On May 5, 2007, Oscar De La Hoya, long diminished but still the most popular boxer since Mike Tyson, climbed into the ring to face a highly skilled, undefeated 30-year-old champion named Floyd Mayweather for the WBC light middleweight title of the world.
Mayweather vs. De La Hoya had been billed as the biggest main event since De La Hoya fought Felix Trinidad back in 1999, and to promote the fight, HBO created a landmark documentary show called 24/7 that followed both boxers as they prepared for the upcoming fight. It’s easy to forget now that we’ve suffered through our fourth or fifth bout of Floyd fatigue, but the first season of 24/7 was the first public unveiling of “Money” as the big-bet-placing, father-haranguing, hardworking persona that has helped turn Floyd Mayweather into the best-paid athlete in the world. Between the airing of the first 24/7 and now, De La Hoya, who was known as much for his saccharine, omnipresent smile and his bad singing as his inspired, brutal superfights, would open up and talk about his struggles with substance abuse, depression, and the falsity of the Golden Boy persona that had made him a multimillionare. In that first season of 24/7, we saw Oscar’s first cracks. A change was in order. Long before the opening bell — around the time we first saw 50 Cent on 24/7 — Floyd Mayweather became the new face of boxing.
The fight itself proved underwhelming. After 12 rounds, the judges awarded Mayweather a split-decision victory. The fight broke the record for the biggest live gate at a boxing match as well as the record for the most pay-per-view buys. De La Hoya earned a record $52 million. Nineteen months later, De La Hoya quit on the stool against Manny Pacquiao.
In defeat, Oscar De La Hoya created boxing’s two biggest stars. Once he hung up the gloves and came to terms with the passing of his own legacy, Oscar De La Hoya went looking for the next Oscar De La Hoya.
Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, redheaded Mexican, teenage heartthrob, and the 23-year-old light middleweight champion of the world, cannot dance. I am not talking about dancing in boxing terms here. I am talking instead about the ranchera and norteño music blasting through the speakers in Shane Mosley’s gym in Big Bear, California, and Canelo, hands on hips, clunking around the ring on lead feet, a rare smile spreading across his stony face. I try not to make too much of this. The history of boxing writing has been littered with hundreds of diagnoses made by overzealous reporters on the lookout for any small detail that might give their readers some insight into the upcoming fight. And so, while no one can deny the badness of Canelo’s dancing or help but feel a tinge of aesthetic offense at every misstep, every stomped-on beat, every awkward bounce of the shoulder, let’s focus instead on some (arguably) objective positives. Canelo can really punch. He beat Austin Trout, who beat Miguel Cotto, who gave Floyd Mayweather his toughest test since Jose Luis Castillo back in 2002 …
But what’s uglier in life than a bad, confident dancer? Canelo’s badness overwhelms, and I go back to scribbling notes about cement feet and a straight bludgeoning of rhythm. You watch the so-called future of boxing as he clomps around to ranchera in Seahawk green shoes and Under Armour everything in Shane Mosley’s gym, surrounded by posters of Shane’s great fights, and you see bright-green heavy feet thudding around and try to convince yourself that you’re watching Julio Cesar Chavez and Oscar De La Hoya rolled into one.
In the oft-brilliant but borderline irresponsible The Devil and Sonny Liston, Nick Tosches punctuates a 250-page-long rant about boxing’s toughest fall guy with the following exclamation: “Fuck this shit — adjournment for dick in the midst of this ever more precipitous and perplexing narrative. Let’s talk cock. Let’s talk all sorts of shit.”
It’s a moment of frustration for Tosches (one of many), where he clears away the task of accumulating facts and making his controversial argument (Liston threw the first fight against Ali) and cuts a path straight to what Nick Tosches finds interesting about Sonny Liston.
In that spirit, let’s start with hair. It’s true, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, light middleweight champion of the world, has red hair. This is unusual for a Mexican. Every conversation about Canelo starts and ends with red hair and he must know how hair opens up a back door to discuss the real issue: His very, very good looks. So, let’s talk hair and let’s talk square chins and broad shoulders and a face of mean, compact symmetries that evoke Marky Mark during the underwear period. Let’s talk Televisa, the Mexican network with dozens of beautiful news anchors, telenovela actors, and the TV home for the entire Canelo Alvarez media empire. Let’s talk about why boxing needs Canelos and the decade-long search by Oscar De La Hoya for the next Oscar De La Hoya. Let’s talk about the biggest hype job since Gerry Cooney and how a 23-year-old boxer from Guadalajara has simultaneously become the Great Mexican Hope, the Great White Hope, and the Great White Mexican Hope.
