The eternal debate: Strength vs. skill

Canelo Alvarez-Erislandy Lara was a classic example of the battle of styles

Originally Published: July 15, 2014
By Nigel Collins | ESPN.com

Oscar De La Hoya, who apparently hasn't stopped smiling since his divorce from Richard Schaefer became final, was the only person in the ring at the conclusion of the Canelo Alvarez-Erislandy Lara fight who looked ecstatic.

Split-decision winner Alvarez, the knot under his right eye as plain to see as his famous ginger hair, appeared glum. A win is a win, but it was not the sort of performance he'd wanted, and there were probably moments during the evening when he felt like he was having a Floyd Mayweather Jr. flashback. Lara made him miss so badly at times, Alvarez almost corkscrewed himself into the ring floor.

When Jimmy Lennon announced the verdict, Lara looked thunderstruck, his face a study in incredulity. Then he went into full-on victim mode, leaning on the top rope and burying his face in the cradle of his arms. Like all fighters in close fights, he thought he'd won, and there was no hiding his disappointment. He wasn't the only one.

Alvarez's corner was unhappy with the way Lara fought (what did they expect?) and Lara's team was fuming about the scoring (what did they expect?). Meanwhile, Canelo's jubilant fans celebrated, Oscar kept smiling and the rest of the boxing world was at considerable odds over what exactly had happened and why.

The ensuing social media spat featured the usual array of posts, ranging from well-considered opinions to incomprehensible rants. The closest thing to a consensus was that judge Levi Martinez should be banned for his lopsided 117-111 score for Alvarez, but even that was not universal.

[+] EnlargeAlvarez/Lara
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesCanelo Alvarez, left, was the aggressor, but Erislandy Lara's defensive style was hard for Alvarez to decipher.

There were not only disagreements among the hero worshippers and haters, but also major differences between respected observers such as recent International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Graham Houston and Showtime's perceptive Steve Farhood. Houston saw the fight 116-112 for Canelo, while Farhood had Lara up 115-113. It was, in short, a verdict upon which reasonable folks can disagree.

It would be a mistake, however, to pay so much attention to the details of this specific fight that we lose sight of the larger picture. The forest surrounding this particular tree is one of boxing's endless debates and the Canelo-Lara dispute merely the latest high-profile flashpoint.

For the sake of discussion, let's call this syndrome boxing's great divide. It is a multifaceted schism that reveals itself most vividly in matches such as Alvarez-Lara, when one competitor focuses on offense and the other on defense with virtually equal success. It doesn't matter whether you think of it as slugger versus boxer, strength versus skill or instinct versus intellect. It's really all the same thing -- an expression of the eternal tug-of-war between our primeval reptilian brain and the more complex neocortex.

The philosophical rift has seldom been more manifest during a boxing telecast than when Showtime broadcasters Brian Kenny (who scored the fight 116-112 for Canelo) and Paulie Malignaggi (who had it 115-114 for Lara) challenged each other's conclusions in a spirited back-and-forth.

It wasn't long before Paulie had Brian on the ropes, and it looked like a TKO was imminent when referee Al Bernstein stepped in. But perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the unrehearsed war of words between his colleagues was that fight announcer Mauro Ranallo was momentary dumbstruck.

The rivalry between defensive-minded fighters and their aggressive counterparts goes back to the beginning of boxing. As counterintuitive as it may sound, one of pugilism's earliest defensive strategies was to fall down. Technically, it was against the rules of bareknuckle boxing to go down without getting hit or thrown, but it was relatively easy to fake and many a wily practitioner used the ploy to great advantage.

At first, this was considered cowardly, as was tactical movement to elude punches, known in bareknuckle-era parlance as "shifting." But as the number of fighters finding success using these methods grew, the more they became accepted.

With the advent of scoring, flopping disappeared, but shifting was the birth of modern defensive technique. Today's pound-for-pound leader, Floyd Mayweather Jr., is one of the greatest "shifters" of all time.

