The road is long,
With many a winding turnThe Hollies, 1969
At world level, Liverpudlian Callum Smith is the last man standing from his remarkable family of fighting brothers. Liam boxes on, with a desire to return to the title stage, but brothers Stephen and Paul are now retired and Callum is, as perhaps he has always been, the most luminous hope among the tightly knit siblings. His boxing life is his own, but there is an inescapable sense that Saturday represents the crescendo, the final masterpiece, of their collective careers.
Can Callum deploy all of their accrued wisdom against the toughest foe boxing has to offer him? Can he do the unthinkable, go further than those three brothers he has watched from ringside, consoled and celebrated with, and win the big one? Reach further than Golovkin, Mayweather and an ageing Kovalev could and knock Saul Alvarez out?
As his trainer Joe Gallagher mooted this week, he may need to in order to win.
The opportunity waits for him on Saturday night. Across the ring will stand Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, the face of modern boxing, an outstanding talent and the sport’s most lucrative asset since the retirement of Floyd Mayweather. Obdurate, precise, aggressive and tactically adaptable, Alvarez is the most complete opponent any of Britain’s elite fighters could face at the present time.
Callum Smith has for too long been British Boxing’s invisible giant. A profile obscured by the public’s fascination with Joshua and Fury and a failure, until now, of his promoter to land an opponent against whom he could solidify his place in the public consciousness.
It has been a vanilla year or two since Smith’s victory over George Groves in 2018, the finale of the much cherished World Boxing Super Series. That victory established his credentials as the principle figure in the division and secured him the WBA World title.
Older brother Paul, challenged for a portion of the world title, for it is rare to ever be bidding for the entire kingdom, on three separate occasions. The first, against Arthur Abraham, probably the closest he came to fulfilling his dream.
Super Featherweight Stephen, now three years retired, boxed twice for a version of the world title unsuccessfully while 32 year old Liam won and defended the WBO Light Middleweight title in relative anonymity before running into Saul Alvarez in 2017. All four brothers have won the British title in their respective divisions, a record that seems unlikely to be broken. The collection of British titles is in itself a remarkable compilation of achievement from a single brood.
On Saturday, Callum, the youngest of the four, defends his world title and Ring magazine belt he earned dismantling Groves. In truth, despite those accoutrements, he is seeking to gain more than he has brought to lose. There is the opportunity to write his own name into British boxing folklore if he is triumphant, but it is a huge if. A victory could supersede Lloyd Honeyghan’s defeat of Don Curry and John H. Stracey’s defeat of Jose Napoles. Honeyghan and Stracey’s wins, and perhaps Buchanan’s victory over Ismael Laguna, are the benchmark against which all such subsequent assaults on the summit have been judged.
That is the realm of greatness Smith must enter to secure this win. The rarefied air he must breathe. There are no caveats to his quarry either, as there were for the victories of Hatton and McGuigan, who conquered ageing greats in Tszyu and Pedroza respectively. Canelo is in his physical prime and has won titles in division’s either side of the 168 pound limit. He is no more or less active than Smith and he will hold, essentially, home advantage and all the subconscious and overt influence of his status as the sport’s most marketable star.
What Smith does have is significant physical advantages of height and reach, he is the naturally, and conspicuously, the bigger fighter. At 6ft 3 he is freakishly tall for the 168 pound division and will have several inches of reach beneath which to oppress the smaller man. Theoretically at least.
It is a simple premise, to box behind the jab. To impose your size on a shorter opponent from distance and dictate the range and pace of the fight. But this is Canelo, adept at boxing as the instigator and as the fighter on the counter attack too. It is hard to conceive or imagine his outstanding ability to manoeuvre opponents, to apply consistent pressure will not expose Smith to heavy artillery at some point in the fight. For the advantage of height brings with it a counter balancing flaw, that being, Smith’s long torso and the target it offers a persistent body puncher like Canelo if he wins the battle of the jabs or ducks beneath it to work inside.
In his most recent contest, itself more than a year ago, Callum Smith struggled with the similarly proportioned John Ryder. Ryder boxes this weekend on the undercard of Gennedy Golovkin’s return against Kamil Szeremeta, ready to step in should any of these fighters fall foul of a late withdrawal. Smith was below par against Ryder, or was forced to be, with the shorter man being quicker to the jab, countering well and out working the champion for periods during the fight. The champion failed to alter his tactics, struggled for a spark. For a breakthrough.
Smith’s win was contentious if not scandalous and the 30 year old conceded that his struggles with Ryder, though adamant he won, may have paved the way for this weekend’s opportunity. From that style clash it is easy to extrapolate that Canelo’s greater shot selection, edge in power and superior experience will capitalise further where Ryder fell just short. If indeed he did.
I’m inclined to believe Smith may be winning, to some observers, when he loses, despite traditionally being a cautious starter in fights. There are intangibles that could suit him, he may have under estimated Ryder, he may have needed to motivation of a bigger name opponent to extract his best. This is, when all is said and done and Smith joins his elder brothers in retirement, the one. The more solid logic backs Canelo to exploit the flaws Ryder did but more definitively and for him to catch up to Smith from the mid-point and begin to win rounds and maybe force a late intervention.
However the fight unfolds, it is refreshing to be discussing a contest between the best two fighters in the division.