We have to talk about all these things because Canelo won’t say much. I first met him in the flora-stuffed, starched-linen breakfast room of the Four Seasons Hotel in Mexico City. We sat with two of Canelo’s brothers and a PR rep/translator. Canelo wore a shiny purple polka-dot shirt and well-tailored slacks. His brothers, hulking brutes with bulbous foreheads and vague, threatening demeanors, had dressed themselves in soft leather jackets and brightly colored high-end designer sports shirts. As a trio, they looked like the ruin of many a Vegas bachelorette party. For 15 minutes, I asked Canelo a list of questions through a translator. Canelo stared ahead into space, waiting for his oldest brother to tell a joke, any joke, which he unfailingly found hilarious. Between jokes, Canelo ate his eggs, slowly and methodically, one of those weird eaters who does not compromise his posture while at the table so that every fork’s journey from the plate to the mouth has to be executed with exact precision.
This sort of passive-aggressive non-engagement is par for the course in interviews with professional athletes. Fighters, however, tend to be a bit looser with their words — all boxers dream of Ali and so all boxers talk, mostly stupidly and rarely poetically, about themselves. But Canelo is not some kid off the streets of Cincinnati or East Los Angeles or Philadelphia whose tenure in the spotlight will last exactly as long as he can stay upright in the ring. Canelo is an industry now, and industries succeed by not talking.
So here’s what we know: Saul “Canelo” Alvarez was born in 1990 and grew up in Jalisco, Mexico, the youngest of eight children. His official creation myth reads about as apocryphally as most boxers’ creation myths: Canelo claims to have been bullied as a child for his pale skin and his red hair. At some point, like all great champions, he started fighting back and found that he had the heart of a true champion. Or whatever. More likely, Canelo, whose six older brothers all boxed professionally, would have been in the gym, regardless, and in the interviews in which he explains this perseverance against bullying, it’s Canelo who comes across as the violent, unyielding, and nasty kid. Regardless of the source, Canelo’s fighting confidence served him well in his youth. After a successful amateur career, Canelo turned pro at the age of 16 and quickly built up the sort of résumé that fits a young, handsome contender. His first 12 opponents, fought over the course of approximately 19 months, had a combined record of 16-27. He went 11-0-1 during this period, with 10 fights ended by knockout. None of this is unusual. Promising fighters, especially 15-year-olds, must be built carefully. Televisa, one of the most watched TV networks in all of Latin America, took notice and began to build up the Canelo brand, mostly on the oddity of his red hair and his movie star good looks.
Then came a string of opponents who were one or two degrees from respectability. Canelo fought Miguel Cotto’s older, much smaller brother, who almost knocked Canelo out in the first round. He knocked out a dried-up corpse who was calling himself Carlos Baldomir. He won a decision against Ricky Hatton’s younger brother. He beat the dude who came in third place on the reality show The Contender. As his star rose in these arguably competitive fights, Canelo was offered his own telenovela (he turned it down) and dated a former Miss Universe turned Televisa star named Marisol Gonzalez. His personality during this time never changed — he was the muttering, work-is-life athlete, the stone-faced, handsome prodigy who never said much of anything. News would pop up here and there about trouble back home in Jalisco. In 2012, Canelo’s brother was accused of murdering a rival in Mexico. In April of this year, before the Trout fight, Archie Solis, a boxer who fought at 108 pounds, accused Canelo of attacking him outside a nightclub. Of course, this news was mostly swept under the rug by the television networks who carried Canelo’s fights. And because anyone who shows up on TV enough times can simply point to his television appearances as the evidence of his wild popularity, Canelo Alvarez was whatever Televisa, HBO, or Showtime said he was.
What Televisa and HBO and Showtime said was this: Saul “Canelo” Alvarez is a boxer. He has red hair. And he is popular. He is a good boxer, which makes him wildly popular back in Mexico, where he is known for his red hair.
You don’t need much else to create an icon these days. Hair is almost always enough.