The ancient prejudice against defensive boxers still flourishes today among those who find the style of fighting employed by Lara and others of his ilk distasteful. The booing from the pro-Canelo crowd of 14,239 in attendance at the MGM Grand Garden Arena was an echo of the discontent first heard in the fields and on the village greens of England, where the fancy gathered to watch two men trade blow for blow until one of them could no longer endure.

[+] EnlargeFloyd Mayweahter Jr. and Canelo Alvarez
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports Pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr., right, relies on his defensive skills instead of engaging in a toe-to-toe fight.

On the other hand, you seldom hear the sounds of derision when Mayweather boxes. He is the yin to Canelo and (more significantly) Manny Pacquiao's yang, adored by his admirers for his ability to win fights without getting involved in anything resembling toe-to-toe confrontation. Mayweather fans derive their entertainment from his dominance, not from the thrill of vicarious violence. Theirs is a cult of personality, eager to attach itself to a winner, as if his success will somehow rub off on them.

This brings us to the matter of prizefighting as entertainment. Suppose for a moment that you are a boxing neophyte and watched the televised portion of Saturday's card without knowing the competitors' identity or status. Which fighters would you come away wanting to see again? There's no way of proving it, of course, but I believe it would be Mauricio Herrera, who won a rousing give-and-take clash with Johan Perez, and Francisco Vargas, who decimated Juan Manuel Lopez in three rounds of blistering action. Regardless of the level of the combatants, those are the sorts of fights that attract new fans.

Canelo and Lara? Not so much.

Neither man was particularly effective because they nullified what the other did best, and when that happens, onlookers generally fall back on their personal preferences and prejudices. Canelo's supporters accused Lara of running, while the Cuban's fans claim their man out-boxed Alvarez. There's something to be said for both points of view, but not nearly enough to warrant the semi-hysterical accusations of robbery proffered by Lara's supporters, unless they're talking strictly about judge Martinez's runaway score in favor of Alvarez.

According to Bobby Hunter, who collects media scores and publishes the results on boxingnewsonline.net, 34 scored the fight for Alvarez, 30 for Lara, while 25 called it a draw. That certainly doesn't add up to a robbery or even a controversial decision. It indicates a close, difficult-to-score fight.

Nonetheless, due to the highly subjective nature of scoring a boxing match, the aggressor versus defender debate is worthy of further consideration. Should, for instance, the aggressor be rewarded for making the fight and his counterpart penalized for running? In some cases, the answer is yes, in others, no. It's a matter of degree and has to be judged on an individual basis.

Terms such as "effective aggression" and "ring generalship" are bandied about, frequently by people trying to justify their own point of view. But the bottom line should always be the same: If the fight goes the distance, the winner is always the boxer who lands the most effective punches and inflicts the most punishment.

HBO boxing analyst Max Kellerman advocates asking yourself at the end of each round which boxer would you rather have been during the preceding three minutes, and award the round to that fighter. It's not a perfect system, but comes closer than counting punches or giving the round to the boxer whose style you prefer.

Boxing is infested by appalling judging. There's no question about that. It's so bad, it's pretty much taken for granted. And perhaps that's what provoked such a passionate overreaction to the Canelo-Lara verdict.

"Friday Night Fights" posted a prefight poll on its Facebook page that gave fans five choices: a KO or decision victory for either man, plus a draw. More than a few respondents wanted a "robbery" option, as well. The seeds of cynicism, which were planted long ago, continue to bear strange fruit that casts a shadow over the sport's adjudication system, even when it's not close to its mind-blowing worst.

The uproar over the Canelo-Lara decision, however, will soon lose traction. Even those who think the fight was stolen from Lara will readily admit they've seen far worse on a depressingly regular basis. What this dispute is really about, despite Martinez's abysmal tally, is a matter of perception and aesthetics. We don't all look at a boxing match the same way, and that's one argument that will never be settled.

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