The flowchart for athletes and hype used to be so simple. If you’re young and talented, then hype accrues. When hype accrues, backlash follows. If you’re successful despite hype and backlash, then backlash recedes. If you’re unsuccessful, then hype goes away (and maybe you get to start over without hype).
But now, in our collective rush to say or tweet something — anything — both before everybody else and with more contrived conviction than everybody else, the flowchart has lost its flow. Backlash no longer waits for hype. Once we know your name we’re calling you overhyped, because the mere fact that we know your name means you must have hype. You’re written off as soon as you’re written about.
This is the world in which Mexican boxers Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez began their careers. From the moment he turned pro in 2003, Chavez had fans because his name looks an awful lot like his father’s, and his father is arguably the greatest and most beloved Mexican fighter of all time. Alvarez cultivated a similar following soon after turning pro in ’05 by appealing to the Tiger Beat crowd. Nobody of repute claimed either young fighter was all that good. But the boxing cognoscenti preemptively insisted that neither fighter was nor ever would be. Never mind that Chavez and Canelo were teenagers still learning the ropes and how to fight off them. The critics already knew the truth: Chavez was nothing more than a name, and Canelo would be an anonymous mid-card fighter if he didn’t have red hair and dimples.
Yet somehow, here we are in 2012 and Chavez is one of the very best middleweights (ESPN.com ranks him fourth in the division, BoxRec.com’s mathematical formula has him second) and — gulp — a legitimate challenger to true world champion Sergio Martinez. Meanwhile, Alvarez is an elite junior middleweight (no. 3 according to ESPN.com, no. 2 on BoxRec.com) and a viable opponent for Miguel Cotto or even Floyd Mayweather. A stubborn few would still call Chavez and Canelo overhyped, but most would acknowledge that they’re actually accomplished pugilists. And among boxers in their early-to-mid 20s, nobody in North America comes close to matching either of them in fame. The backlash has been backed down.
Now we just have to hope a different sort of backlash doesn’t emerge over the next few years: backlash for following in the sideways footsteps of Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao by failing to give fight fans the natural, obvious Chavez-Canelo showdown.
Chavez’s rise to respectability has been by far the more remarkable of the two. He’s on his way to becoming the greatest son of a great fighter ever. In fact, he might already deserve that title. There have been great sons of good fighters (Mayweather, for example) and very good sons of briefly elite fighters (think Cory Spinks, son of Leon). But you could argue that the closest we’ve come to a legendary fighter’s offspring becoming legendary as well is Laila Ali.
Chavez didn’t come from the kind of circumstances that usually produce boxers. He grew up privileged. He began fighting because he felt like giving it a try and because it seemed like he had some natural talent for it. After only two amateur bouts (both against Jorge Paez Jr., both on Mexican TV), Junior turned pro. Everyone assumed that before long, he’d find himself spitting up blood in the corner or unable to breathe through a broken nose, and at that point he’d remember that he didn’t need to be doing any of this. Well, we’re still waiting for that to happen. Thanks to the careful guidance of Top Rank and its matchmakers, Chavez learned on the job without taking a beating or suffering a loss.
Chavez was babied early on. That earned Top Rank criticism, but it was smart business. Initially, they matched him against palookas with records like 0-14 or 1-6. When he moved on to half-decent competition, the judges helped make sure everything turned out right. And why wouldn’t they? Since December 1, 2007, when a 21-year-old Chavez fought on a Latin Fury pay-per-view and crushed expectations by pulling in nearly 100,000 buys, he’s been too valuable to let that zero on the end of his record go away.
Still, by 2010, the boxing world’s patience was running out. That year marked the sixth consecutive year in which Junior had fewer fights than the year before. He was developing a reputation for being lazy in training camp and blowing off workouts — even after Freddie Roach was brought in to get the money train back on track.
Eventually, though, Roach did just that. And the last 12 months have been a revelation.1 Chavez is training his ass off, he suddenly has a man’s physique (if still only a boy’s ability to grow facial hair), he’s overpowering opponents in the ring, and he’s having success against legit opposition. Chavez’s last four fights have all been on HBO, where his average ratings have been more than 50 percent higher than those of middleweight champ Martinez. Chavez managed a narrow decision over 30-0 Sebastian Zbik in his HBO debut, then won convincingly over Peter Manfredo, Marco Antonio Rubio, and Andy Lee. Each performance has been more impressive than the last. After he stopped Lee in seven rounds on June 16, Chavez — now 46-0-1 with 32 KOs — announced he was ready for Martinez. And nobody laughed.
