Canelo vs Charlo technical breakdown: Timing matters

IMAGO | ZUMA WIRE by Alejandro Salazar

Canelo’s latest win has made some fans (and fellow fighters) very angry. Not at him, but at his opponent. Jermell Charlo is being percieved, in some quarters, as not having tried to win- of only being there to survive to the end and collect a paycheck.

You can see where that perception is coming from- it is certainly true that he never got his offence going, and that he spent much of the fight on his back foot. But is it fair? Did he basically let Canelo just happen to him, so to speak? Or did Canelo force him in that direction? Let’s take a look.

The Breakdown: How did Canelo beat Jermell Charlo?

Canelo Alvarez punches Jermell Charlo in their 12-round Undisputed Super Middleweight World Title main-event bout at Premier Boxing Champions - Canelo vs Charlo at T-Mobile Arena on September 30, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
IMAGO | ZUMA Wire by Alejandro Salazar

Okay, now that we’re past the heading, let’s not beat around the bush: yes, there were things Canelo did that caused Charlo to clam up and lose his offence. There were also factors about Charlo’s own game that simply made it harder for him to get going in the face of Canelo’s attacks. Yes, you could argue that particularly late on he could have thrown more, gone out on his shield- but even if you feel comfortable speaking for the man putting his health on the line for sport, it isn’t always that easy.

Let’s start with footwork. Coming in to the fight, there was an assumption that if Charlo might have an advantage in any arena, it would be mobility. Canelo had over the years become – usually- a very precise mover, but not a very rapid one. And if he wanted to be rapid- as against Caleb Plant – he’d give up some of that technical cleanness to do so.

So it seemed like Charlo, not a super smooth mover but a fighter used to using range and space when necessary, might be able to make him choose. Either cut him off technically, in which case Charlo could maintain a certain amount of distance, or rush him, giving Charlo the opportunity to escape around the sides.

That proved untrue. This time, especially in the first half of the fight, Canelo really seemed to have worked on the fluidity of his footwork. He’d push Charlo hard, and he’d drop to the ropes- but when the taller man tried to angle out, he’d find Canelo closing the space with rapid little angled steps, keeping him pinned. In previous fights, he’d almost always had to rely on clipping them with a single solid shot, maybe two, as they moved into space on either side- so this was new.

And it left Charlo with a lot less time to work in than he’d probably assumed. His guard was actually pretty solid – he caught a good portion of what Canelo threw, especially early. And he was able to escape, after taking some punishment- he just found himself with less time to reset and do his own work than anticipated.

That gelled badly with a weakness of Charlo’s we already had hints of coming in- his timing isn’t very good. It never has been, for someone of his level and achievements. He’s never said that outright himself, and he probably never will, but he appeared to hint that he found that an issue here in his post-fight interview.

When he says “I did rotate well, it was just about my attack. After I rotated and get out of the shot, my return was my issue” (where, by rotate, he appears to mean circle out), he doesn’t say why the return was the issue, but ‘Canelo was on him faster than expected’ is a pretty reasonable explanation. He just did not have the time he usually does to consider his options, and ended up rather frozen in place.

Freezing in place is also the desired outcome of another tactic of Canelo’s- this time, an old favourite we’ve seen before. Callum Smith mentioned after his fight against the Mexican that by the end he was struggling to lift his arms properly, so much had Canelo hit his shoulders and biceps. It’s visible in all his fights though- they may not be scoring shots, but when Canelo throws shots at the guard, he’s not wasting them. He wants to do real damage.

September 30, 2023, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA: CANELO ALVAREZ with a quick right hook to JARMELL CHARLO during boxing match for the Undisputed Super Middleweight Championship at the T-Mobile Arena Las Vegas.
IMAGO| ZUMA WIRE by Mikael Ona

You can see the effort here that Canelo is putting into a shot that’s smack on the arm

And in this fight, he really committed to it. Whenever he did trap Charlo on the ropes, and Charlo shelled up, he’d absolutely smash the upper arms. Yes, there were tricky little shots and combinations in there too, opening up the guard to actually score- you can’t do without, the points need to be on the board. But that tactic bothered Charlo in two ways. It inflicted damage that would pay benefits as the fight went on, yes- but also, trying to play absorb-and-counter is a much harder job when even a successful use of the guard is actively breaking your stance and stinging your arms.

That meant that when in close, there was very little to do for Charlo. Occasionally he’d tie up, but he wasn’t strong or skilled enough enough to do anything from that position. So to really get anything done at all, he had to get to distance. As the fight went on, he did have a little more success keeping it there- but even then, actually using it was another thing.

To start with, Canelo’s head movement. There’s been some talk in recent times that it’s vanished, that we’ve seen a new and static Canelo who can’t avoid punches anymore. While the ‘new’ holds up, closer inspection suggest that he really isn’t as hittable as all that. While he does do less rolling and slipping, the really flashy movements he made his name with, he’s still a master of positioning, of just swaying and moving enough that a shot falls short or slips past him.

And that made Charlo’s attempts to exchange with him, when he did try, very hard. Charlo doesn’t have that kind of defense- it’s throw the guard up, or get to range. He doesn’t really have the positioning or feel for distance to safely get into extended exchanges- he needs a power or accuracy advantage to back the opponent up in that situation, and against Canelo he had neither.

Adding to the problem was that Canelo would, occasionally, torque into a ridiculously overemphasised hook, usually but not always a left. These would almost always miss- but the intent was not necessarily to land. While easy to see coming, Charlo would have to avoid them- usually by ducking under. When he did, Canelo would regularly headlock him, or just hipcheck him and shove him back. That disrupted any tempo Charlo was trying to build. There are fighters who would have the timing to see that punch coming and set something up to punish Canelo for it- but Charlo was never going to be that guy. He had to avoid it, and thus reset.

