HOUSTON -- Former junior middleweight titleholder Canelo Alvarez blasted his way into a middleweight world championship shot by annihilating powerful James Kirkland by thunderous third-round knockout in an action-packed junior middleweight bout Saturday night at Minute Maid Park.
With most in the wild crowd of 31,588 cheering for Alvarez at the first boxing card in stadium history, Mexico's most popular active fighter dropped the hard-charging Kirkland three times en route to a brutal knockout in the first fight of his exclusive HBO contract.
"I'm happy about the win. The result was what I expected," Alvarez said.
Said Kirkland: "I did not know I was knocked out."
It was the kind of action-packed fight that might help many forget about last week's Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao dud.
"This is exactly what needed to happen," Golden Boy president Oscar De La Hoya said of the intense action. "Mayweather-Pacquiao -- people will forget. Styles make fights, and when Kirkland is ready, he will walk through anyone, but Canelo was ready, too. He was stronger and smarter."
The win was pivotal for Alvarez, who next will have a shot at middleweight champion Miguel Cotto on HBO PPV this fall in what is boxing's biggest fight outside a potential Mayweather-Pacquiao rematch.
Alvarez (45-1-1, 32 KOs), Cotto and their promotional companies have already signed a term sheet for the bout, and representatives from Cotto promoter Roc Nation Sports were ringside Saturday night.
However, Cotto (39-4, 32 KOs) still has to take care of his end of the business, which means retaining the title in his first defense when he takes on former titleholder Daniel Geale (31-3, 16 KOs) in what appears to be a dangerous fight June 6 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
As expected, Kirkland came out like a ball of fire at the opening bell, applying massive pressure to Alvarez as he trapped him in a corner and began to blast away. But Alvarez slipped a lot of the punches and took the onslaught before rallying for a huge round.
Alvarez worked his way off the ropes and eventually landed a powerful straight right hand that dropped Kirkland. Although Kirkland was wobbly when he got to his feet, the fight went on and Alvarez was in command, hammering his opponent with body shots and right hands.
The 24-year-old Alvarez was all over Kirkland, 31, of Austin, Texas, whose nose was bleeding at the end of the round.
"I knew that James is a strong fighter, but he did surprise me with his aggressiveness in the first and second rounds," Alvarez said. "But once I dropped him the first time, I knew I had him."
Alvarez staggered Kirkland (32-2, 28 KOs) with a right hand early in the second round, and they planted themselves chest-to-chest and slugged it out as the crowd roared. Back and forth they went, but Alvarez always seemed in control before he ended the fight in the third round.
"Kirkland came out so strong, but Canelo kept his poise," De La Hoya said. "He tried to keep his distance, but Kirkland was so relentless. What really impressed me was [Alvarez's] defense. He was dodging the left hooks Kirkland was throwing. He used everything in his arsenal. But the most impressive punch was the body shots."
With the crowd electric and chanting "Mexico! Mexico!" Alvarez nailed Kirkland with a right uppercut in the third round to drop him again. Kirkland made it to his feet, but moments later, Alvarez unloaded a huge right hand that flattened Kirkland, who appeared out cold as referee Jon Schorle waved off the fight at 2 minutes, 19 seconds.
"I jumped on him early and I knew I had him hurt in the first round, but he escaped out of the corner," Kirkland said. "We both threw bombs in there. He hurt me and I hurt him. I did not see the knockout punch.
"I knew it was going to be this type of fight. I'm proud to be involved in this. He's a great [former] champion, and I look forward to getting back in the ring and fighting him again some time."
Kirkland was taken to the hospital for a CT scan after the brutal knockout he sustained.
He was coming off a 17-month layoff during which he turned down fights, got in legal trouble and changed trainers from Ann Wolfe, whom he had also split with before his first defeat (a first-round knockout), to the heretofore unknown tandem of Bay Bay McClinton and Rick Morones. After the fight, rap star Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Kirkland's promoter, said that situation will change again.
"I'm very proud of him. He fought like a true warrior, but I'm sending him back to Ann Wolfe," Jackson said.
For Alvarez, the fight further stamped him as one of boxing biggest stars. He drew a crowd of about 40,000 to the Alamodome for his unification victory against Austin Trout in 2013, and although he lost a unification bout to Mayweather later in the year, the fight was the highest-grossing bout in boxing history -- until Mayweather-Pacquiao broke that record May 2 -- and generated the second-most pay-per-view buys.
"I was really excited all these fans came out to see me," Alvarez said. "It gives me the strength and power to train hard and to please everyone."
Said De La Hoya: "The kid [Alvarez] was a star before, and now he's a shooting star. Unbelievable. [The fight was like Marvin] Hagler-[Thomas] Hearns all over again. Canelo showed that he's learning. He's growing into his man strength. He's only 24 years old. He displayed tremendous punching power."
Now Alvarez, De La Hoya and boxing fans everywhere will wait to see if Cotto can defeat Geale to set up the megafight.
"We'll definitely be watching Cotto's fight very closely," De La Hoya said. "Our intention is to make a superfight, Canelo with Cotto. If it doesn't work out, we'll move on to Plan B."
But De La Hoya said he is committed to doing everything he can to make the fight as long as Cotto comes through next month.
"June 6 is going to be very, very important to all the boxing fans," De La Hoya said. "I believe if we continue on this pace, delivering these types of fights, people will forget about Mayweather-Pacquiao."
Alvarez said he is ready to challenge for the middleweight championship.
"I will continue to fight the best fighters. That's what I do," he said. "I fight for myself and for the fans. I'm not afraid of any fighter. [Cotto] is the champion and the kind of fighter I want to fight."
Cotto is the kind of opponent boxing fans everywhere want to see Alvarez fight as well.