Meet Canelo Alvarez’s toughest opponent. Hint: It’s not Gennadiy Golovkin.


THIS PAST MAY 6th, one day before Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez lost, it would have been difficult to find someone in Las Vegas who thought that would happen. On that day, standing among the thousands who’d traveled from all over the country and farther, gathering outside at the Toshiba Plaza just to watch him weigh in, you would have thought all of this was little more than a formality.

That all of this was just part of the show before Canelo won his 58th fight and unified yet another championship belt. In those near triple-digit temperatures, the Mexican boxer walked on stage, past the mariachis playing “El Rey,” the classic Mexican song about being underappreciated and having little but still carrying yourself like a king, and stepped on the scale. He wore just pink-colored Dolce & Gabbana boxers and white socks.

“174.4 for Saúl ‘Canelo’ Álvarez!” announcer David Diamante, with dreadlocks so long they dropped below his knees, yelled into the microphone. Canelo flexed his muscles as the crowd cheered. They yelled his name, waved their Mexican flags, and held cellphones above their heads, trying to capture a photo or a few seconds of Canelo in his prime.

When Dmitry Bivol also weighed in, the crowd, in between wiping sweat from their faces and foreheads, booed Canelo’s opponent. The response surprised the Russian boxer. “First time I see a lot of Mexican fans against me,” he said. Poor Bivol, he must’ve underestimated Canelo’s fame and how much boxing means to an entire culture.

That you can tell lots about people by what sports they play and how they play them. Bivol must’ve not known Canelo’s opponents were his fans’ opponents too, if for no other reason than because that’s just the way it sometimes goes in boxing.

That’s why on the night Canelo lost, an eerie silence spread among the crowd packed into T-Mobile Arena. Watching the illuminated ring in the middle of the dark arena, you could feel something was different. It was the contrast of sounds. When the Mexican national anthem played, the crowd had been so loud it made the spine tingle.

Same as when, moments before he entered the ring, Canelo waved at the crowd while atop a rising platform with flares behind him, smoke and adoring fans all around him, the screams were deafening. But then, once the fight started, round by round, it got quieter and quieter.

I’ve been to a few Canelo fights and many more that didn’t involve him, and I’ve never heard it so silent. It felt surreal. Not in the sense that Bivol — a decorated amateur, an undefeated world champion, a bigger man, and someone unintimidated by everything that surrounds big Las Vegas fights — would beat Canelo. But surreal in how easy he made it look. Surreal to see that, on a hot Nevada night in early May, it was obvious that Canelo had reached his physical limits.

Fighting at 175 pounds, the extra muscle weight tired his legs. That he seemed to throw mostly power punches — as if he’d fallen in love with damaging opponents — tired him even more. When he tried to keep Bivol off him, he just couldn’t. And if the physical advantages weren’t enough, whenever Canelo tried to draw him into the ropes, Bivol was too smart and too patient to give chase. And so, the moment most of the crowd expected — that Canelo would figure something out, because in nine years he always had — never materialized. Surreal to watch Canelo simply run out of time.

At the end of the fight, as we all waited to hear the scores, the only excitement left was wondering if Bivol would get robbed somehow. He wasn’t. He did however, get booed again as he thanked the crowd for coming and, after having just beat the best and most important Mexican boxer of this century, wished them all a “Feliz Cinco de Mayo.”

Out of T-Mobile Arena into the night fans walked, some having to content themselves with cheering when Canelo claimed he wanted a rematch because, as he explained, “this doesn’t end like this.”

They walked past the same plaza that the day before had been so joyous and full of life. The excitement that accompanies the minutes and hours and days after watching Canelo fight was gone. No celebration in the streets. No people dancing and singing and drinking and chanting Canelo’s name. And since there were no red, white and green banners rippling through the air, I assume that immediately after the fight, people quietly folded their Mexican flags and put them away.

With that gone, there was an almost uncertainty in how they, we, should be acting. His loss would’ve been easier to process had it been to lack of discipline or any of the many vices that cut boxing careers short. So far as we know — and these types of things show themselves this far into a career — Canelo doesn’t have that. He just lost to a bigger and better boxer and knowing that was enough to dampen everyone’s mood.

