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Canelo Alvarez, embarrassed by Floyd Mayweather Jr last September by his inability to hang with an elite technical boxer, obviously has learned something since then.
To the surprise of many, Alvarez accepted a fight with Erislandy Lara, a skillful southpaw, and showed vast improvement as he claimed a split decision on Saturday night before a crowd of 14,239 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
The fight was essentially to determine the No.1 junior middleweight in the world now that Mayweather and new middleweight champion Miguel Cotto have exited the division. And even though the bout was contracted at 155 pounds, one over the weight class limit, Alvarez can claim that mantle.
It was his constant pressure, heavier punching and ability to cut off the ring when necessary that did the business as judges Levi Martinez (117-111) and Dave Moretti (115-113) scored it for Alvarez while Jerry Roth (115-113) had it for Lara. ESPN scored the fight 116-112 for Alvarez, the former unified junior middleweight titleholder.
"I came to fight. I didn't come to run. You don't win by running. You win by hitting," Alvarez said through a translator. "He definitely has a great jab but you don't win a fight like that by running."
When the scores were announced the overwhelmingly pro-Alvarez crowd erupted in cheers. Alvarez is Mexico's biggest active boxing star and had given them what they wanted.
"I wanted to leave a good taste in the mouth of my fans, so I came to fight," said Alvarez, who has won two in a row, having also knocked out Alfredo Angulo in March in his return from the Mayweather debacle. "Lara didn't come to fight. He's a great boxer, I respect him. But he has to throw more [effective] punches."
Lara, to the surprise of nobody, bitterly disputed the result.
"I 100% thought I won the fight," he said through a translator. "I felt I was totally in control. It didn't seem like he was doing anything. I know one thing, 100% I made him look bad in front of all of his people. Everyone knows I won the fight, no matter what they say."
Said Ronnie Shields, Lara's trainer, "That's bulls***, they robbed us."
Alvarez (44-1-1, 31 KOs), who turns 24 on Friday, is the most important fighter under contract to Golden Boy Promotions, and the win was a huge boost for a company transition following last month's resignation of chief executive Richard Schaefer. Oscar De La Hoya, the Golden Boy president, who has taken the day-to-day reins of the company, looked relieved and happy after the fight.
"I thought it was a great performance from the opening bell," De La Hoya said. "He literally just chased Lara and landed effective punches, great combinations and cut him over the eye. It was a difficult and tough fight like everyone expected, but Canelo pulled it off."
Lara (19-2-2, 12 KOs), 31, a former Cuban amateur star before defecting and settling in Houston, would have preferred to be making the first defense of his world title since being elevated from an interim titleholder. But Alvarez did not want to fight for his belt and Lara couldn't turn down the opportunity to face Alvarez, the man he had been calling out for the past year.
So while Lara still holds his belt, Alvarez gets the glory of the victory against the fighter who insulted him time and again during his attempt to land the fight, and then throughout the promotion.
Lara said he would take Alvarez "to Cuban boxing school," but that never materialized.
"If this is a school of boxing, that's a poor school," said Chepo Reynoso, Alvarez's trainer.
Lara spent much of the fight running from Alvarez. He put his back against the ropes time and again and slid along them around the ring as Alvarez chased after him and ultimately scored his most significant victory.
According to CompuBox punch statistics, Alvarez landed 97 of 415 punches (23%), including 73% of his power shots to the body, and Lara connected on 107 of 386 blows (28%). Alvarez's shots were clearly heavier as he attacked, attacked and attacked.
In the first round, he landed a right hand to the body that sent Lara into the ropes, and he never stopped going after him. When he landed an overhand right in the second round, the crowd erupted with chants of "Canelo! Canelo! Canelo!"
Alvarez, who earned at least $1.5 million plus a share of the pay-per-view profits, also landed a lot of hard body punches, hoping to slow Lara down and get him to stand still and fight. But Lara, who made a career-high $1m, wanted no part of that. He virtually sprinted around the ring often and threw his punches off his back foot.
"He hit me with some body shots but those things had no force. They had nothing on them," Lara said.
Lara's track meet style was frustrating to watch, but not for Alvarez.
"I wasn't frustrated," Alvarez said. "I came to pressure him and that's what I did."
Lara managed to land a few stiff straight left hands, which raised swelling around Alvarez's right eye in about the fourth round.
Alvarez had been trying to land an uppercut and finally nailed Lara with one in the seventh round that cut him over his right eye; Lara immediately dabbed at the blood.
"No, the cut didn't bother me," Lara said. "This is not baseball, this is boxing and it happens."
A body shot in the eighth round buckled Lara against the ropes as he began to slow down.
In the 10th round it was more of the same with Canelo chasing Lara around, but he did land an uppercut as Lara was backing up into the ropes.
"You're always worried about a boxer who is literally running," De La Hoya said. "Lara is an excellent boxer, he's a very dangerous boxer. I respect him because his ability to not engage in a fight is probably the best in boxing."
Alvarez was going for a knockout in the 12th round as he came out blasting. He landed a hard right hand that ignited the crowd and continued to pressure Lara. But Lara responded with a clean right hand in one of the most action-packed sequences of the fight as the crowd chanted for Alvarez again.
After the fight, Lara continued with the same disrespect toward Alvarez that he showed before the fight.
"I didn't respect him before the fight and that hasn't changed," he said. "I don't respect him now. I want a rematch."
De La Hoya said Alvarez would return to action in November, although who he will face is unclear. A potential showdown with Cotto could happen next spring, but is unlikely for this year. Big puncher James Kirkland could be an option.
There's plenty of time to figure out what's next.
"Right now I'm just gonna enjoy my birthday," Alvarez said.
"He's gonna enjoy his 24th birthday next week and then we'll sit down with his team next week," De La Hoya said. "I will fly to Mexico and talk to him about it."
One thing you can take to the bank is that Alvarez won't be facing Lara again.
"I'll give him the rematch," Alvarez said mockingly, "when he learns how to fight."
This article first appeared on ESPN.com