Canelo Alvarez Does Muay Thai… Sort Of

Canelo Alvarez vs Dmitry Bivol

It has been a while since I wrote a blog post about boxing, and especially  Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. He has since been pulled a couple of notches down the P4P rankings due to his decision loss to WBA light-heavyweight champion Dmitry Bivol. But while most would say he lost due to being too small for light-heavyweight, that takes away from Bivol’s performance. The answer he came up with for the Canelo question is something I’d like to talk about here, especially its connection with Muay Thai footwork and rhythm.

The Russian put on a technical display that combined patience and an understanding of Canelo’s fighting style. While everyone else is just putting it up to the light-heavyweight champion being bigger and stronger, those who truly watched the fight closely know how it’s less about brute force and more about timing and precision. Mind you, it’s still boxing, so it’s not like Bivol tickled Canelo with a feather at the end of a bamboo stick.

While a rubber match between Canelo and Gennady Golovkin is underway, let’s take a look at one of the things that Canelo did well and how Bivol solved that puzzle.

DISCLAIMER: A lot of what I’ve written here could be erroneous. I’m only detailing here what I’ve learned thus far. You may try to correct me in the comments if you wish.

Prodding and Applying Slow, Steady Pressure

The YouTube channel Hidden Gem is indeed true to its name in that it’s a treasure trove for boxing fans with its numerous analysis videos on many fighters, including Canelo. You watch enough of them and you see the pattern he sees in Canelo — his preferred method of slow forward pressure.

Canelo Alvarez prefers to start methodically and slowly ramp up the intensity over the course of the fight. While he has the capability of finishing lower-level opponents early, which he has done many times before, he tempers his aggression with patience. But perhaps he may have fallen into the trap of being too patient in his match against Bivol.

But that’s the paradox of aggression. If you’re too aggressive, you can get countered and punished for it. If you’re too passive, waiting for an opportunity to counter, then you become Adrien Broner who waits for too long and still thinks he won. If you’re not attacking, you’re not winning; if you attack too thoughtlessly, you waste energy.

Canelo came up with a balance of aggression and patience with his style. He leans back a bit as he jabs, thus keeping his weight on the back foot, which allows him to always have the room to defend and not get countered easily. He then brings forward with the back foot first after each jab, thus hiding his advance with an attack.

Footwork and the Slow March Forward

First off, let’s talk about footwork in general. There are two ways to go forwards and backwards during combat. From what I’ve seen over the years, different schools and gyms tend to have rather clumsy ways to describe footwork, as if it’s more of an afterthought, even though it’s actually more important than attacks for beginners.

But of course, that’s the boring stuff, so you’d want to market the fun stuff first. There are exceptions like in karate, wherein they formalize every tiny detail possible. But for popular styles like boxing, they seem to not have definitive terms for footwork like they have for punches.

Two Forms of Sagittal Footwork

Pardon me for using a big word here. Sagittal is just a fancy word for forwards and backwards; coronal means moving side to side; transverse means turning left and right. We’re going to discuss footwork for going forwards and backwards as I understand it.

NOTE: The following is quite hard to explain in just writing. It’s a lot easier to explain with illustration or video. That’s one of the many difficulties in teaching and training footwork.

As a Jeet Kune Do practitioner, I’m using terminology we were taught — step-slide and slide-step. For advancing, you step forward with the front foot and slide the back foot. For retreating, you step backward with your back foot and slide the front foot.

Step-slide is the footwork you’d expect most of the time in fighting. With step-slide forward, you can also attack at the same time, like a step-in jab, making it a powerful offensive tool and not just a way to move. You can make it faster and more explosive by pushing with the sliding foot, thus turning it into a push shuffle, like dashing in Street Fighter

On the other hand, step-slide footwork, especially when done as a push shuffle, is more energy-intensive, thus more tiring. Also, there’s a moment during the advance or retreat wherein your feet are stretched apart as you step, so you’re briefly vulnerable during that half-beat.

An advantage to step-slide advance is quick entry, letting you close the distance with little to no telegraph. Of course, you’ll want to cover your entry with an attack or an appropriate defense, or you’ll just get hit as you come in otherwise, even if you do so on a whim without warning.

(You don’t want to get your lights turned off as you come in, like what Juan Manuel Marquez did to Manny Pacquiao in their fourth fight.)

Slide-step is more like walking, albeit without completely crossing your feet, so it sort of looks like you’re walking like a crab. It’s especially helpful in kickboxing as you can load a kick off the slide and initiate it with the step. That’s how you do a pendulum kick, a useful prodding tool.

Of course, in the context of boxing, there’s no kicking, but you can do things like throw a cross upon planting the sliding foot going forward or backward. Slide-step footwork is less tiring since it’s mostly just walking, but you can also speed it up and turn it into a pendulum step.