What else do we know? We know he can’t dance, either in the ring or at the club. We know he fights in a plodding, heavy-handed style that wouldn’t look so bad if Canelo were fighting 20, maybe 30 pounds heavier. We know he has improved over the past two years — against Austin Trout, he exhibited flashes of defense in the pocket (although, to be fair, the new and much-discussed Canelo-wiggle only came out after Trout had proven himself completely unable to hurt Alvarez); against a gassed-up Josesito Lopez, he showed gut-busting power, especially to the body. We know he throws precise, devastating punches. And we know he has no real shot against Floyd Mayweather, but we also know that nobody in the world, save maybe a Klitschko, has any chance against Floyd Mayweather.
For the six days prior to our interview in the Four Seasons, Team Canelo traveled from New York to Washington, D.C., to Grand Rapids to Chicago to Atlanta to Miami to Mexico City. In each of these places, Canelo walked out onto a stage and nuzzled up nose-to-nose to Floyd Mayweather. During all this intense cuddling, Canelo must have learned exactly what Floyd’s upper lip smelled like, as well as his clavicle, his forehead. We were in Mexico City for yet another press conference, the only one to take place south of the border. So if Canelo seemed a bit tired of the press, I certainly understood. How many times can a man say “This is a big fight and I will try my hardest and I believe in my heart that I will win and shock all the so-called experts”?
Getting nowhere, I just tossed out the questions I never expected to get answered. “Canelo, how much of your success do you attribute to Televisa? How do you respond to the ongoing criticism here in Mexico that you are a media creation, a TV idol?” His eyes narrowed and he finally looked away from his brothers, although not directly at me. Instead, he fixed his gaze on a spot on the ground and muttered his answer to the translator. “What am I supposed to do?” the translator relayed. “A fighter has to be on television, right? How can I fight on television without being on television?”
After breakfast, we rode in an armored motorcade with a police escort from the Four Seasons to the Monumento a los Niños Héroes, a memorial in Chapultepec dedicated to six teenage soldiers who died at the hands of U.S. soldiers during the Mexican-American War. The organizers had promised a massive gala with more than 30,000 screaming fans, and although the event ultimately fell well short of the hype, you would never have known it from the police presence interspersed among the ancient trees and fenced-off walkways of Chapultepec. Those of us in the press corps went back and forth on exactly how many cops there were, and we came to the following conclusions: There were somewhere between 400 and 1,000 men and women in police uniforms and at least 80 percent of those might not actually be real police officers, but instead might be people hired off the streets to provide a visual threat against a crowd that never showed up. By any fair estimate, about 5,000 people came to the event, an estimate that includes the cops, 100 press members, roughly 75 PR professionals, and about 50 Corona girls.
After Canelo and Floyd both said their bits about being the best and how excited they were about the fight and how they both felt ready to take boxing to the next level, after they stood nose-to-nose for the ninth or 10th or 11th time, and after they both signed about a hundred autographs each, many of them made out to cops, the Canelo show moved down the plaza to a bright-blue ring that had been set up by Corona, the fight’s sponsor. There, we encountered about 200 selfie-ing fans and a legion of young, shirtless redheaded Mexican kids who jumped around and waved oversize Corona blue boxing gloves in the air. The Canelettes, I guess.
What had gone wrong? HBO, Golden Boy Promotions, and now Showtime had been telling us for the past five years that Canelo Alvarez was the Mexican Elvis, that his popularity in Mexico transcended sports. We were told stories about screaming women rending their blouses and offering themselves up to the redheaded one who would fulfill the wayward prophecy of Salvador Sanchez. Where was #CaneloNation?
The next morning, several news and television outlets reported that 32,000 fans had shown up for the event.
If you ever travel to Mexico City, make sure to visit the bookstores. There are almost no self-help or diet sections, no food porn, no reprinted covers taken from movie posters. Instead, you’ll find shelves of thoughtfully published literary works that can only find a home here in the United States through small, literary presses like New Directions or the New York Review of Books.
