LAS VEGAS -- 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.com 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 percent 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 percent 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.