That a 5-foot-8 Mexican was the world’s best boxer meant something to more than a few. Because of politics and memories and stories and fantasies shared between people, some from different generations and of separate sides of the border, Canelo symbolized something unique in a way only boxers can. And since he split his time between training and fighting in the U.S. and living in Mexico, he was the first Mexican superstar who seemingly belonged to two countries.

In a time when not enough of it is visible, Canelo was Mexican superiority. That’s what made him a star to both Mexican and Mexican Americans. If this was solely based on relatability, well then, that’s when things get complicated, because most of us can’t relate to someone who seemed to have every advantage throughout their career. This was always about excellence. Then Canelo lost.

You didn’t have to experience it in person to feel that surprise. It wasn’t hard to imagine a 15 year old, somewhere, sitting heartbroken at home, having seen their hero lose. Days later, Mexican morning radio shows were still talking about it. And amid all the jokes trying to lighten the mood, you could feel some people felt like they lost a little part in that, too. “No vayas a llorar, g–y” — “Don’t cry, f—er” — one man told another in his group of friends, standing just outside the doors of T-Mobile Arena. “F— Canelo,” the man responded in Spanish, forcing his voice to break as if pretending to cry. They laugh for a few seconds, then return to being subdued along with thousands of others.

It was dark and still. Street vendors offered discounts, desperate to sell what was left in their duffle bags full of T-shirts and red headbands with Canelo’s name written across them. Not even the smell of the bacon-wrapped hot dogs and grilled onions was enough to enliven the many who stood around without saying much.

The adrenaline rush of being there, overstimulated by Las Vegas’ lights, sounds, daydreams from temptations at night, and everything else that makes it hard to wind down until long past midnight, was gone. Some pressed their backs against the outside walls of hotels and casinos.

They looked at their phones, trying to match the license plates of the countless cars filing through, waiting to see which one was their ride out of this place. If Canelo becomes the center of the Mexican universe whenever he fights, then this is what happens on the rare occasion he loses. The sport’s most confident man had just lost rather easily. And walking among that stunned silence, it was difficult to not ask myself if what I’d seen wasn’t just Canelo fighting a bigger man, but also, if, perhaps, he’d gotten older without us realizing it.

YOU CAN’T FULLY comprehend or appreciate who Canelo is without knowing who Julio Cesar Chavez was and what he once symbolized. Without knowing who Oscar De La Hoya is and what he once represented. Without them and understanding their role and place in all of this, you’re left analyzing Canelo without most of the context.

If you had to create the perfect Mexican boxer, Chavez was it. He encapsulated the aggression that defined a country’s style of fighting. He was the personification of a stoic machismo. He had, in a word, huevos. “Balls” is the simple translation, but it means a great deal more than that. It’s a state of mind, a way of living one’s life as if it’s a personal philosophy. He fought his way from obscurity to becoming Mexico’s national hero.

Fought his way out of the poverty that comes from growing up in an abandoned boxcar to fighting for millions and all the influence — good and bad — that brought. That was Chavez. A far-far-far less-than-perfect idol who fit perfectly into a country that, partly because of its complicated history with its northern neighbor, embraces antiheroes with open arms.

The peak of Chavez’s career — the late 1980s and early 1990s — occurred during an influx of Mexican migration to the United States. As that happened, Chavez became more than a boxer. For the many who supported, through him and his fights, he was a way of remembering and celebrating a small part of what they left behind while living in this strange country. It certainly helped that, more than anything else, Chavez was uncompromisingly Mexican.

“The thing about him is that he insists on being so damn Mexican,” a U.S. network sports executive said of Chavez. It was more of a lament since it affected the boxer’s marketability. During the height of his career, Chavez not only lived in a modest neighborhood in his hometown of Culiacan — his red Lamborghini Diablo parked close to the neighbor’s old, rusted station wagon — but he never bothered to learn English. It’s no surprise that someone like that — the best boxer in the world for a few years — inspired songs, poems, soap operas and a television series.