Another advantage of the slide-step is that you can disguise an advance or retreat by sliding without your torso moving forward. There are a few ways to do this. For instance, you can sneak it in while disguising it with hand movement to keep your opponent from detecting your gradual forward movement, as shown here.

Whether you sneak it in or march forward, the result is that you get to step in and jab from a further distance than what your opponent could perceive at the moment. This is a great way to mess with their own distance management as they would second-guess their ways of measuring that distance as they realize that they’re actually not that safe at that range after all.

I mention marching forward with the back foot as it’s similar to the pressuring footwork in Muay Thai, which is called the “dern”, meaning to walk. That’s what Canelo’s forward pressure reminds me of, and they have a lot of similarities.

Marching Forward with Pressure

The Muay Thai dern is primarily step-slide forward, as shown here.

This is the standard as it’s the quickest way to move forward. You can lead with a jab or a rear roundhouse kick going in as you step in and slide off the rear foot, which is helped by having the weight on the back foot. However, the drawback is that if the opponent sees no problem with attacking as you step forward, you get nailed, so you have to cover your entry with either an attack or with your guard completely up.

If you don’t cover your step forward, you give them a window of opportunity. Like Pacquiao did.

There are quite a few pressure fighters in various striking sports who instead employ slide-step forward pressure. Pull up a Rodtang fight and watch his feet. Pull up a Joe Frazier fight and watch his feet. Most of the time, they do slide-step unless they need to adjust for specific opponents who are catching them in the middle of their slide-step.

Watch how Joe Frazier tends to walk forward to pressure his opponents as he would bob and weave with his signature herky-jerky broken rhythm. It took him time to get into his rhythm, but he would then blast hooks from his crouch once he synced up with his opponent.

Whenever you try to search for video of pressure fighters doing what they do best, you usually see highlight reels of them having battles in the pocket. That’s what happens later in the fight once things have heated up, but the pressure is applied way before that. It starts right at the bell as the fighter comes forward, looking to walk their opponent down.

Unlike Joe Frazier, Rodtang is more of a quick starter, getting into the action as soon as the bell rings. But the aggression is not haphazard, but merely how he establishes his threat and pressure. He just obliges his opponent’s feeling-out process by letting them feel him right then and there, which then compels them to fight at his tempo.

What makes a pressure fighter good at pressuring isn’t aggression. If that were so, then everyone would be a pressure fighter, and that’s not entirely so. What makes them able to do what they do is good defense, especially in mid-range and close-range. They should be able to deal with attacks as they come forward in order to apply said pressure.

Otherwise, they’d just be walking into punches. With that, why even bother?

Here’s Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu training with Muay Thai legend Samson Isaan (Samson Dutch Boy / Saenmuangnoi Lukjaopormahesak), a Muay Maat (puncher) who won Thai Fighter of the Year in 1991. Watch his feet and you’ll also see how he does his dern.

(I’m a regular patron of the Muay Thai Library. Sylvie does amazing work documenting the knowledge of the Thai masters. If you’re a student of Muay Thai and/or the martial arts in general, I recommend checking out her Patreon and her blog.)

Keeping Your Weight on Your Back Foot

Keeping one’s weight mostly on the back foot allows them to react to incoming attacks and pull back to block, parry, or dodge. When the weight is mostly on the front foot, as is usually the case when a fighter throws a power shot thoughtlessly, it makes them slower to defend against whatever the opponent may throw back.

For instance, in kickboxing, being heavy on the front foot not only makes one susceptible to leg kicks. In boxing, you’re pretty much leading with your face, inviting them to punch you. Maybe you want that, baiting them with your ugly mug, but you then have to focus on pulling back and then counter. I once trained with a guy who had that as his favorite tactic, and he was good at it.

Few things are more infuriating in the gym than a guy who pokes his chin out in sparring like a juicy steak for a lion, then pulls it back at the last millisecond to land a quick right to your nose.

I got a bit sidetracked there, but that was to show that just because you’re heavy on your front foot, it doesn’t mean that you cannot defend against attacks. You can, but you have to be really good to pull that off consistently. That means in your pursuit of mastery in that very skill, you may get touched on the chin quite a few times along the way.

Unless you’re Naseem Hamed or Pernell Whitaker, you’re not doing that. You’re going to want to keep your weight mostly back as you work your way towards gaining the advantage in boxing. This shows that while he’s indeed strong and athletic, Canelo doesn’t stray from the basics that he works on constantly.

Canelo’s Stance and Slow Forward Pressure Footwork

The classical Muay Thai stance has one’s weight mostly on the back foot. That makes the front foot light and almost hovering off the ground. Canelo seems to follow the same principle with his stance while also incorporating more head and body movement thanks to his mix of square torso and almost-bladed legs.

It’s almost like he exaggerates leaning on his back foot as he steps forward and jabs. This is to skew his opponent’s perception of his range as he inches his feet forward while keeping his torso back. When he jabs, he steps in and shows that he can actually reach his opponent, who is then thrown in a loop with that illusion.