Esquina Boxeo comes out of this serious literary tradition. Printed on a broadsheet and beautifully illustrated, the magazine publishes essays on boxing that go far beyond the usual pound-for-pound lists and promotional fluff. I met Mauricio Salvador and Rodrigo Marquez Tizano, two of Esquina Boxeo‘s editors, at a party in La Roma, and at around two in the morning, they started talking about why nobody had shown up at the Monumento a los Niños Héroes. Part of the problem was Floyd. The overwhelming majority of champions who occupy boxing’s middleweight classes are either Mexican or won their belt by fighting a lot of Mexicans. Manny Pacquiao, for example, fought Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera, and Juan Manuel Marquez, three of Mexico’s all-time greats, a total of nine times. Floyd, for his part, came to prominence by humiliating Diego Corrales, Arturo Gatti, and ultimately Oscar De La Hoya. “Mexican fans don’t really know much about Floyd,” Salvador explained. “He’s never fighting Mexican fighters so he’s not on television much.”
Floyd’s problems in Mexico extend beyond his fight history. He is a technician, one of the finest the sport has ever seen, and although American television networks tend to overstate the importance and the ubiquity of the “Mexican fighting spirit,” it’s true that the country’s great champions have all displayed a willingness to toss away technique and patience whenever a fight demands a more dramatic sort of machismo. “We understand Floyd is talented,” Salvador said, “and we understand he is an expert boxer. But we are not a country who values expertise above all other things.”
“We are a country of dilettantes,” Salvador continued. “We need to believe that courage and heart can overwhelm precision. The most popular Mexican boxers, even if they are, in fact, skilled, still have to show that spirit. Floyd, even if he is great, does not inspire people here.”
Salvador and Tizano placed the rest of the blame for the lack of attendance at the rally on Canelo and the gap between his actual popularity in Mexico City and what Televisa and the American television networks would have you believe about a redheaded superstar who supposedly cannot walk 20 feet without being mobbed by beautiful, crazed women and adoring, usually macho men who nod, grimly, and acknowledge that the sex god of Mexico has arrived. Through creative marketing and cheap ticket prices, Canelo has been able to draw a crowd whenever he fights in the United States, whether in Las Vegas or in San Antonio, but opinion remains split in Mexico, particularly in Mexico City, where many fight fans see him as nothing more than another Televisa creation, as vacuous and substance-free as the slew of hypersexualized, Jessica Rabbit TV personalities who read the news and conduct interviews for the network.
Canelo has been pegged as the next Julio Cesar Chavez, the great hero of Mexican boxing, and his promoters will point to the fact that he will be going into the fight of his career at the age of 23, a full three years younger than the age at which Chavez first fought Hector “Macho” Camacho. They will point out, of course, that Canelo’s popularity has transcended the sport. Both these assertions are largely irrelevant and a bit apocryphal. It’s true that Canelo has reached the pinnacle of boxing at a young age, but who put him there? As for Chavez, the comparison is ridiculous. “I think it’s very difficult for any fighter to achieve a popularity level near that of Chavez,” Tizano explained. “Even when Chavez had a lot of easy fights to pump up his record, he still involved himself in the politics of the time — he had gas stations when Pemex (the largest gasoline distributor in Mexico) was involved in a lot of frauds. He brought huge crowds to the Azteca for every brawl. Canelo, as of two years ago, was still giving away four-for-one tickets in Plaza Mexico.”
“But,” Tizano continued, “if Canelo beats Mayweather, he will have lived up to all the Televisa hype. Can you imagine it?”
In this way, Canelo represents a protected gamble for Televisa, Golden Boy Promotions, and Showtime. If he somehow wins, boxing has its new crossover star and Canelo-Mayweather II and Canelo-Mayweather III are as good as booked. If Canelo loses — and he will almost certainly lose — what, really, has been lost? There will be others.
La Romanza gym in Mexico City is nothing more than two white brick rooms and a modest, windowed office where Nacho Beristain, one of the great trainers in boxing history, sits amid a clutter of old, battered objects. Photos of Daniel Zaragosa, Gilberto Roman, and Juan Manuel Marquez hang from the walls. A placard from the Boxing Hall of Fame sits squarely above Beristain’s beat, leather chair. Like all boxing gyms worth a damn, La Romanza smells of sweat and blood — you could detonate the place and build a condo in its stead and whatever lofty, airy space replaced La Romanza would probably smell like the inside of a boxing glove after a 12-round fight.
