There were times in the last century when boxing was the dominant and most popular sport in America. During those lost decades, in the 1920s and 1930s, only eight boxers at a time could call themselves world champions. There were eight weight divisions, compared with 17 today, and each was ruled by one world champion known across the sporting globe. Such select purity made boxing compelling and easy to follow.
This year the venerable British trade publication, Boxing News, made a principled stand against today’s contrasting plethora of world champions. Their editor, Matt Christie, wrote: “It’s impossible to think of another sport in which there are so many ‘world champions’ who have achieved this status without proving themselves to be the best in the world. By my calculations, 74 of the 81 active ‘world champions’ have not won a contest that could have resulted in them being universally declared the best in their division.”
Boxing News now insist, admirably, that the only fighters they will classify as world champions are “those who have proven themselves to be the best in the world, regardless of the belts they own”. That will be the case after Saturday night’s fight in Las Vegas between Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez and Caleb Plant – unless there is an unlikely draw in this world super-middleweight title contest. Álvarez is the WBA, WBC and WBO champion while Plant holds the IBF belt and their intriguing showdown is made all the more interesting because of its novelty unification value.
Álvarez is, by wide consensus, the best boxer in the world when the imaginary pound-for-pound list is drawn up by pundits and fans who love comparing fighters across the weight categories. He has lost only once in 59 bouts since his professional debut at the age of 15, and he is also a throwback to boxing’s illustrious past. This is his fourth title fight in 11 months and three of those opponents have been serious champions in their own right – Callum Smith, Billy Joe Saunders and now Plant. The 31-year-old Mexican is driven by his desire to establish himself as the undisputed world champion and, in Las Vegas, he suggested that beating Plant would be the most significant moment of his career so far.
“Only five [male] fighters in the history of boxing have accomplished being undisputed [in the four-belt era] and I will be the sixth,” Álvarez said. “This fight is going to be history. You’re going to be witnessing something you’ll remember for a long time.”
This seems to place undue emphasis on modern boxing’s own rather hollow history but Álvarez remained emphatic. “Being the undisputed champion is huge for my legacy and it will be an honour to be the first Latin American fighter to do it. Eddy Reynoso [his trainer] and I said in the beginning that the goal was to be undisputed, and now we’re one fight away.”
Bernard Hopkins, Jermain Taylor, Terence Crawford, Oleksandr Usyk and Josh Taylor have completed the feat over the past 20 years. Teófimo López matched them in May 2020 when he stunned Vasiliy Lomachenko to become the undisputed lightweight champion – only for the WBC to muddy the waters by claiming that Devin Haney was actually their interim champion as they had previously given Lomachenko a meaningless new bauble as “franchise champion”. Beyond such alphabet absurdity, Álvarez believes that joining the undisputed gang will be a notable milestone as “the goal is to be an all-time great”.
Plant has won all 21 of his fights and he has been the IBF champion since January 2019. But, unlike Álvarez, Plant is an obscure figure outside the boxing hardcore. Having grown up in poverty near Nashville, and suffering tragedy following the death of his baby daughter in 2015 and the police shooting his troubled mother dead four years later, Plant knows his life would be transformed if he could beat Álvarez.
The 29-year-old American has also underlined the historical magnitude of the fight because the super-middleweight division – bridging the divide between middleweights and light-heavyweights – only came into official existence in 1984. In the subsequent 37 years it has not been able to claim one unequivocal world champion. “When you tune into this fight you’re not just watching a boxing match,” Plant said. “You’re going to be witnessing history. There’s never been an undisputed super-middleweight champion before. So this is going down in the history books for ever.”
It would be wrong to dismiss Plant entirely. He is the much taller man, with a longer reach, who is fighting at his natural weight. He is also an excellent technical fighter, with fast hands and feet, and the way in which he has dealt with adversity in his personal life suggests he has great heart. He is hungry for success but he has never faced a boxer anywhere near as complete nor as experienced as Álvarez. The Mexican is at the height of his powers and, alongside his highly sophisticated ringcraft and strategic patience, he hits venomously hard.
Plant shrugged when asked this week if we might have seen the best of Álvarez. “I can’t answer questions about Canelo because I don’t know jack-shit about him. But you haven’t seen the best Caleb Plant. You’ve seen some good performances out of me but you’ve yet to see the best of me yet. So that’s why I’m excited about this fight.
“All great fighters have been in this position where they are the underdog and they’re expected to lose. But then they go in there, do the job they’re supposed to do and then they become the big dog. This is my moment. I feel like this is my destiny. I’ve just got to go out there and execute the gameplan.”
Álvarez was calmer as he told me: “It is personal and it is history. I want to be seen like the greatest fighters of the past. They fought the toughest opponents and made sure that everyone knew they were the best in the world. Now it is more complicated because we have all these titles and all these champions. But this is different. It is a big moment and I am going to make history as the undisputed champion.”
It will be a considerable shock if Plant somehow manages to win. The ferocious logic of Álvarez, and the weight of history he is determined to carry on his shoulders, should make it another landmark night for the great Mexican champion. He is likely to seal his undisputed status with an authoritative display that echoes the most authentic boxing history.