By Eric Raskin
The axiom is that familiarity breeds contempt. It's half-true in boxing, where the familiarity that comes with repeatedly fighting the same opponent often breeds a potent cocktail of contempt and respect.
Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado have found in each other that opponent with whom they'll always be linked, that adversary who brings out the best in them, that foe upon whom they wish bitterly to inflict damage while hoping wholeheartedly not to inflict any lasting damage. For Rios and Alvarado, two fights and 19 rounds together bonded them in ways we civilians will never fully understand. But two fights and 19 rounds weren't quite enough. They're trying to take each other's heads off one more time, because it just makes sense. You keep your friends close, your enemies closer, and, apparently, your frenemies closest.
"We're cool with each other," Rios said. "But once we get in the ring, we f---in' hate each other."
"We are both the same person inside the ring and outside the ring," Alvarado added. "Fighting Brandon Rios has been and continues to be an honor."
This Saturday night at the 1stBank Center in Broomfield, Colorado, that honor extends for both of them, and for fight fans. It's difficult for fights as heavily hyped as Rios-Alvarado (or is it Alvarado-Rios?) I and II to live up to the expectations of action-craving boxing enthusiasts, but both of those first two bloodlettings did. Perhaps labeling something "Fight of the Year" before the opening bell rings is unfair. In the case of the first two Rios-Alvarado wars, they had to settle for being, by general consensus, the second best fight of the year two years in a row, edged out by the greatest pay-per-view main event of this era (Juan Manuel Marquez-Manny Pacquiao IV) and an all-time inspiring display of concussed bravery (Tim Bradley-Ruslan Provodnikov). There's nothing wrong with second place under these circumstances, and it's a remarkable accomplishment to pull it off twice. In both Rios-Alvarado fights, the combat justified the hype.
Rios prevailed the first time, in a battle of unbeatens in October 2012, via seventh-round TKO. Alvarado got his revenge in the rematch, in March 2013, by narrow unanimous decision. They could have fought again that fall and completed a back-to-back-to-back trilogy, but an offer for Rios to fight Pacquiao got in the way. Maybe that was for the best. Maybe Rios and Alvarado needed a break from each other. Maybe this rivalry needed a little time to breathe.
The circumstances have changed. They're not undefeated up-and-comers anymore. In addition to the one loss each has hung on the other, Rios got picked apart by Pacquiao, while Alvarado fell to both Provodnikov and Marquez. (Seriously, it wasn't enough for those guys to repeatedly prevent Rios and Alvarado from winning Fight of the Year honors?) Rios comes into this rubber match at 32-2-1 with 23 KOs; Alvarado is 34-3 with 23 KOs. In 2012 and 2013, both men wanted to win to propel their careers to the next level. In 2015, both men need to win to keep their careers alive.
"[Rios] knows that if he doesn't perform well, if he doesn't win this fight, he knows that it might be the end of his career," Rios' longtime trainer, Robert Garcia, said last week on the HBO Boxing Podcast. "He already told me, 'If I lose this fight, I'm retiring, I don't want to fight anymore.' And I actually told him that I agree with him."
If Rios sees this as a back-against-the-wall fight for himself, then Alvarado may as well be on one of those centrifugal-force Gravitron rides, with the floor having just dropped out. Rios is a mere 28 years old and coming off a victory (a tough, controversial ninth-round DQ over Diego Chaves); Alvarado is 34 and coming off two straight defeats. And as if a nonstop succession of punishing fights—a gory thriller against Breidis Prescott, a close win over Mauricio Herrera, the two Rios fights, the losses to Provodnikov and Marquez—hadn't done enough to shorten "Mile High" Mike's pugilistic lifespan, he has found a way to compound it with outside-the-ring misadventures. From facial knife scars to 4:15 a.m. arrests, Alvarado keeps proving true that cliché about the boxing ring being the safest place for him.
Fighting in his hometown, in front of fans he believes he let down in the Provodnikov fight at the same 1stBank Center, and needing to halt a losing streak, Alvarado doesn't lack for motivation. The question is whether he has enough left physically to do anything about it.
"I feel great," Alvarado insisted at a recent media workout. "I know the kind of fight this will be. He's going to try to cut off the ring, and when he does he'll open himself up, and when he does that I will be cracking him. I will not fight his fight. I am sticking to our plan."
Alvarado's strategic talk references the second Rios fight, in which he used a superior jab and superior footwork just enough to outbox Rios during the moments when they weren't slugging it out like cavemen. The Rios camp claims counter-adjustments will be made this time. "He's doing things differently," Garcia said of the notoriously discipline-challenged Rios' training camp. "He's listening. He's counterpunching. He's moving his head. He's using his jab."
If all this talk of jabs and movement has you concerned that Rios-Alvarado III will be more chess match than epic brawl, don't be. We're talking about Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado, after all.
"This will be the best fight of the trilogy," Rios asserted. "We are entertainers and our fight on January 24 will be the grand finale," Alvarado added. Said HBO blow-by-blow broadcaster Jim Lampley, "Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado are made for each other. You have two fighters, both of whom are almost more committed to entertaining than to winning."
With or without this third fight, the names Rios and Alvarado were going to be forever linked. What the third meeting will do is inform us as to in which order their names will be spoken when, for generations to come, we reference this magnificent rivalry.
Whatever happens with Rios-Alvarado III, the well of must-see Hispanic warriors is under no threat of running dry. Among those under consideration for future-star status is 23-year-old super middleweight Gilberto Ramirez, a 6'2½" southpaw with a fan-friendly style and a 30-0 (24 KOs) record. In the co-feature on Saturday night at the 1stBank Center, "Zurdo" faces his toughest test to date, Russia's Maxim Vlasov, who boasts a 30-1 (15 KOs) record and stands an inch taller than Ramirez. After fights on HBO2 and HBO Latino, this is Ramirez's first shot on the main network—and by the looks of things, it won't be his last.