Back in 2011, before Canelo’s fight against Matthew Hatton for the vacant 154-pound WBC belt, Beristain showed up on a television panel with women’s world champion Ana Maria Torres, Canelo, De La Hoya, Marquez, and WBC president and general boxing crazy man Jose Sulaiman. The show, translated here via Hesiquio Balderas on BoxingScene.com, turned into an interrogation of Canelo’s actual boxing résumé. Torres referred to Canelo as a “joke” and said most people within the Mexican community agreed. The show came to its climax when the great Julio Cesar Chavez called in and said, “I think Canelo has the talent, the skills, the power, and he is on his way up, but [what] I truly believe — and I always say things the way I think — is that at the moment you guys at Televisa have created a monster by way of publicity.”
“He is just a product of TV,” Chavez continued. “You make people believe that he is Superman and he is not.”
On the day I visited Beristain at La Romanza, an ancient man sat in his office and worked on a deflated speed bag. When he got bored with the repair, he creakily got up to a rusty filing cabinet and leafed through a stack of pornographic DVDs. Beristain sat behind a desk and talked to me about all things Canelo. Beristain’s venom for Canelo had faded, at least a little. He said Canelo had improved as a fighter but had very little chance against Mayweather, but then added that he did not think that Canelo had fully earned the right to fight Floyd. Some fighters, Beristain explained, earned their popularity by taking on and beating the best. As an example, he brought up his own fighter, Juan Manuel Marquez, who beat every good fighter in Mexico before heading Stateside. Other fighters, Beristain said, get hooked up to publicity machines. Even if he has feet of clay, the machine still insists that the fighter is great, and a certain portion of the population will simply accept the message. Canelo might have improved, Beristain noted, but he was not popular in any organic way. If a publicity-machine fighter loses a single fight, the entire apparatus collapses. Marquez, because he earned his popularity, could lose to Manny Pacquiao (at least according to the official record) and Floyd Mayweather and still maintain his esteem in Mexico. What will happen to Canelo if he gets humiliated by Floyd Mayweather? How many people would suddenly see the hype machine laid bare for what it was?
NatureNutrition, a healthful cooking oils company based in Mexico, has a Pynchonian name and a fresh investment in boxing. Just recently, NatureNutrition added its name to the list of sponsors for the upcoming fight, and as part of the agreement, Team Canelo agreed to conduct a short interview via Televisa about the foods he likes to eat, all of which, presumably, can be cooked with one of NatureNutrition’s wide variety of healthful oils. The interview took place in the basement of Canelo’s rental house in Big Bear. The fight was a month away and Canelo, who had recently clocked in at 167 pounds, was preparing himself for the last weeks of training and the task of getting himself below the 152-pound weight limit agreed upon for the fight. For about an hour, I loitered around the basement with a few of Canelo’s handlers and the interviewer, a Televisa reporter who was having blonde extensions woven into her hair. Once the lights had been set up and the row of NatureNutrition oils had been placed on the mantel in the background of the shot, Canelo, wearing Under Armour everything, came downstairs, sat down on the stool, and quickly and unenthusiastically answered a whole bunch of questions about his favorite foods. The whole thing took about 15 minutes.
As the crew were breaking down their equipment, I asked Canelo the same question I had asked him back in the Four Seasons in Mexico City: “How are you dealing with all the increased scrutiny and media attention surrounding this, the biggest fight of your career?” Canelo’s eyes narrowed again — he has the angsty habit of always looking slightly angry and dismissive, especially around the print media — but this time instead of saying some boilerplate about how seriously he was taking his preparation, he just sort of shrugged.
“I’m used to it now,” he said. “Of course, I’m used to it now.”
Boxing cannibalizes its young. It doesn’t matter how many belts you win; at some point the sport will prop you up just so the fans can see someone, anyone, get his comeuppance. Canelo has become the Great Red Hype, and his purposeful, almost scornful lack of depth has turned off many of those same hypothetical fans who should have shown up at the rally at the Monumento a los Niños Héroes. In his rare interviews, Canelo comes across as cruel when he should be thoughtful, seems dismissive when he should be earnest, and buries everything under the promise that he will work hard and beat anyone in front of him. This nothingness would be acceptable if Canelo were Tiger Woods or, say, Floyd Mayweather, and turned every fight into a virtuosic performance; if we, as fans, felt like we were watching the absolute best at work every time he climbed between the ropes.
