Harry Pratt

Rhodes, once a young hot shot like Alvarez, is now the grizzled veteran

 

Win, lose or draw against Ryan Rhodes this month, Mexican super kid Saul Alvarez could do worse post fight than have a good chat with the well-travelled and, surprisingly, well-worn British challenger.

For even if Rhodes fails to teach him a lesson in the ring — and rest assured he is utterly convinced he will do just that on June 18 in Guadalajara, Mexico — this most personable 34-year-old from Sheffield could definitely enlighten Alvarez about the potential pitfalls of having too much too soon in their chosen profession.

On the surface, Rhodes and Alvarez appear to have nothing in common.

Rhodes is almost old enough to be Alvarez’s father with the age difference between the two fighters standing at 14 years. Then come the contrasting looks and image. Flame-haired Alvarez is the new bright thing of world boxing. Rhodes, meanwhile, with no hair left at all, admits he is barely known outside of Europe and, rightly or wrongly, is considered something of a journeyman.

Dig a little deeper, however, and the similarities become rather more evident.

Sure, Rhodes never held a world title at the age of 20 — a la reigning WBC light middleweight titleholder Alvarez. Indeed, he has never owned a major belt at all. But he fought for one at just 21 and during the late 90s was deemed the future of UK boxing.

“Spice Boy,”as he was labelled back then by the British tabloid press, was schooled in the same gym as Prince Naseem Hamed and used to work with the same trainer, Brendan Ingle. As far as the UK media was concerned, this made it inevitable the flashy young lad, who turned professional at 18, would one day follow his pal, Naz, to the summit of the sport.

Then came his first loss, on points against classy Canadian Otis Grant for the WBO middleweight title in 1997, and suddenly the spotlight stopped shining so brightly on his corner. Three more defeats followed over the next five years.

All of which is sufficient for Rhodes (45-4, 31 Knockouts) to draw comparisons between his formative days in the ring and those of rising star Alvarez.

“So far, the boy has done everything that has been asked of him, and there is no doubt that Oscar De La Hoya has matched him really, really well over the last couple of years,” said Rhodes, who arrived in Mexico last Tuesday to begin final preparations for his third shot at world glory.

“But, of course, with someone of that age there is always a danger of having everything come too easy and too quickly. A lot of people say that I was pushed too quickly when I was his age. For me, Alvarez’s situation is very similar to when I was put in against Otis Grant for the world title.

“Only this time the boot is definitely on the other foot. I have the advantage. I am the experienced one, and he is the young man, who is inexperienced. And like I found out to my cost against Grant, you can’t buy experience. There is no substitute for it.”

The way Alvarez took care of Matthew Hatton, whose brother Ricky manages Rhodes, to win the vacant WBC belt earlier this year suggests his next opponent from England could find himself in equally deep trouble in less than two weeks.

Rhodes, though, dismisses that notion, insisting that, unlike Hatton, he is an authentic hard-hitting junior middleweight — and an undefeated one into the bargain.

“I’m the biggest light middleweight this kid has fought. In fact, he’s never fought a real light middleweight and certainly not one who can punch with my power and strength,” warned the European titleholder, who is on a 10-fight winning streak.

“Until he fought Matthew, I’d never taken serious note of Alvarez as a fighter. But when I watched him against Matthew and had a real close look, I picked up a lot of flaws in his style.

“He does work well with his punches, throws a lot of them together — both to the body and head. So I know I will have to get my tactics rights. But, as I’ve just said, I’m the biggest legitimate light middleweight he’s ever faced. …

“And, remember, my four losses all came at middleweight. I am unbeaten at light middleweight, which is some achievement when you think I've been fighting as a pro for 16 years.“

Arguably, equally impressive was Rhodes’ stubborn refusal to drift into obscurity even when, at the start of the millennium, he seemed all washed up. The fact he is now back mixing it among the division's elite is surely a testament to a supreme self-belief in his boxing talents and unwavering dedication to maintaining himself in peak physical condition.

Rhodes is a serious family man, happily married to wife Danielle, with two daughters Ellie and Lissie, aged 12 and 9 respectively. He rarely drinks and, above all, is a self-confessed health fanatic, who relishes the challenge of looking after himself in and out of the ring.

“The middle part of my career did become difficult,” admitted the 5-foot-8½ (174cm) southpaw before adding, “But even during that period I never really thought about packing the whole gig in.

“That’s because I have always had the support of great trainers and great conditioners and have a great family around me. My wife and two girls keep my feet firmly on the ground and help me focus on my job. I love spending time with my family. When I’m not training, I’d rather be with them than anywhere else.

“The reason I don’t have any problem making this weight is that over the years I have learnt what kinds of foods work well with me and my body. Things like diet have become very important to me.

“When I was 18, they were irrelevant. When you are growing up, you don’t bother about things like that. Now, though, I’m something of a health freak. I will have a drink on my birthday or at Christmas but, if I’m out with mates, I will just have a diet coke. It’s no problem.

“The two biggest sacrifices I have to make is cut out the chocolate and cake. Aside from that, I really enjoy the discipline required. Boxing is about so much more than just throwing punches in a ring and knocking out your opponent. It’s about bringing discipline to your whole life — and enjoying it.”

So should Rhodes manage to confound the experts and beat Alvarez in front of a hostile, partisan Mexican crowd, can we expect him to stay at the top for a meaningful length of time? Absolutely.

“I am very fit, and I have never been badly beaten or even had really tough fights in my career. That’s because I’ve got the style and the boxing brain to keep myself from getting into those type of fights," Rhodes said.

“Probably my hardest fight of all was when I beat Jamie Moore in 2009. Other than that I’ve just done what I’ve had to do. I love those fights when you hit but don’t get hit. That’s my style.

“Who knows? I could have another decade left in me once I’ve won this world title and brought it home to Sheffield. I'm the Bernard Hopkins of British boxing!”

 

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