September 30, 2023, Las Vegas, Nevada, LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, United States: L-R Canelo Âlvarez punches Jermell Charlo in their 12-round Undisputed Super Middleweight World Title main-event bout at Premier Boxing Champions - Canelo vs Charlo at T-Mobile Arena on September 30, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
IMAGO | ZUMA WIRE BY Alejandro Salazar

In this instance, you can see Charlo has also literally sat himself on the ropes as he evades the shot- not an ideal position to throw from himself

So what could he do? The inside was basically entirely out. Throwing at mid-range was getting him punished. Jabbing at range was the safest thing, and what he spent most of the second half of the fight doing, to much derision- because while it was safe, it wasn’t landing much and certainly not winning the fight.

Did Charlo’s corner fail him?

Well, ‘what can I do’ is the sort of thing the corner should be helping with- and this was an area I had serious problems with from Charlo’s team. It’s not always an easy job, of course- but it is the responsibility of a corner to keep a cool head, spy out the landscape and have ideas on the occasion the fighter may not spot them in the heat of the action.

Derrick James, Charlo’s coach, did almost none of this. All he had was repeatedly yelling at his charge that he needed to throw more, with no advice at all on how to stay safe while doing so. At one point he did briefly venture that Charlo should double jab, then throw a right- at least an instruction he could act on, but not contextualised in any way against what was actually happening in the fight.

Saul -Canelo- Alvarez MEX vs Jermell Charlo USA - Fight Jermell Charlo USA and Saul - Canelo-Alvarez MEX during the Boxing fight for the super middleweight titles of the World Boxing Association WBA, International Boxing Federation IBF, World Boxing Council WBC and the World Boxing Organization WBO, at T-Mobile Arena on September 30, 2023.

An example of the result when Charlo did let his hands go to throw himself

And, while I can obviously not say for sure what he was really thinking, Charlo’s frustration with these ‘instructions’ seemed to grow by the round. By the time the eleventh came around, he was looking around and to the heavens as James spoke. And yes, there is an extent to which this needed to be planned in camp and not on the night- but even simple instructions on where to best defend, how to push Canelo off-balance or which shots were most vulnerable to counters would have helped. Charlo got none of this help on the night.

So yes, he disappointed, he didn’t get going, he spent much of the fight defensive. All that is true. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he came in intending just to survive, or even really at any point decided to just survive. He tried – his efforts were just cut off very early. Many would clearly prefer that he’d gone for it anyway and got himself knocked out- but it is not an audience’s place to say that. He knows himself that he could have done more- but how is not an easy answer.

Details: A few notes on Canelo

Let’s cover a few more things about Canelo specifically before we go: we haven’t looked at it directly, but bodywork was a big part of his gameplan here. He ripped Charlo’s body whenever he could, and that also served to slow him down.

On Canelo’s own slowing- it had seemed in his previous two fights that his stamina was becoming a real issue, as both saw him gassed long before the end in fights he had controlled the tempo of. That didn’t happen here. He pushed a fast pace from the opening bell to the last, and while he did slow up a bit and lose some polish, he never looked done, or like Charlo could ever take over the fight. That’s a good sign for how he continues to handle himself as he ages.

The knockdown was a smart bit of work. Throughout the fight, one of Canelo’s most successful moves had been a feinted jab that was followed instantly by a crunching step-in right hand around the side, either to head or body. For the knockdown, he threw a similar feinted jab- but instead of stepping in around the side, he stayed where he was and threw the right hand down the center. Charlo had split his guard to cover the anticipated wider shot, and the shot went straight down the middle. Charlo could have stayed up, to be fair, but going down and taking eight seconds to recover was wise in that moment.

All in all, while there still remain some questions about where he’ll be if he comes up against concerted resistance and a response, this was an excellent showing and Canelo’s best performance, by a distance, since his win over Caleb Plant in late 2022.

The Future: What’s next for Canelo and Charlo?

For Canelo it’s pretty much the same old same old- he’s the man who brings the money, so he decides. He’d surely still like that rematch with Bivol, but they appear as yet to have resolved the impasse where Canelo wants to get the fight back at the same weight he lost it whereas Bivol wants a new challenge and a shot at Canelo’s super-middleweight belts. So that may be off the table.

Other than that, though, he can pretty much do whatever he wants. Terence Crawford was touted, but it seems mostly by the press- even for someone as good as Bud, a three division jump would be pretty silly and neither man really seems to see each other on their respective radards. The fan favourite fight would surely be David Benavidez, so let’s hope that can be made.

Charlo has made his intention to go back down to light middleweight clear. He wants to hold on to his belts there. In truth, one is already gone- Tim Tszyu inherited the WBO belt the moment the opening bell rang here. The temptation may be to go for him immediately to get it back- but in truth he might need to defend the others first to avoid losing them. The IBF are usually the strictest of the belt-bodies at enforcing mandatories- Bakhram Murtazaliev appears to have been sitting on a shot with them for a while, so don’t be surprised to see him pulled out of relative obscurity for that next shot.

He’s also said he’d fight Crawford, but that’s not a serious proposition for the near future. Maybe in a year or two, if he still holds belts at light-middleweight by then.

And, for Canelo, of course, there remains one last option: he’s beaten one Charlo twin, but there is another. Jermall, the WBC middleweight champion, was meant to get this shot, but still appears to be struggling with personal issues. If he can get himself back on track, though, some family revenge narrative might be a very sellable twist to sell a Canelo fight on.

Either way, reports of his demise appear to have been exaggerated.

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About the author

Lukasz Fenrych

Lukasz Fenrych is an analyst and writer. He has been covering combat sports since 2019, and joined Bloody Elbow’s boxing team in 2022.

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