Instead, what we have with Canelo is a talented yet mostly untested young fighter at odds with the legacy of the man who promotes him. Canelo might seem like an anomaly, but in truth, he is simply the latest in the line of young, good-looking fighters with Mexican lineage groomed by Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions to become the next Oscar De La Hoya. Before Canelo there was Victor Ortiz, the hard-luck kid from Kansas whose story of growing up alone in an abandoned house with his brother catapulted him to a short-lived, erratic, and ultimately doomed stardom in the sport. Like Canelo, Ortiz got shoved in front of Floyd before he really deserved the shot and suffered through one of the most strange meltdowns in big-fight history when he got knocked out while trying to hug, kiss, and apologize for an egregious, shameful head-butt. To be fair, the Ortiz train had derailed long before — what had first seemed like a smiling, affable face on an unbelievable story of perseverance fell apart every time Ortiz opened his mouth. What had first seemed like a bright, chatty, and compelling young man with a bright future quickly devolved into a seemingly vacant and bizarre kid who kept stumbling over himself while trying to say the right thing. In 2009, Ortiz quit in the ring against Marcos Maidana, ending his chances to win over the Mexican and Mexican American fan base. Eighteen months later, he fought the uninspiring Lamont Peterson to a majority draw. Given what Golden Boy invested in Ortiz, it’s easy to understand why it would want to protect Canelo from a similar fate. There is no need to explain your red hair, your good looks, and your presumed popularity, so Canelo has mostly stayed quiet. And if Canelo gets knocked out by Floyd or loses in a humiliating decision and then loses again to a lesser opponent, Oscar and Golden Boy will start puffing up a fighter like Omar Figueroa Jr., an undefeated 23-year-old prospect from the Rio Grande Valley coming off a fight-of-the-year candidate against Nihito Arakawa, and the search for the next Oscar De La Hoya will continue.
This past Tuesday, De La Hoya released a statement to the press that he had voluntarily returned to rehab and would therefore be missing the festivities surrounding this Saturday’s superfight. It was the latest chapter in what has been a heartbreaking battle with substance abuse, one made all the more shocking for how much it contrasts with what used to be the cleanest-cut and most affable persona in sports.
Three weeks prior to the announcement, I spoke to De La Hoya over the phone about his connection with Canelo. The conversation turned almost immediately to the pitfalls of early fame and how Oscar hoped Canelo might avoid some of the same problems that derailed the first Golden Boy.
“Saul is considered the next superstar that’s going to carry boxing for the next 15 years,” De La Hoya explained. “He has that opportunity. The difference between Sugar Ray Leonard, myself, Mike Tyson — the other guys who carried the sport on their backs for many years — the difference with this kid is that he doesn’t have the baggage. He’s a fighter who doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he has no bad habits at all. His worst habit is collecting cars. He’s a 23-year-old who wants to be great.
“If I didn’t drink while I was fighting with all the partying and nightclubs and women, I probably would still be fighting now,” De La Hoya continued. “You’re chipping away from that rock one fight at a time when you do those things — there are fighters who are 36 years old who can keep fighting till they’re 40 and still look young and fresh. Why? Because they take care of themselves. Then there are guys like me who, at 35 or 36, are over the hill. And it’s because of my fast life. Canelo is going to go a long, long way in taking care of himself.”
Outside of the substance abuse issues and how he and Canelo differed in that respect, De La Hoya does see a lot of himself in his young protégé, albeit with another caveat.
“I had the women fans and attracted them into the sport of boxing,” De La Hoya said. “Canelo’s doing the same thing, but the difference is that when the male fans came to see me fight, they wanted to see me get beat because of how I conducted myself. In my career, I was always concerned with saying the right thing, even when the right thing was actually the wrong thing to say. The fight fan doesn’t want that. He wants someone honest, someone who they can respect. Canelo, because he doesn’t say much and just works hard, has converted the male fan who wanted to see me lose over to his side.”
I asked Tizano and Salvador, two of Mexican boxing’s most impassioned and knowledgeable ambassadors, if they wanted to see Canelo beat Floyd Mayweather on September 14 in Las Vegas. Salvador was noncommittal. “I always root for the underdog,” he said. “But we’ll see … “
Tizano was a bit clearer.