by Paul Magno
When Saul “El Canelo” Alvarez first signed with Golden Boy and was put on the path to mainstream boxing success, the pundits and scribes immediately sunk their teeth into the red-headed, freckled slugger, postulating that the only thing going for the young Mexican fighter was hair color and a boatload of hype.
But what these “experts” failed to see was the person behind the publicity– the young man with the eight grade education who rose from a humble farm life to now promote a stable of twenty fighters while impeccably managing his own rising fame. The undefeated Alvarez (36-0-1, 26 KOs) has willingly put the pressure of success on his shoulders, carrying it from the time of his pro debut, at 15 years of age, right through to his current status as mainstream Mexican star and US boxing curiosity.
As fight fans familiar with Alvarez can attest to, there isn’t an ounce of slacker in the 20-year-old from Juanacatlán, Jalisco, Mexico.
While most 20-year-olds spend their free time with friends or working part-time jobs for gas money, Canelo is dealing with a growing empire and a boxing brand name second only to Chavez among the knowledgeable and unforgiving Mexican fight fans.
Make no mistake about it, Alvarez has won over the tough Mexican fight fans. From Taxi drivers to day laborers to teenage school kids, Canelo is a household name and his star is still on the rise. His fights routinely draw double-digit TV ratings, even rivaling the viewership of some national soccer games.
And there was no massive media push behind the kid, no famous last name, no short cut to fame. Canelo did it the old-fashioned way– by fighting in clubs and gyms throughout his home state of Jalisco, building a local/regional following, and pressing the flesh with the fans. The word spread from there. His red hair and freckles may have gotten him a first look, but the hard-working, affable prodigy has kept them coming back with entertaining performances and a blue collar attitude.
The only blight on a flawless relationship with the Mexican public was when Golden Boy and WBC President, Jose Sulaiman, collaborated in an effort to wrap a belt around the waist of the young prospect. The buzz south of the border was rightfully cynical and Alvarez did suffer some backlash from the perceived shortcut to a world title.
But whereas Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. was vocal in insisting that his own boardroom-crafted title shot was legit, Alvarez all but admitted that the WBC belt was little more than a promotional toy for his new handlers.
“I’m not saying that I’m the best in the world yet,” Alvarez told the media when questioned about his dubious bout with Matthew Hatton for the vacant WBC jr. middleweight title. “I’m conscious of what I’m doing. I’m preparing myself for that and these are the first steps.”
Of course, Alvarez would go on to win the vacant title against the smaller, marginally-skilled Hatton, and, in so doing, put himself into a very tough spot.
Still a raw prospect in many areas, Alvarez now finds himself on the world stage with a world title and a division full of tough, young challengers. Eager to live up to the Mexican Warrior ethos and in possession of a working class pride beyond that of most paper champions, Alvarez’s first instinct will be to fight the best.
As a matter of fact, Alvarez’s instinct to please has led to him making his first defense against Ryan Rhodes this Saturday in his birthplace of Tlajomulco de Zúñiga, Jalisco. The burgeoning star could easily have main evented in a major Las Vegas venue against a hand-picked opponent, but Alvarez is taking his reign seriously and Golden Boy, frankly, is not as good as Top Rank at finding big name opponents who pose little to no risk for their fighters.
Rhodes is not an elite-level jr. middleweight, but he’s no joke, either. The 34-year-old southpaw from Sheffield, Yorkshire, UK is tough, athletic, and well-seasoned. With a record of 45-4 with 31 KOs, Rhodes has scored stoppage victories in his last four contests and hasn’t lost, or even come close to losing, in about four years.
Alvarez, realizing the threat posed by Rhodes, set up his training camp in California and brought in Kazakhstan’s WBA middleweight titlist, Gennady Golovkin, as chief sparring partner. By all accounts, Alvarez has trained earnestly and has taken the preparation for Rhodes very seriously.
But being earnest just may be Alvarez’s greatest weakness at this point.
Saul Alvarez wants to impress as champion and he yearns to carry the weight of the Mexican boxing scene on his shoulders. It’s in his nature to work hard and conquer, but without the skills to back up the ambition, things could get ugly for the 20-year-old champion-in-training.
Will Canelo’s force of character make up for his lack of seasoning? Will his mental toughness push him through the tough times ahead, facing fighters more experienced and better-skilled? Against Ryan Rhodes this Saturday, we’ll get some real answers.
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