This is how you build a brawl. Take one fighter who stands in the middle of the ring and swings wildly and pair him with another fighter who stands in the middle of the ring and swings wildly. Make sure both guys don’t have a real shot at a meaningful fight against a legitimate pound-for-pound contender, because you want them to understand their paydays can only be earned through beating the living hell out of one another. Hype the matchup as the next coming of Arturo Gatti–Micky Ward and let both camps know that the public does not want to see any boxing in the ring.
Saturday night’s fight between Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado on the Nonito Donaire–Toshiaki Nishioka undercard was built along those guidelines. The only thing missing was the requisite underdog story/white guy taking his last shot at glory. Instead, the public was fed two Mexican American fighters who both seemed destined for futures of losing step-up fights against better boxers and then getting pushed further and further down on undercards. After Alvarado beat Mauricio Herrera in April, he called out Juan Manuel Marquez, a declaration that must have drawn a prolonged guffaw from Top Rank promoter Bob Arum. (If you tied Marquez’s left hand behind his back for every odd-numbered round and set the odds at 2:1 in favor of Marquez, I’d still put my money on him.) Rios, who once seemed destined for bigger things, was coming off a shameful split-decision victory against Cuban fighter Richard Abril, a fight in which Rios didn’t bother to make weight. Coming into Saturday, the boxing public’s patience with him had all but expired. Sure, he could put on an entertaining show, but despite his “unbeaten” record, it was becoming clear that Rios was not capable of producing those great moments in which years of training, instinct, and intelligence elevate a fighter into an incandescent state.
The crowd that gathered at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California, was almost entirely made up of Mexican- and Flipino American fans. The Mexican American fans had mostly come to support Rios, who lives and trains in Oxnard, about a two-hour drive up the coast. Earlier in the week, I attended the media workouts at a gym in West Hollywood, where the real politics and money of the fight revealed themselves. As the media mobbed Nishioka, Rios, and Donaire, Alvarado stood around like a shy kid at a dance. Reporters would go up to him and ask generic questions, but it was clear that most of the gathered media didn’t know anything about him. When Alvarado and his posse finally drove off in an old Nissan Altima, Arum asked some of the reporters if Alvarado had left already. Someone said yes. Arum, chuckling, said “Good.”
That stink followed Alvarado into the ring. He was booed throughout his entrance. He was booed when he climbed into the ring. He was booed when he took off his turquoise robe. Scanning the crowd, I spotted exactly zero Alvarado supporters who weren’t part of his immediate entourage. Rios drew huge cheers for his every move, which struck me as a bit odd. Rios’s ties with rappers and his self-anointed “warrior” status have helped him become something of a cult figure within the Mexican American boxing community, but he still hasn’t broken through on the national stage. Only boxing heads really know who he is. And of that already small population, an even smaller percentage admired and rooted for him. Why did Brandon Rios have fans, much less several thousand paying fans? Had all of Oxnard driven down to watch the fight?
The action started right as the bell rang. Both fighters had read the script and the stakes involved — this is probably your last chance to stay on premium cable, and everyone is expecting a war, so go out there and make this look like a scene from The Fighter. Rios pushes up against his opponent with his shoulders and head, a tactic that allows him to fight inside, but also exposes him to uppercuts and short hooks. There’s no good, traditional way to describe Alvarado’s style. Like Rios, he pushes forward with his upper body to create space for short, hard punches, but he hasn’t performed this skill with much consistency over his career. His best moments on Saturday night came when he stepped back and kept Rios at arm’s length with flurries of jabs and straight right hands (I’m not going to dignify these punches with the word “combination” here), but the demands of the night kept pushing him back inside. Both fighters landed huge shots in every round. The entirety of the action came in close quarters, but neither fighter clinched or tried to tie up the other. For 19 minutes in the ring, Alvarado and Rios leaned in close and battered one another with haymakers.
Despite all the head-snapping shots, neither fighter managed to really hurt the other until the sixth round, when one of Rios’s right hands staggered Alvarado. In a traditional fight, Alvarado would have held on until he regained his equilibrium. Then he would have kept his distance, broken down Rios with jabs and straight rights before eventually pouncing in the later rounds, when Rios would have been gassed. But in this fight, Alvarado did exactly what no sane fighter would have done. He kept diving right back into Rios’s wheelhouse.
