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Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin concluded their trilogy at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Sept. 17.Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

There’s an order to great trilogies. The first is a delightful surprise. The second builds on the established themes. The finale is overanticipated and leaves you wishing they’d stood on two.

The great sporting trilogy of recent times – Canelo Alvarez vs. Gennady Golovkin – ended Saturday night having fulfilled those broad parameters.

When the fighters first met in 2017, there was a good argument to be made that they were the two best boxers at work in any weight class. That contest was a masterpiece. It was ruled a draw, though most observers agreed that Golovkin, an impish assassin from Kazakhstan, actually won it.

The second time around, in 2018, was as good or better. Alvarez won in the ring and on the scorecard. That fight fully established him as the world’s great pound-for-pound fighter. Though Alvarez hasn’t crossed over to mainstream global fame; too reticent, too unwilling to play the American marketing game. But this allows him to retain the glamour of a cult favourite, while still becoming fantastically rich.

The third fight, which went off on Saturday night in Las Vegas, probably should not have happened. Golovkin is 40 – well past the sell-by date for a man who works with his fists. He’d been chasing Alvarez for four years, looking to rewrite the first few lines of his own obituary.

Alvarez avoided him because he was on to bigger things. His weight yo-yo’d as he criss-crossed divisions hoovering up belts.

Last May, Alvarez attempted to add another belt. At one point or another, he’s held 16 of them. It was assumed he’d win again against Russian light-heavyweight Dmitry Bivol. Instead, he lost for the first time in nine years.

If boxers are different from other athletes, Mexican boxers are different from other boxers. It’s more than a national sport. It is a projection of national strength. Spain had its armada; Mexico had Julio Cesar Chavez.

Alvarez comes from deep within that tradition. He has six brothers. All of them boxed professionally. Alvarez turned pro at 15. Now 32, he has been boxing for a living for more than half his life.

He still looks great, but the shine was taken off him by that shock loss in May. He is no longer considered the sport’s premier practitioner. One off night – that’s all it takes in boxing to go from untouchable to yesterday’s flavour.

Fighting Golovkin was a way to reintroduce himself without real risk, but with guaranteed box office.

No one seriously expected Golovkin to win, including, apparently, Golovkin. He came out slow, which is not the way to beat an irrepressible bull such as Alvarez. If the first two fights were The Godfathers, then this one was The Godfather: Part III. It’s fun to see all your old favourites, but it stopped making much sense in the middle. By the final third, you were wondering why they’d bothered.

Afterward, Golovkin pointed out that neither man had any marks on his face – “it’s so clean, this is high level.”

No, it means neither guy took any risks. Golovkin was always going to lose that sort of fight, and he did.

Afterward, Alvarez put on a crown, seemingly as much to remind himself as everyone else. Though he’d just won a major fight, his mind was stuck back in May.

“Defeats are great,” Alvarez said. “Because it enables you to come back and show humility.”

He said his left hand is so badly injured that he cannot hold a water glass. That will require surgery.

The obvious move is a rematch with Bivol. The first fight didn’t catch much notice because everyone expected an easy Alvarez victory. The second fight would be a major (read: immensely lucrative) event.

The problem is that Bivol loomed over Alvarez. They hit the same weight, but the Russian had four inches on the Mexican. Even for a ring genius such as Alvarez, the physics may present an insoluble problem.

Whatever he thinks of the idea, Alvarez is stuck.

Asked if he intends to fight Bivol again, Alvarez said, “Of course.”

But he pivoted away from that idea quickly: “I need rest. My body needs rest.”

As long as things ended on predictable lines, Saturday night was always going to end in wistfulness. These two men have pretended to hate each other for years. Now they could do what boxers crave – valorizing the other man as a way of valorizing yourself.

They traded elaborate compliments. They hugged and stared into each other’s eyes.

“He is a real warrior,” Golovkin said. “If you not understand, you not understand nothing.”

These are the moments that make boxing the most emotionally evocative sport. Two guys trying to kill each other, and coming out the other end fused together by the experience. They are two of the great fighters of their generation. When they are remembered, they will be remembered together.

Though he lost, Golovkin was in high spirits. He reminded everyone that he still holds middleweight belts. He’s not retiring, though his epic fights are behind him. The Kazakh has the luxury of knowing his race is mostly run. All that’s left is a slow jog into the finish line.

Though he won, Alvarez was not triumphant. His entire aspect gave the impression of weariness. He was fighting grown men when most kids are starting high school. Regardless of what he does now, his golden era is over. You can’t be unbeatable after being beaten.

You also can’t stop. Alvarez, the greatest of them all just four months ago, now has to start slugging his way back to the top.

That’s another great thing about boxing. In this sport, because of the glory to be had from refusing to go down, you can win even when you lose. On Saturday, Alvarez proved the opposite might also be true.