Like Chavez, Canelo Alvarez comes from a fighting family, albeit a considerably less famous one. Inspired by watching his older brother Rigoberto make his pro debut, Alvarez started boxing at age 13. He had a mere 20 amateur bouts and then turned pro at 15 with little fanfare. His fame grew, however, when the Mexican kid whose looks have been compared to such distinctly un-Mexican cultural icons as Opie Taylor, Howdy Doody, and Blake Griffin started racking up wins and making young women shriek along the way. Where Chavez’s name made us reluctant to take him seriously, Canelo’s freckled face had the same effect. You just don’t expect a guy who looks like that, whose nickname means “Cinnamon,” to be able to fight. But like Chavez, he has made believers of us.
Thirty of Alvarez’s first 32 bouts took place in his home country, where he became a household name. For his nine fights since, Golden Boy Promotions has expanded Alvarez’s fan base by alternating between bouts in Mexico and the United States. In the past year, he has rallied from a sluggish start to TKO The Contender‘s Alfonso Gomez, battered the once-dangerous Kermit Cintron, and fulfilled the sad boxing tradition of turning icons into stepping stones by slapping around “Sugar” Shane Mosley.
Alvarez’s 40-0-1 record with 29 KOs doesn’t include a victory as unimpeachable as Chavez’s eye-opening win over Lee. He hasn’t faced a world-class fighter in some semblance of his prime yet, with the possible exception of Ryan Rhodes. But he’s still just 21 years old. And if he hasn’t yet taken the big step forward, it’s not because he’s unwilling.
September 15 was shaping up to be a massive headache for all of boxing. Instead, it has just been a massive headache for Canelo.
The plan was to face Paul Williams on a Showtime-produced pay-per-view on that date, the Saturday of Mexican Independence Day weekend. That would have been the most dangerous test of Alvarez’s career, but four days after the bout was announced in May, Williams was paralyzed in a motorcycle crash. Heavy-handed James Kirkland was next in line for the fight, until, depending upon whom you believe, Kirkland either decided he wouldn’t be healed from shoulder surgery by September, demanded more than twice as much money as they were offering him, or demanded more than twice as much money as they were offering him to ignore the fact that he wouldn’t be healed from shoulder surgery by September. So Golden Boy and Showtime moved on to opponent no. 3, Victor Ortiz. Like Williams and Kirkland before him, Ortiz would be Alvarez’s toughest test, at least on paper. And with the exposure Ortiz gained from fighting Mayweather last September, Alvarez-Ortiz was poised to generate more money than either Alvarez-Williams or Alvarez-Kirkland could have.
Meanwhile, a separate, bigger conflict was brewing. After Chavez beat Lee, Top Rank and HBO announced that they had their own Mexican Independence Day weekend PPV planned between Chavez and Martinez. You know the Lewis Black routine about the Starbucks that’s directly across the street from a Starbucks? That’s the business logic that would be in play if Alvarez and Chavez were to headline separate pay-per-view events at the same time. Take the people who would be inclined to spend $65 to watch Canelo fight, then take those who would pay $65 to watch Chavez, and you have almost the same exact group of people. Top Rank/HBO and Golden Boy/Showtime would be going out of their way to cannibalize the sport’s tortured and taxed fan base (and also set the illegal stream world afire for a few hours).
But a little-known fighter named Josesito Lopez removed the thorn last Saturday by upsetting Ortiz in a dramatic battle that was supposed to be a mere tune-up for September 15. Lopez broke Ortiz’s jaw and Victor elected not to come out for the 10th round.2 A chain reaction of other jaws coming unhinged followed, including that of Alvarez, seated ringside, offering us the first glimpse of the Canelo Face. No matter what he does or how willing he is to risk his unbeaten record against a dangerous opponent, Alvarez just can’t line up that Mexican Independence Day weekend foe. He’d have better luck if he signed to fight one of the drummers from Spinal Tap.
Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer insisted after the Lopez-Ortiz fight that Alvarez would still fight on September 15, but acknowledged that it probably wouldn’t be on pay-per-view. It could be live on Showtime or possibly even on CBS against a credible but not PPV-worthy opponent, although there remains the faint possibility that Golden Boy will make the colossal-cojones play for Miguel Cotto. If Cotto-Canelo comes together for September 15 on pay-per-view, then HBO and Top Rank have a problem. But under any of the other possible scenarios, things are working out perfectly for Martinez vs. Chavez.
