Canelo Alvarez’s addiction to greatness is a threat to his legacy

LAS VEGAS — In boxing, daring to be great is what separates the champions from the legends. Anybody can win a world title, but the greatest in the sport make a habit of finding the most dangerous dragon to slay. They always have something to prove, even when the challenge may appear to be insurmountable. Sometimes, it is. But those who are challenging themselves will never admit it. 

Chasing greatness can also become an addiction. Canelo Alvarez’s addiction finally got the best of him when he lost a unanimous decision to Dmitry Bivol in pursuit of a world light heavyweight championship. It was his first defeat since dropping a decision to Floyd Mayweather in 2013, but this one was far different. 

Against Mayweather, Canelo was a young pup (then 23) who found himself overmatched by a seasoned veteran who utilized his experience to thwart a fighter who realized he couldn’t get by on sheer youth. Alvarez learned a harsh lesson that night, but that lesson allowed him to challenge himself to become a better defensive fighter who could take his natural tools to the next level by focusing on his ring IQ. 

MORE: When will Canelo fight next? GGG headlines possible opponents

Losing to Bivol was Canelo’s hunt for legacy getting the best of him. He found out that some mountains are too tall to climb. You could argue that Bivol may not have been the better all-around boxer, but his combination of ability and a significant size advantage was simply too much for even the great Mexican fighter to overcome.

Canelo learned that there are weight classes in boxing for a reason and he was out of his depth on this night. 

It had worked for him before, though. Canelo won the light heavyweight championship against Sergey Kovalev in 2019. But Kovalev was past his prime and weather-worn when Alvarez got to him and scored an 11th-round knockout. Bivol is 31 and in his physical prime, not to mention that he’s technically sound with a fantastic jab, a sturdy chin and tight defense. Unlike Canelo’s previous opponents, Bivol wasn’t in awe of his skill. Bivol’s technical proficiency gave Canelo few windows of opportunity. 

Bivol did say that he felt Canelo’s power; to prove it, he showed some ugly bruising on his arms from blocking it. But he was big and strong enough to absorb the punishment and he never lost his composure. 

All three judges had it 115-113 for Bivol, a score that was arguably much closer than most onlookers had. Nevertheless, Canelo didn’t think he lost, and he said that he would exercise his rematch clause immediately. 

“I’m always going out looking for difficult fights,” Alvarez said. “I’m always up for taking on new challenges.”

He’s addicted to greatness. The high is something he can’t shake. But could that be to his detriment? 

Prior to the Bivol fight, Canelo had begun carving out a legacy that could very well put him on the short list of all-time greats. A world champion in four weight classes and the first undisputed super middleweight champion — the latter a feat he needed less than a year to accomplish — had even his staunchest critics taking a step back and wondering if they were being too hard on him.

MORE: Who is Dmitry Bivol? Bio, record of light heavyweight champion 

But this loss is a blemish that some will say damages his chances of joining the likes of Ali, Robinson, Mayweather, Leonard, Pep, Armstrong and others. Losses hurt in the short term; the naysayers will say that it’s a reach to suggest that he could be in that conversation. 

It’s not a reach — yet.

With the exception of Mayweather, who was calculated in the latter stages of his career and assessed the risk and reward of each opponent, every fighter mentioned on the short list lost fights. Age eventually got the best of most of them. Some suffered defeat but then came back to avenge the loss (Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard immediately come to mind). Those losses didn’t hinder their greatness in the long run; rather, they became blips on the radar. Overcoming adversity is something that is smiled upon when assessing a fighter’s greatness. 

Losing to Bivol shouldn’t do that much damage to Canelo’s still-growing legacy considering all he has done through multiple weight classes. But at a certain point, his ambition could be damaging should he choose to go through with the rematch and lose to Bivol again.

Few will consider that he simply wanted the toughest challenges and maybe bit off more than he could chew. It will be another loss, plain and simple. And if Bivol doesn’t go on to become an all-time great himself, then the critics will say that those losses will punt Canelo out of the GOAT conversation.

Which is kind of ridiculous. 

Julio Cesar Chavez, arguably the greatest Mexican boxer of all time, suffered his first loss to Frankie Randall, an 18-1 underdog. That blemish is far worse than Canelo suffering his first loss to Mayweather, who was the favorite in their fight. Chavez went on to lose twice to the younger and stronger Oscar De La Hoya, get stopped by the powerful Kostya Tszyu and end his career as a way over-the-hill fighter clinging to his legacy when the relatively unknown Grover Wiley stopped him in four rounds. 

Nobody really cares that Chavez lost. They remember his epic run of starting his career with 87 straight wins and being unbeaten in 90 fights before losing to Randall. Ali’s resume is littered with greats and he took his lumps against Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and Leon Spinks before losing his final two fights to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick when he was well past his prime. Leonard looked like a shell of himself when he lost to Terry Norris and went to a split draw in a snoozer rematch against Tommy Hearns. 

The greats lose. It happens. But in this day and age where social media can pounce on any subject immediately with hyperbole, losing is made out to be something that is far worse than it is. 

But Canelo does have to consider whether it is worth it to try his hand against Bivol again. What can he possibly do differently to produce a different outcome?

“I always like to learn from things,” Alvarez said. “Today, I feel like I learned a lot, and I’m going to show you this in the upcoming fights.”

Will he learn that a really good 175-pounder will beat a great, but undersized, 168-pounder? Or that being 5-8 in a division where everyone is over 6 feet tall could be problematic simply because of physical advantages? Remember, Canelo was at his best at 154 and 160 pounds. His height and reach were on par with his opponents. At 168, he has to look up to his opponents; 175 is clearly a leap against fighters who are naturally bigger and stronger. 

Canelo doesn’t care. Hes addicted. It’s not the money or fame. It’s the addiction to facing the toughest challenges and becoming the greatest of all time.

“I’m proud, I’m very proud, and I’m a very competitive person,” he said. “I’ve gone up and fought at 175, I’ve gone out of my comfort zone and fought at a weight that isn’t mine. There’s no shame in that. I’m looking for challenges that others would be scared to take on because they might lose.

“That’s what I’m here for. Nobody wants to see fights where people know who’s going to win. It’s about those 50-50 fights, that’s what people want to see.”

But addiction has its perils. You can overdose if you aren’t careful. Addiction can ultimately cause harm because the high becomes impossible to obtain and you can get hurt in the long run. 

Some mountains are just too tall to climb, and the fall gets more and more perilous as the years go on. We can all admire Canelo’s attempt to do what others haven’t done, but sooner or later he will have to reel it in and accept that there are certain challenges he cannot overcome. 

Or, he beats Bivol in a rematch and temporarily silences every critic. But even if he does that, he will find another mountain to climb. He’ll have to learn how to recognize that he can’t scale the height. 

The problem is that he probably won’t be able to turn down the challenge. That’s what we admire about him, and it’s what makes Canelo one of the greatest boxers of this era. But it also is what might ruin his chances of being recognized as an all-time great. 

Eventually, fate can be tempted one too many times, with hazardous results. But maybe Canelo doesn’t care what we think. After all, he isn’t challenging himself to appease us and our fictional pound-for-pound lists.

Challenges motivate him to continue fighting. He’s addicted to the chase. If nothing else, that’s admirable. Eventually, though, losses do matter. That’s inescapable. 

And if he falters one too many times in his pursuit of greatness, then what will his legacy be?

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