Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado are not like most humans. They’re not even like most boxers, a class of people who, to varying degrees, must suppress their self-preservation instinct. At the lowest end, the “hit and don’t get hit” subset of stylists still know what they’re in for when they enter the boxing ring, because the mere act of stepping between the ropes requires an understanding that pain and punishment are inevitable. The “take two punches to give one” types have to tamp down the self-preservation instinct yet more, but Rios and Alvarado aren’t even like most of them, the brawlers who fight that way because it’s their best chance to win. Rios and Alvarado can. Not. Help. Themselves. They are adherents to the school of violence for violence’s sake. Rios grins like the Joker when he gets punched. Alvarado, apparently, indulges in casual extracurricular knife fights during training camp.
You could imagine well in advance how a fight between these two junior welterweights might play out, and that’s why the match was made last year. It’s why it was the Fight of the Year for 2012 and it’s why we’re getting a rematch Saturday on HBO.
The worst thing you can say about Rios-Alvarado II is that whereas last year it was viewed, nearly universally, as competitive, it is not this time. There a few answers to why we're still getting the rematch, none of them bad: The ending of the first fight was not so conclusive because the referee made a borderline call to step in and save Alvarado, but if not for the TKO loss, Alvarado might’ve had a chance to win a decision; Alvarado didn’t fight as well for the entirety of the fight as he could’ve and should’ve; and even if it’s not competitive, so what? – it will be thrilling for every second both of them are standing. Worst case scenario: It’s not as good as the first, but even this accounting of lackluster sequels features a number of fights that weren’t at all bad ones.
It does not hurt that these are two of the top 10 men in one of boxing’s best couple divisions, but it’s not the root of the match-up’s appeal. It’s the action, literally every second filled with it. As I mentioned last year in writing about why it was the Fight of the Year, the 5th round featured an average 2.6 punches thrown per second. And they were not meant, to borrow a metaphor from Ricky Hatton, to tickle.
Alvarado had the advantage the first time in better technique – he could box and move when he needed to, not that anyone other than Richard Abril could box and move (and, yes, clinch) against Rios for 12 rounds without being forced to trade at times. He was also thought to be the bigger man, as Rios was moving up in weight after several fights straining to make 135.
Rios, though, proved the harder hitter of the two, and it looked like he handled the punches better at 140 than 135, which makes sense given that he was surely drained badly at lightweight. Alvarado did have a reach advantage, and when he kept things on the outside, he fared better. Alvarado has a jab and a long right hand which were his most effective, if not most punishing, blows of the first fight. Rios, meanwhile, is far happier on the inside, firing away hooks to the head and body and uppercuts.
Rios has talked about improving his defense for the rematch, but he’s mostly hopeless because he is totally unwilling. His skill is on the offensive end, though you will occasionally see him slip a punch if it’s going to help him set up his own offense. Alvarado is more offense than defense, too, but he’s not as flat-footed and has better upper body movement. Both could be better defenders if they really wanted, but Alvarado has more capacity to protect himself, although neither would suddenly become Floyd Mayweather-style geniuses even if that’s all they practiced.
Here, a note must be made of how Rios has been practicing. He is doing so with Angel Heredia, the controversial strength and conditioning coach once affiliated with BALCO and whose work with Juan Manuel Marquez has led to intense public doubt about the validity of Marquez’s knockout of Manny Pacquiao. Perhaps Heredia’s methods are valid; perhaps they are not. The facts are, Marquez was far more physically enormous and muscular under Heredia than before him, and his punching power superior in the last Pacquiao bout. If Rios can acquire the same gains, the knock that Rios-Alvarado II will “be just like the first fight, only shorter” becomes a virtual certainty.
With the kind of damage these two men have done to each other, and how much they’ve endured their whole careers, it’s possible that one or both of them might be at a bit less than his peak ability to sustain more, and Alvarado’s hopes would be boosted by a diminished Rios. Alvarado’s case probably rests most on his ability to fight smart. It’s what he has said he intends to do – stay on the outside more, not get dragged into fighting so often. Rios is counting on Alvarado abandoning those pretenses once the brawl is afoot, however. And if Alvarado is brawling in his spare time, it’s difficult to imagine him not brawling when he’s got another brawler in front of him, ready to brawl it out.
Ipso facto: “Just like the first fight, only shorter.” And gladly received.