It is indeed true that in boxing, range (and angle) is determined by lead foot position, not the head. However, it’s also true that you can determine on which foot a fighter’s weight is mostly on by head position in relation to their feet. Canelo takes advantage of these facts by leaning back and jutting his lead foot forward to close the distance without compromising his balance.

The problem with determining whether they’re front foot or back foot heavy at the moment is that unless you actually look down to see where their feet actually are, then look back up to see where their head is, there’s no certain way of telling in spur of the moment. When you do that, you’ll likely get hit in the face as you look down for a split second.

This has become a signature of Canelo’s style, so much that his more recent opponents have since picked up on it and come up with ways to deal with his slow pressure. Instead of letting him gradually crank up the heat like they’re the frog in the pot, they jump at the slight opening presented by that split-second moment when Canelo is about to slide his back foot forward.

Caleb Plant tried this and got some success. So did Sergey Kovalev. In the case of Caleb Plant, he would step in deep while Canelo’s back foot is still on its way forward, then throw a left hook and a right straight that the Mexican can’t possibly counter cleanly as he is momentarily frozen in place with this half-beat attack. Even if he can get a counter off, it won’t land in time.

However, both those opponents fell to Canelo as their strategies lacked that extra something that kept Canelo from coming forward. As long as Canelo isn’t adequately deterred from his slow march forward to gradually ramp up his offense, he keeps doing it anyway and later succeeds in limiting his opponent’s offensive options and making them do whatever he wants.

With no consistent way to keep Canelo at bay, Plant eventually gets cornered throughout the middle and later rounds in their November 2021 fight. Even if you can hit him in the half-beat as he plods forward, you have to do more on top of that to put a chink on his thick armor.

How Dmitry Bivol Deflated Canelo’s Pressure

As I mentioned, there’s that brief moment when the feet are somewhat close together as the back foot comes forward.

But unlike Canelo’s previous opponents, Bivol was able to take things further by actually pulling back a bit. Unlike Plant, he doesn’t launch himself into close range as soon as he sees Canelo take a step. He was aggressive without being frenzied. He relied on establishing his own timing instead of just trying to beat Canelo’s timing however he could.

He connects consistently during half-beats, whether it’s a jab, a hook, or a cross. With a more conservative style, he was able to counter Canelo’s pressure, then assert his own pressure. He would then close the distance and connect wherever he could, going high and low whenever he saw an opening. His game plan was simple and elegant.

It worked because Bivol would hit him before Canelo established his base before he would then attack. As the video above shows, Canelo did just that to Danny Jacobs, stepping in and planting his lead foot way forward while keeping himself back to establish his base, then popping Jacobs with jabs from a distance that Jacobs thought was well outside range.

Bivol wouldn’t let him finish establishing his base, so Canelo couldn’t get comfortable. Since he couldn’t establish his pressure and rhythm, Bivol was able to school him throughout the fight. While it wasn’t a complete domination and Canelo still held up well, as he should, there had been no other opponent that has made him look this bad since Mayweather.

And Canelo didn’t look too bad at all. It was a competitive fight that ended up being in the Russian’s favor.

What’s Going to Happen in Canelo-GGG III?

This fight had to happen since there was too much money to pass up. However, with Canelo’s stock taking a big hit with his loss to Bivol, this could be the opportunity that GGG needs to get back in the conversation as a middleweight great.

While he’s the older man who is likely over the hill at this point, especially now that he has long left his former trainer Abel Sanchez — who I think ruined GGG — he’s still a hard hitter and a legend. If there’s anyone who will figure Canelo out at middleweight these days, it’s either him, David Benavidez, or Jermall Charlo.

GGG was the aggressor in the first fight, while Canelo pushed the pace in the second one. It seems like whenever he’s up against the highest tier competition, Canelo gets messed up whenever he decides to hang back and go for a counter-first fighting style.

I understand that it’s best for him to figure out his opponent and save his energy, but it’s also the reason why his fight against GGG raised eyebrows regarding his P4P status due to being a bit too passive with his back up against the ropes. It was only when he fought more forward 

However, what’s worse than his decision-making in the ring is his decision-making out of it. Right now, he’s feuding with both GGG and boy wonder Ryan Garcia. He’s looking to be the more unreasonable party against the former while being pestered by the latter, who used to train in his gym and left due to getting fed up with the culture.

All that verbal back-and-forth and the added pressure resulting from his loss to Bivol may have an effect on his performance. Whether that’s positive with him using all that pressure as motivation or negative as it makes him collapse under his own weight, we’ll only see after 17 September 2022 once Canelo and GGG settle their score.

Or we might see a fourth fight if all that stuff does indeed mess with him and GGG somehow finds a way to bring out his old form. Mind you, plenty of things have to align in order for that to happen, but it’s always a possibility. Otherwise, this third fight wouldn’t have been made in the first place.

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