Whether or not Chavez defeats Martinez on September 15,3 and regardless of whom Alvarez fights next, by 2013, Junior vs. Canelo will be the biggest fight in boxing that doesn’t involve Mayweather or Pacquiao. When boxing superstars grow old, there’s always a fear that no fighters can replace them. That’s what everyone said in the mid-2000s about a world without Oscar De La Hoya, but along came Mayweather and Pacquiao, now every bit as famous and bankable as Oscar was. We’re closing in on the day when Mayweather and Pacquiao won’t be around. Pacquiao, in particular, appears to be slowing down (2009 Manny would likely beat 2012 Manny decisively). And even if Mayweather’s defensive style and infrequent fights make him less susceptible to burnout, he is 35 and experienced in the art of retirement announcements. The post-Mayweather-Pacquiao era will start sooner rather than later. Chavez and Alvarez, though not as talented as Floyd and Manny, are poised to be the superstars who carry boxing for the rest of this decade.
As everyone knows, Pacquiao and Mayweather have tormented fight fans for the past two and a half years by repeatedly finding reasons not to face each other. And like boxers themselves, boxing fans can only take so much abuse before their resistance fades. That’s why Chavez vs. Canelo must happen. We can’t spend the next few years enduring what we have for the last few. Like Mayweather-Pacquiao, Chavez-Alvarez is a fight that makes too much sense for it not to come together.
That said, the notion that Chavez vs. Alvarez is any kind of “rivalry” is purely a media/fan creation. Neither Junior nor Canelo is particularly focused on the other yet. Alvarez told me last week that he didn’t even watch the Chavez-Lee fight. They’ve only met once in person, at the most recent convention held by the World Boxing Council,4 and their encounter was uneventful. “He approached me, he came to my table, and he said it was nice to meet me,” Alvarez recalled. “Personally, I don’t have anything whatsoever against him. But in boxing, people are always talking, people say this, people say that. Honestly, I’m open to anybody, any challenge. If that fight happens, it happens. I visualize in my career fighting Miguel Cotto, fighting Floyd Mayweather, I want to fight the best. With Chavez Jr., there has been a lot of talking about us fighting each other, that’s all. But like I said, I’m open to it.”
The question is, are Golden Boy and Top Rank open to it? Name a fight you’ve wanted to see in the last five years that didn’t happen, and chances are one of the combatants was affiliated with Golden Boy and the other was with Top Rank. Hell, until Ortiz lost on Saturday, the two promotional companies were ready to counterprogram each other on pay-per-view and didn’t hesitate to call each other out over it. You would think there’d be enough money available in Canelo vs. Chavez to bring businessmen who despise each other to the negotiating table. But spite has trumped all other factors more often than not in this feud. And even if the promoters are willing to team up, there’s the question of who gets to air the fight, HBO or Showtime. They’ve co-distributed an event exactly one time, when Lennox Lewis fought Mike Tyson and a then-record 2 million pay-per-view buys were up for grabs.
There is also one perfectly acceptable reason for this fight not to happen: Chavez might be too big for Alvarez. Chavez is about four inches taller at 6-foot-1 and, after weighing in at the 160-pound middleweight limit prior to his fights, he has been known to gain as much as 20 pounds by fight night. He’s a huge middleweight. Alvarez is a normal-size junior middleweight. And it’s only a matter of time until Chavez can’t make 160 anymore. Is this still a viable fight if Alvarez and Chavez are separated by two weight classes?
The short answer: If there’s enough money at stake, then yes. What sells pay-per-views? When you’re talking about the million-buy-plus stratosphere, it’s primarily idol worship. That’s why fights featuring De La Hoya, Pacquiao, Tyson, or Mayweather, even against lesser-known opponents, have always outsold can’t-miss matchups like Miguel Cotto–Antonio Margarito I or Diego Corrales–Jose Luis Castillo II. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Canelo Alvarez are idols. And they are worshipped. Their fans feel passionately about them, and their former detractors are quickly becoming fans. Whether or not they become the best boxers of their era, they’re positioned to become its defining stars.
Hopefully, unlike the current era, that one will have its defining fight.