“I’m very satisfied with last year,” Alvarez told in a telephone interview. “All the goals I had, I met.”

This was a strong year for boxing’s best, with Spence picking up the two most significant wins of his career, Naoya Inoue snaring a pair of wins on his way to winning the bantamweight version of the World Boxing Super Series and 41-year old Manny Pacquiao—Manny Pacquiao!—turning back the clock and regaining his place among the elite 147-pound fighters in the world. Alvarez, though, ping ponging weight classes, pocketing two new legitimate titles along the way, stood out.

Fame isn’t what motivates Alvarez, though the cinnamon-haired three-division world champion is one of boxing’s most recognizable stars. Money isn’t either, though Alvarez—three fights into an 11-fight deal with DAZN that could be worth as much as $365 million—has boxing’s healthiest bank account.

For Alvarez, boxing is about the challenge. He cites Julio Cesar Chavez and Shane Mosley as role models, speaking glowingly of their warrior mentalities. “They were courageous fighters,” Alvarez said. “Watching them, I knew when I turned pro, I wanted to seek out the biggest challenges.”

Jacobs represented a challenge. A big, athletic middleweight, Jacobs was fresh off the most significant win of his career, a title-claiming decision over Sergiy Derevyanchenko. An ordinarily accurate puncher, Jacobs was flustered by Canelo’s head movement and defense, landing just seven punches per round, according to CompuBox, and 20% of his shots overall, all while absorbing punches, 58 of which were aimed at the body.

Kovalev’s best days were behind him when Canelo moved up to light heavyweight to challenge for Kovalev’s version of the 175-pound title. It was a strategic decision, but not one without risk: Kovalev was still a fearsome puncher who had experienced a career resurgence under new trainer Buddy McGirt, who had helped Kovalev rediscover his stiff jab.

Kovalev threw that jab—a career-high 577 times, to be exact. But Alvarez’s defense was again on display, with just 63 of those punches connecting. In the 11th, Alvarez rocked Kovalev with a left hand, forcing Kovalev to drop his hands. Moments later, Alvarez drilled Kovalev with a right that ended the fight.

Alvarez says he will continue to seek out challenges in 2020. He says he is done with light heavyweight for now, but doesn’t rule out an eventual return. He even cites cruiserweight as a possibility down the line. He will have his pick of opponents from 160 to 168 pounds. A super middleweight matchup with Billy Joe Saunders or Callum Smith is possible. An anticipated third fight with Golovkin is on the table, too.

For Alvarez, 2020 could be as much about where he fights than who. He recalls traveling to Japan as a teenager to watch the famed Kameda brothers fight. He remembers vividly the energy of the crowd. He has fought his entire career in North America. In 2020, he would like that to change.

“I’ve been thinking about fighting all over the world,” Alvarez said. “Tokyo, Japan, has been one of the primary places on my mind.”

Wherever Canelo fights, a top opponent will likely follow. He has broken through the boxing politics, the network wars, the cluttered title scene by following the path of most resistance, and succeeding. Now, when Alvarez wants a fight, he gets it.

Fighters have the power to change boxing.

Canelo is proof of it.