Rios-Alvarado: The price of a trilogy

You just knew it was coming, as inevitable as the opening bell and the roar of the crowd. You could see it in Mike Alvarado's puffy face and sad eyes as he shuffled through his halfhearted warm-up. He did his best to persuade everybody that his latest legal problems wouldn't detract him from the business at hand, but few were buying it.

Maybe "Mile High Mike" tried to convince himself as well, maybe not. But at some level he must have known he was going to get the stuffing knocked out of him. He did not fight Brandon Rios in last Saturday's rubber match as much as he offered himself up as a human sacrifice. He did it willingly, not only for a reported purse of $785,000, but because he's a fighter and didn't know what else to do.

The result was unsavory fare, more like a botched mercy killing than a boxing match. Alvarado was immediately caught in a flash flood of punches as Rios opened up with everything he had. By the end of the first round, Mike was stumbling around the ring, his face smeared with blood. It only got worse from there. Two more rounds of nonstop abuse, including a knockdown, convinced all concerned to stop the fight at the end of the third.

Alvarado sat slumped on his stool, his face red and swollen, a chorus of boos from the Broomfield, Colorado, crowd ringing in his ears. The guy with the "303" (area code for greater Denver) tattooed on his chest had let his homies down. The local macho man didn't even go down swinging.

It was a career-saving victory for Rios, emphatic enough and on a big enough stage for him to earn at least one more lucrative payday. He did what he had to do and did it well, and that's all you can ask of a fighter in his position. There's little glory in blowing out a dying candle, and Alvarado's wick was down to a nub.

Forget the distractions outside of the ring. They were of secondary significance. It is the punches Alvarado has taken throughout his career that left him virtually helpless against Rios' onslaught. When you look at the numbers, compiled by CompuBox, Alvarado's plight becomes obvious. He absorbed a combined 402 punches in his first two brawls with Rios. And that was just for starters.

Between the second Rios fight (Alvarado's lone victory in the series) and the third, Mike was savaged by Ruslan Provodnikov, who landed 206 blows before stopping him at the end of the 10th round. Granted, Mike lasted the distance with Juan Manuel Marquez, but fielded an additional 278 punches for his trouble.

All told Alvarado took a total of 886 blows in his four bouts immediately preceding the third Rios match. Goodness knows what the additional 120 shots he took from Rios last Saturday did to him. Nothing good, that's for sure.

While a thrilling trilogy leaves an indelible mark on both the sport and its participants, the price the fighters pay makes you wonder if it's really worth it. Trilogies are, by nature, demanding affairs featuring an abundance of give-and-take. It's not that unusual to have one (or both) of the fighters significantly depleted by time they meet for the third time.

The celebrated middleweight championship trilogy between Rocky Graziano and Tony Zale ended that way. The first two bouts were ferociously seesaw affairs, but the third was all Zale. He polished off Graziano with surprising ease, knocking him out in the third round with a left hook. Like Rios-Alvarado III, they had taken a good thing one fight too far.

Part of creating something special is knowing when to stop. Another dab of paint, a superfluous musical note or an extra chapter can ruin a masterpiece, and it is the same way with boxing. The big difference is that boxing's razor edge is the sharpest of all. Even the greatest fighters can fall victim to the soul-sucking demands of a trilogy. Neither Muhammad Ali nor Joe Frazier was ever quite the same after the "Thrilla In Manila."

There are no hard and fast rules here, and by no means do all trilogies shorten careers and ruin the participants. The three bitterly contested duels between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales were extraordinarily violent and neither man flamed out as a result.

Sometimes the loser of the trilogy fares better than the winner in the long run. Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield engaged in arguably the best heavyweight trilogy of the 1990s. But although their final fight ended with a knockout victory for Bowe, he was finished five fights later. Holyfield, meanwhile, bounced back to beat Mike Tyson twice, regain the heavyweight title and keep fighting until 2011.

The outcome of some trilogies, however, is easy to predict. What with his half-assed training, latest legal hassle and the startling amount of punishment suffered, it's reasonable to assume that Alvarado was a beaten man before Rios' first punch was launched.

Going in, the only thread of hope for a competitive fight was how inept Rios looked during his disqualification win over Diego Chaves and 12-round drubbing at the hands of Manny Pacquiao. It's not unheard of for two shot fighters to stage a memorable slugfest, but Rios was well-conditioned and focused. The second he zeroed in on his helpless target, Alvarado's fate was sealed.

We won't really know for sure how much Rios has left until he's matched with an opponent with more to offer, but regardless of what the future holds, ripping apart Alvarado was the best thing to happen to him since the first time he stopped Mike, back in 2012.

That Rios and Alvarado have become friends during the course of their rivalry isn't surprising. They have a lot in common besides boxing. Both have been on the wrong side of the law and spent time incarcerated. Rios has been doing well of late, but Alvarado, a convicted felon, was arrested in January for having a gun during a traffic stop and could face serious time if found guilty.

"We are the same kind of people," Rios told Robert Morales of the Long Beach Press-Telegram. "We know what it takes to be where we are at. We both have our problems outside the ring, and we both have our problems inside the ring. We are both from the hood -- we both grew up like that. We understand 'real' and we recognize 'real.' And that's what we are -- real fighters."

And therein lies the problem. Besides their families, boxing is all Alvarado and Rios have going for them. It's their identity, their livelihood -- the very essence of their being. Without boxing, men like them can be lost, adrift in a world they can't control with their fists. Boxing temporarily saves them from a hardscrabble lifestyle and then destroys them. Not always, but far too often.

The more punches he takes the more Alvarado reminds me of Johnny Tapia toward the end of his career. Mike is bigger and younger of course, but as the scar tissue and tattoos multiply, so does the similarity.

Nonetheless, it is doubtful we've seen the last of Alvarado in the ring. His return could be delayed if he's convicted on the gun charge, but win or lose in court, the odds are that he'll fight again. He'll tell himself that he lost to Rios because he wasn't in shape, but I'm not convinced it would have made much difference.

When a fighter loses his mojo, it's like the elastic that holds your socks up: Once it's gone it's never comes back. That's what Hall of Fame trainer George Benton used to say, anyway.

There have been calls for Alvarado to retire, but as much as I wish he would, I won't join the chorus. I've had too many fighters -- some down on their luck and others suffering the consequences of their profession -- tell me that they would do it all again in a heartbeat, even knowing how it would all turn out in the end.

For better or for worse, "Mile High Mike" deserves the same opportunity. That might sound crazy to some, but as Joyce Carol Oates wrote, boxing is "sanity turned inside out, madness revealed as a higher and more pragmatic form of sanity."

Alvarado inhabits that world (maybe on both sides of the ropes) and that's why he'll fight on until nobody will pay him anymore. Another trilogy, however, is highly improbable.