Canelo Alvarez, left, lands a punch on Gennady Golovkin. (Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via Associated Press)

LAS VEGAS — As midnight approached, Canelo Alvarez walked out of T-Mobile Arena wearing a shimmery gold sports jacket, sporting a bandage over his left eye and suddenly holding all the cards.

His strategy had paid off — not just in Saturday’s win over Gennady Golovkin, but in the years that preceded it.

If Golovkin had things his way, the two fighters would’ve been in the ring three years earlier when the Kazakh fighter was closer to his peak. Instead Alvarez slow-played negotiations, faced Golovkin when he was ready, scoring a draw and now a majority decision — the only two blemishes on Golovkin’s record (38-1-1, 34 knockouts). Now, if the two square off a third time, which seemed like a foregone conclusion in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s exciting bout, Alvarez (50-1-2, 34 KOs) will likely get the chance to close out the trilogy against a 37-year old Golovkin.

So no, it was no surprise that Alvarez, seven months removed from a pair of failed drug tests and fresh off a six-month suspension, was so eager to declare Saturday one of the happiest nights of his life.

“I feel satisfied because I gave a great fight,” he said through an interpreter. “It was a clear victory.”

To his credit, he played it all perfectly, especially Saturday’s 12 rounds. Criticized and chastised for his approach in the initial meeting last September, Alvarez looked like a different fighter this time around; in truth, he looked more like himself. He kept the fight in the middle of the ring, he took the action to Golovkin and he was never hesitant to mix it up and trade blows. It was a starkly different game plan than the one Alvarez employed one year earlier. Golovkin’s camp had ridiculed the Mexican fighter for backing away and opting for a strategic, defensive-minded approach.

“We saw that the best way to defeat him is by making him go backward,” Eddy Reynoso, Alvarez’s longtime trainer, said of their revised strategy.

While the first fight resulted in a controversial draw and a deserved black eye for the sport, the rematch was everything the initial meeting wasn’t. It had even more action, more ferocious exchanges and a hold-your-breath, don’t-blink finish that many ringside observers felt could’ve gone either way. “It lived up to the expectations,” said Oscar De La Hoya, head of Golden Boy Promotions.

With animosity brewing between the two boxers, Alvarez had hoped to become the first fighter to put Golovkin on his back. “Unfortunately we didn’t get the knockout,” he said. “Thank God we walked away with the victory.”

It was about as close as could be, too. Golovkin threw more punches (879 to Alvarez’s 622) and landed more (234 to 202), but Alvarez connected on 143 of his 366 power punches, compared with Golovkin’s 116 of 332. Both fighters exchanged big, bruising blows throughout, neither allowing the other to seize momentum.

The three judges agreed on eight of the 12 rounds, and they all had Alvarez leading six rounds to three heading into the 10th. Both fighters dug deep for the so-called championship rounds but Golovkin seemed to have the edge. He won both the 10th and the 11th on all three scorecards, needing a strong final three minutes to avert disaster.

He fought valiantly in the 12th round, opening with a big right uppercut, and then kept firing until the closing bell. Though everyone in the arena knew the final round was close — and many clearly thought Golovkin inflicted slightly more damage — judges Dave Moretti and Steve Weisfeld both awarded the round to Alvarez, sealing the majority decision and delivering Golovkin the first loss of his career. Glenn Feldman scored the bout 114-114, while the other two gave Alvarez the 115-113 advantage.

Because it was so close and there was little consensus on the final round, Golovkin’s camp certainly could have been more vocal with their disappointment and taken issue with the result. The fighter was clearly upset in the ring, but he and his camp were measured with their words later.

“Look, the judges were good judges,” said Abel Sanchez, Golovkin’s trainer. “They saw the fight in Canelo’s favor tonight. Maybe next time they’ll see it in our favor.”

Said Golovkin: “I feel like I’m a champion, but he’s also a champion.”

The good news is nearly every single stakeholder Saturday night was quick to express hope that a third bout is now in order. The bad news is this is boxing, and business has a way of mucking up the simplest of plans. But if all the principals can get their numbers in order, the two could be back in the ring next year, likely in May or September.

A third fight would no doubt be lucrative and will go a long way toward either validating Alvarez’s standing in the sport and Golovkin’s place in the history books — likely both.

Alvarez now finds himself in rarefied air, perhaps the biggest name in a sport desperate for a transcendent superstar. Though he has 53 pro fights under his belt, he’s only 28 and is still showing signs of growth. He’s certainly a much sharper fighter than the 23-year old who lost to Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2013.

That fight stands as the lone loss on his fight resume, and Alvarez is now in position to dictate terms for as long as he wants to continue in the sport. He’s shown a willingness to face anyone — and Saturday he showcased the ability to beat everyone.

Golovkin, meanwhile, knows Saturday was yet another missed opportunity. After beating everyone put in front of him for so long, he would run the risk of going winless in three tries against the Mexican champion. That’s in part, no doubt, a product of his inability to lure the sport’s best middleweights into the ring while he was still at his peak, an unrivaled knockout artist at the time. He once put 23 straight opponents on the mat. He’s now seen three of his last four fights go to the scorecards. He had three decisions total in his first 36 pro bouts.

Like Alvarez, Golovkin also suffered a cut and received eight stitches over his right eye Saturday night. He attended a post-fight news conference wearing dark sunglasses. His mood, though, was light. Despite several opportunities, he refused to get baited into criticizing the result, speaking through an interpreter. Then, before walking away from the podium and out of the arena, Golovkin took the microphone and in perfect English offered some assurance to the reporters, to the fans and perhaps also to himself.

“I come back, guys,” he said. “I come back.”