Rios stopped Alvarado in the seventh with a chopping right hand and a flurry of wild haymakers. The future of both fighters was set — Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado will brawl again. When they do, they will once again be expected to stand in front of each other and swing wildly until one of them lands a shot heavy enough to stop the fight. The rematch will probably be entertaining and it will probably end with Rios or Alvarado on the canvas and it will probably sate the bloodthirsty fight fan, but it will not be anything greater than that.
Boxing faces the following paradox — “skill” has traditionally been defined by methodical, careful, defensive fighters, while “entertainment” demands the evacuation of all those skillful things. Rocky doesn’t defend himself against Apollo Creed because nobody wants to watch him slip punches and score with his jab. Micky Ward is more famous than Pernell Whitaker because Ward had the good sense to get punched repeatedly in the head. The rule seems to be that skill will push you up the pound-for-pound lists, but if you can’t do all that, plant your feet and go out like Arturo Gatti.
In his preview for Rios-Alvarado, Carlos Acevedo, a writer whom I admire and respect, argued for a redefinition of what skill might mean in boxing. “A fighter like Rios,” he wrote, “disparaged as a brawler, is, in fact, a highly trained athlete primed to the peak of his capabilities … Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of spending time in a gym was seeing just how hard fighters of apparent limited ability pushed themselves physically. In some cases, they seemed to work harder than their more gifted counterparts. What a fighter like Rios does takes exceptional stamina, coordination and discipline.”
This is all true. But there’s also no denying that Rios’s skills would largely be moot in a bout against a more traditionally skilled boxer. After knocking out Alvarado on Saturday, Rios said he thought he could handle Manny Pacquiao. Arum responded by saying he wanted Rios to fight the winner of Pacquiao-Marquez IV. And while I understand the need to capitalize on a big moment, does anyone really want to watch Rios get outclassed and shut out by a top-notch fighter? Alvarado showed a lot of courage in the ring, but outside of a potential rematch with Rios, Saturday night represented both the start and the finish of his career in major events.
But because the prevailing opinion says boxing is dead and because the prevailing opinion says the “typical sports fan” can name exactly two fighters in the world, the prevailing opinion says fight promoters might as well try to gin up excitement for the sport by making as many action fights as possible. Alvarado will get another shot at Rios or HBO will pair him up against another unknown brawler and tag the fight as “the next Rios-Alvarado.” Which is all fine. But after spending the better portion of the past two years attending big-time fights, I’ve begun to question just how much I believe in that prevailing opinion and its desire to reduce boxing to its most pornographic state. A fight like Rios-Alvarado might titillate and draw attention to the sport, but it’s also born out of a heavy cynicism about the public’s ability to admire the scientific part of the sweet science.
Boxing’s brightest star is not a brawler. Floyd Mayweather — a supremely skilled, defensive fighter — remains the biggest draw in the sport, not to mention the richest athlete in the world. You can say Floyd’s popularity comes from his relentless self-promotion and HBO’s hype machine, but more than 1.5 million people shell out $60 to watch him fight. Last month, with the Martinez-Chavez and Canelo-Lopez fights, this sport without a crossover superstar proved it could sell out two arenas in Las Vegas at the same time. With every successful fight night, the disconnect between the perception of boxing’s popularity and the reality of the box office and pay-per-view sales grows wider.
It’s a disconnect that’s easily explained. The crowds who pile into the MGM Grand or Madison Square Garden or the Home Depot Center are overwhelmingly Latino, African American, and, if Manny Pacquiao or Nonito Donaire are fighting, Filipino. The health of the sport in America comes from its popularity among groups who do not have much influence on that prevailing opinion. Those fans have helped build up an exciting, skilled slate of fighters capable of elevating any given round into something truly memorable.
Brawls will always have a place in boxing. I have no problem with watching Rios and Alvarado pummel one another till kingdom come. The heart and violence both fighters showed on Saturday night certainly warrants a well-paid, well-promoted rematch, but I hope boxing’s promoters will spare its faithful public from some misguided attempt to pit Rios or Alvarado against a legitimate champion.
Let’s not forget: Gatti-Ward was great. Gatti-Mayweather was ritual humiliation.