The last redhead boxing fans went gaga over was Danny Lopez. “Little Red” was a Southern California legend and a savage television stalwart throughout the 1970s. He lit up arenas all over the West with his unmatched courage, crippling power, and a knack for shootouts that might have impressed Johnny Ringo. But what really made Lopez a 126-pound hero was the quality of opposition he battled throughout his career. In addition to tangling with a slew of solid contenders, Lopez faced Bobby Chacon, Sean O’Grady, Ruben Olivares, and Salvador Sanchez. Ironically, Lopez, an Olympic Auditorium and Inglewood Forum favorite, was only part Mexican—he was a Mission Indian, born and raised in Fort Duchesne, Utah. But that hardly mattered to the afición, for whom fighting spirit is the still most important quality in a boxer.
Saul Alvarez, on the other hand, has faced enough old men throughout his career to make even Chad Dawson, slayer of geezers, envious. But when it was announced in late May that Alvarez had signed to meet Floyd Mayweather, Jr., on September 14 in Las Vegas, “Canelo” instantly became a figure who transcends the often paradoxical safety-first approach to a blood sport that regularly rewards participants for being risk-averse. Even the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, who punched a heckler in the face outside a restaurant a few months ago, seems more combative than some of the pros who answer the bell these days.
One of the ironclad rules of boxing concerns legitimate attractions facing each other in the ring: It should never happen. When it does, it seems like a violation of the laws of gravity. In this era, where fighters are subsidized in America by television networks and hardly need to do more than answer the opening bell twice a year and Tweet gibberish to make astonishing sums of money, two box-office VIPs repel each other the way like magnetic poles do. Alvarez, only 23, is a genuine star in Mexico, and he has been a celebrity special there for years. It takes several elements for a fighter to reach that kind of crossover appeal: style, charisma, looks, accomplishments, ethnicity, the zeitgeist. Sometimes, only a few ingredients are needed to achieve that unusual status; sometimes, as in the case of Oscar De La Hoya, all of them are combined into one marketing supernova. At this point, Alvarez is missing only the big fights. And now, perhaps no longer content to be merely a rich gossip column item, Alvarez is looking to pursue headline events.
A few months ago, undermined by his own success—the crowds, the women, the money—Alvarez seemed almost disinterested with it all when he overruled his management and signed to face tricky southpaw spoiler Austin Trout. Indeed, Alvarez looked palpably bored in fights against ossified Shane Mosley and sadly overmatched Josesito Lopez, who should have been accompanied by Red Cross volunteers on the way to the ring. Against Trout, relatively untested but still dangerous, Alvarez drew roughly 40,000 spectators to the Alamodome in San Antonio and earned a unanimous decision, thus ensuring that his promoters and handlers would not need the aid of defibrillators.
Like Diego Rivera perversely inserting the image of Lenin into his mural, Man at the Crossroads, for Rockefeller Center in the 1930s, Alvarez has a rebellious streak in him that may, in the end, be completely at odds with established fight racket protocol. Not only did Alvarez insist on fighting Trout, but he also refused to be the semi on the Mayweather-Guerrero undercard last May. Other fighters have tried to flex their weak financial muscles recently—James Kirkland and Yuriorkis Gamboa, for example—only to wind up in limbo. But what did Alvarez get when he overruled his brain trust regarding Trout and opted out of a supporting slot on the Cinco de Mayo card? He got the most important win of his career and one of the only lottery-sized paydays to be had in boxing. Alvarez-Mayweather is the biggest matchup that can be made in boxing. Even a fight with Manny Pacquiao—an impossibility for years and now little more than a moldering corpse of a memory—would likely cause less buzz after so much stalling. In the end, Mayweather also deserves credit for pursuing this fight. No matter what the reasons are behind his choice to face Alvarez—a relatively underperforming pay-per-view against Robert Guerrero, for instance—the fact remains that on September 14 he will be facing an opponent with almost every physical advantage over him.
Despite the fact that Alvarez can face just about any desconocido and still command extraordinary payouts from both Showtime and Televisa, he decided to challenge one of the most talented fighters of the last 20 years. Even at 36, Mayweather is as smooth as a kirkbuzzer and as precise as a sniper. And Alvarez will have a difficult time adjusting to the incredible leap from Matthew Hatton and Carlos Baldomir to a virtuoso like “Money.” Alvarez himself is aware of that. “It will be a difficult fight.” he told Estadio. “I will have to be very intelligent, looking for perfection both on defense and offense. We always see the same Mayweather in all of his fights: he throws one or two punches, connects, and then he moves for defense and to keep away from his opponent. His biggest virtue is defense. He is a very fast fighter, a complete fighter, and we will prepare well to acquire the speed necessary to beat him. We’ll throw lots of combinations, we won’t look to tear his head off, we’ll break him down little by little, without getting desperate.”
Although Alvarez has some glaring flaws, he appears to be a natural fighter, and his pursuit of Mayweather seems to prove this. His poise in the ring has always been impressive, and his balance, feints, and counterpunching skills also point to a certain throwback competence that can compensate for some of his weaknesses, namely foot speed, stamina, and a stand-up style that often appears stiff and mechanical. Never one to miss an advantage, Mayweather sought out a catchweight of 152 pounds and received it. It remains to be seen how the weight will affect Alvarez, who did not bother making the catchweight limit against Matthew Hatton in 2011.
Few fighters wield the kind of whip hand “Canelo” does in boxing, but he was willing to abandon it, at least momentarily, in order to chase something with more than just a price tag attached to it. Yes, Alvarez will make untold millions against Mayweather, but he will also be looking at a possible “L” on his ledger, a scarlet letter many try almost obsessively to avoid in a sport where it is possible to be, simultaneously, a champion, a multimillionaire, and a mediocrity. If there are still fighters who labor under the burden of dreams—and perhaps this is merely a romantic notion, as outmoded as a sestina or Alphonse de Lamartine—then Saul Alvarez may well be one of them. Indeed, he hinted at just that in a recent interview with sipse.com: “I have been fulfilling my dreams; I have had good fights, and this is one of my biggest dreams. Without a doubt, this is the most important fight; it will begin a new era in my career and a new era for everyone who backs and supports me.” To men like that, the possibility of losing will always pale beside the sin of dreamwork left undone.
This article originally appeared last July in Esquina Boxeo.