The Mexican flag incarnate, that’s who Chavez was through and through.

De La Hoya was different, in the way that boxers are even if they come from similar backgrounds. There are no rich kids here, just a gradation of poverty.

De La Hoya was the child of one of the countless Mexicans who came to the United States. He’s from a family of boxers. From East Los Angeles, he was the Mexican American who’d benefit from his parents’ sacrifices. He was handsome and talented. With that skill — more pure boxer than sheer aggression — he became a U.S. Olympic gold medalist. A wholesome image that made him the rare boxer who transcended the sport.

From 1990 to 2000, the United States’ Latino population increased by nearly 58%. Mexicans accounted for more than half of that growth. Advertisers took notice of De La Hoya, who had a soft voice and easy smile. Essentially, he was good enough to sell products. “His mild manners and clean-cut style is giving boxing a much-needed image lift,” is how People Magazine described him as it listed De La Hoya among the world’s 50 most beautiful humans.

Because of all of that, and because of the long shadow that Chavez casts, De La Hoya had his detractors. That he was too pretty. Too much of a celebrity. Too golden. And if not outright called White — because he golfed at exclusive country clubs, because he moved away from the neighborhood as fast as he could, because of how he fought, because part of transcending the sport was appealing to a non-Mexican audience — then he wasn’t perceived as Mexican enough.

That’s who De La Hoya was, and when he fought Chavez, it exposed the fault lines of Mexican identity. It became Mexican versus Mexican American, and for the latter group, picking a side wasn’t as simple as cheering for the boxer who came from where you were born.

It was old versus new. Chavez was 33 years old with nearly a hundred professional fights. He said he would retire after De La Hoya, which was the biggest payday of his career. De La Hoya was a decade younger, just entering the prime of his career. He spoke of the many more multimillion-dollar fights that’d come after beating Chavez.

Chavez was the first boxer I ever watched get old. That it became crystal clear during his fight against De La Hoya, well, that just added to the cruelty of the sport. In less than four rounds, De La Hoya left Chavez a bloody mess. When the referee stopped the fight and De La Hoya won without a single mark in his face, fans at some closed-circuit showings fought in the stands. Mexican versus Mexican Americans. Other fans — fans of Chavez — simply walked away stunned at what they’d seen.

I watched that fight with at least a dozen other people. We were all stunned, too. Out of sentimentality more than anything else, I was convinced Chavez would win. He’d been the reason I fell in love with boxing. The reason why, during the short time I thought about fighting, I’d soak my hands in homemade brine until my mother saw what I was doing.

I wanted to toughen the skin around my knuckles, I told her in Spanish. She yelled at me for wasting salt and told me to stop.

I never disliked De La Hoya more than that night when, while sitting inside a trailer home in an unincorporated part of El Paso, I watched him pretty much toy with Chavez. I was 15 years old when I watched Chavez — my childhood hero — look as if he needed someone to protect him. Even if back then I didn’t have the words to explain it, I felt it so deeply and powerfully.

LOSING DOES SOMETHING to boxers. It does something extra if they lose after a career of thinking, or rather, knowing, there’s no one alive who can beat them.

After losing to De La Hoya, rather than retire, Chavez fought for nearly another decade. He fought until a used car salesman from Omaha beat him to the point it convinced him it was all over. De La Hoya fought long past his claim that he’d be out by age 26 and enjoying life. He was 35, and got beaten so badly I can still hear Jim Lampley’s voice saying a young Manny Pacquiao was “gradually reconfiguring De La Hoya’s beautiful face.” Until that night, I’d never felt sorry for De La Hoya.

In the days after losing to Bivol, Canelo was adamant that he’d won. He might have lost a few rounds, he said, but he hadn’t lost the fight. That’s the way it sometimes goes in boxing, he added, just stopping short of arguing the industry had conspired to give Bivol the win, even though there was no positive outcome to it.

For now, Canelo will fight Gennadiy Golovkin a third time. Golovkin, who at his prime had a healthy Mexican following, largely due to his style of fighting, has spent a good part of his career waiting for Canelo. He spent years waiting for their first fight to happen. When it finally came and it ended in a controversial draw, Golovkin waited again for the rematch as Canelo served a suspension for a banned substance.

That, of course, only made the criticisms against Canelo louder. In that process, the once friendly relationship between Canelo and Golovkin turned sour. When their rematch ended with another controversial decision, a narrow win for Canelo, the critical voices went up another notch. Golovkin wanted a third fight. Canelo made him wait four years.

In the time Golovkin has waited, his career has flatlined. As he’s gotten old and Canelo’s career ascended, it felt like Golovkin had lost a part of himself. For a few years starting around 2014, because of marketing, because of his aggressive style of fighting, because the doubts of who Canelo was where louder, Golovkin looked like the symbolic heir to Chavez.

A notion that’s especially interesting for a boxer from Kazakhstan who’d fought for years in obscurity throughout Germany in the early part of his career. The heritage is different, sure, but the spirit is similar and explains why Golovkin had a healthy Mexican fan base. He not only spoke of fighting in the Mexican style but also having Mexican blood. But whatever momentum he had built with them, seems to have largely vanished.

At last, Golovkin has what he wants. Golovkin, who could legitimately claim he beat Canelo though he was past his prime, is 40 years old now. He says retirement isn’t far away.

Canelo will beat Golovkin. Not because of some conspiracy, but because that’s just the way it goes when boxers get old. Because once Ahab at last got his white whale, hunting after the thing that’d taken a part of him, it didn’t end well. Because if Canelo were to somehow lose, then the dormant criticisms against him will not only awaken but will be full-throated screams.

Because pride is the last thing to go, if Canelo wins, he says he wants to fight Bivol again. He also says he doesn’t want to fight Mexicans anymore. Presumably because that’s the type of thing that fractures a fan base. Like the time Chavez fought De La Hoya. Like the time Canelo fought Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., not too long after there was serious discussion over who the next great Mexican boxer would be. That, five years ago, was the last Mexican boxer Canelo faced.

Five more years — that’s how long Canelo says he wants to fight. If that’s true, and there’s no reason to believe he’s lying except that boxers always say they can stop and then don’t, that would mean Canelo would’ve fought professionally for 22 years. Past the phase of his career when he had to prove himself. That he was more of a television product than actual great. Too much like De La Hoya in terms of marketability, and not enough Chavez in how he fought. Canelo became the next great Mexican boxer, even when some just didn’t see it.

“I always thought I’d be a world champion,” Canelo once told me. When you stand within arm’s length of him, he’s almost physically underwhelming compared to when he’s inside the ring, and he looks so imposing because of everything that’s around him and what he symbolizes. “But I never imagined the magnitude of what I could become. The truth is that I’ve accomplished lots, more than I imagined.”

He’s 32 years old now. A young man in any other place besides the one where he’s made his name and money. He’s getting to that age where things change for boxers. The reflexes slow. The ability to take a punch diminishes. Maybe that change will be a newfound unwillingness to sacrifice everything when you’ve already won it all.

He wants to fight until he’s 37. Of course, he said that before he lost. Before you looked at him and realized he was no longer a 19-year-old baby-faced fighter with the reddest of hair who, with Oscar De La Hoya as his promoter, almost proved the skeptics right by nearly getting knocked out in the first fight he had when the spotlight got brighter. No longer the 23-year-old who, at the hands of Floyd Mayweather Jr., the best boxer of a generation, got schooled in the way of boxing.

Maybe Canelo is still the best boxer in the world. Maybe he had one bad night, with the wrong strategy, against a boxer who had the perfect fight. Maybe after beating Golovkin, Canelo will avenge his loss against Bivol. Or maybe that’s just the type of thing you want to believe, perhaps out of sentimentality. Watching men fight and infusing it with meaning can lead to complicated emotions. And as a suddenly vulnerable boxer who we’ve just seen lose, Canelo has never been more relatable.

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