Saul Alvarez is called Canelo, the same way that Ronald Wright is Winky, Earvin Johnson is Magic, and no one ever says "Ray Leonard" without "Sugar" up front.
A 22-year-old kid from the state of Jalisco in Mexico, Alvarez has become a phenom in the boxing world, already a live draw in his native country before turning many American heads with his performance on the Mayweather-Mosley undercard in May 2010. It was the start of a frantically paced journey, as a superstar simultaneously organic and manufactured began his rise to prominence.
The A-Side: Canelo Alvarez
That night, a 19-year-old Alvarez was slotted into the third televised fight of the night, the featured undercard bout of the big-selling HBO pay-per-view. Matched with Jose Miguel Cotto, the brother of the more famous and accomplished Miguel Cotto, the red-headed, pale-skinned Mexican overcame some slight adversity against a game veteran, scoring a ninth round stoppage. It was the kind of prodigious performance, both in style and execution, that made jokes about his appearance looking more Irish than Mexican become mere throwaway material.
The kid, an Oscar De La Hoya-like heartthrob at home, was a fighter, and that was very clear.
After beating Cotto, Alvarez embarked on a busy schedule, dominating Luciano Cuello, former welterweight champ Carlos Baldomir, and former junior welterweight titlist Lovemore N'dou during the second half of 2010. He thrashed Cuello, became the first man ever to knock out the iron-jawed Baldomir, and shut N'dou out in a rare fight that HBO made room for apart from their flagship network, airing the bout on HBO Latino, simply because Alvarez was so quickly becoming a fighter of note.
Coming up as a welterweight, it became obvious that Alvarez's wide-shouldered, large-legged body wasn't long for that division. Still growing in many respects, the young man moved up to 154, slowly but surely. He started 2011 off with a win over Matthew Hatton -- another brother of a more famous fighter, Ricky Hatton -- another shutout, 12-round win, this time netting Alvarez the vacant WBC junior middleweight title.
This is where the star power, or at least potential star power, of Alvarez became very apparent, because here he was at age 20, already benefiting from the political favoritism of the sport. The WBC, based in Mexico and long-known to favor fighters from the country, not only put their title up for grabs between a prospect and a mediocre, career welterweight, but they allowed Alvarez to miss the agreed-upon, 150-pound catchweight, and still take the title home.
The backlash started there. A one-sided beatdown of Ryan Rhodes in June was a solid win, but was criticized by many due to Rhodes offering so little resistance. A veteran of the British domestic scene, Rhodes was considered at the time one of the top 10 junior middleweights in the world, but Alvarez had his way with the experienced southpaw. Rhodes credited Alvarez with big power and top-level skills, but some saw it more as Alvarez beating another easy, hand-picked opponent.
The Canelo debate is an interesting one, as far as boxing debates go. Still extremely young, it is rare for anyone his age to have fought the sort of opponents that he has faced over the last four years or so. He was facing fully developed, credible adult fighters in his late teens, and beating them handily. But once he began his U.S. push, fight fans largely wanted to see him face the real top stars of his weight class, not middling talents like the lesser Hattons and Cottos, or faded old dogs like Baldomir, or the two former welterweight titlists Canelo would beat later on, Kermit Cintron and Shane Mosley, a pair of fighters who never lived up to their hype, and had clearly regressed to the point of being little more than a famous name.
That Alvarez had started calling out Floyd Mayweather at age 20 didn't matter much to those skeptical observers, nor should it have; fighters say a lot of goofy stuff, make a lot of silly boasts, and call out a lot of better fighters they're in no position to face, and everyone knows it.
Those skeptics wanted to see Alvarez in with the likes of Miguel Cotto, or some other actual name. Someone closer to their prime, if not totally in it. And to be 100% fair, which often escapes analysis of these situations in boxing circles, Alvarez and Golden Boy Promotions tried to do that.
Paul Williams, a former welterweight titlist who was looking to get a comeback run going at age 31, was signed up to face Alvarez in September 2012. Williams had a rough go of it for a bit, going from being hyped as boxing's most avoided fighter to written off, following a career-altering knockout loss to Sergio Martinez, and then a robbery win over Erislandy Lara so obvious to all that the New Jersey athletic commission suspended the three judges who scored the bout that night.
Williams had only a relatively easy but somewhat uninspiring win over Nobuhiro Ishida to boast about at the time, but he was still seen as a genuine step up for Alvarez, and the fight generated buzz pretty quickly. A mere six days after the fight was reported as a done deal, Williams was tragically paralyzed in a motorcycle accident.
With little time to put together a replacement bout, as the fight was supposed to headline a pay-per-view, Golden Boy went in-house to secure the services of Victor Ortiz for the September 17 date, provided that Ortiz win, as it was expected he would, against Josesito Lopez on June 23.
Canelo and promoter Oscar De La Hoya sat ringside with Showtime cameras on them, as it was figured that Ortiz would do the business, they'd talk up the Canelo-Ortiz fight and start selling right away, and then have some fine footage to use in the major hype days.
Instead, Alvarez and Oscar watched in shock as Josesito Lopez not only hung tough with Ortiz, but broke the favored man's jaw, stopping him in the ninth round. The result stunned the boxing world, but bigger than that, it once again left Alvarez without an opponent for September, and now, time was really of the essence.
It was Lopez who got the call, drafted in for a junior middleweight fight despite the fact that the majority of his career had been spent in the junior welterweight division, 14 pounds down. Tall and lanky, Lopez proved his value at 147 by beating Ortiz, but seasoned boxing fans know how big just a few pounds can really be, and it was feared that on fight night, Alvarez would just be too big and too strong, leading to a competitive mismatch.
Lopez, though, couldn't turn it down. It was a career-making sort of opportunity; beating Ortiz was one thing, but beating the rising phenom would be another entirely. It was also a career-best payday, a big night main event in Las Vegas, on one of the biggest boxing nights of 2012, when a pair of fights sold out in Sin City, as Chavez-Martinez happened at the same time, just down the road.
Sadly, the doomsayers were right: Canelo (41-0-1, 30 KO) demolished Lopez, who bravely got off the canvas in the second, third, and fourth rounds, before referee Joe Cortez mercy-stopped the shellacking in round five. The artistic side was a bit gruesome, but the business side went well. Aside from the nice gate and the full house at the MGM Grand, Canelo-Lopez did Showtime's highest rating for a boxing event since Nielsen tracking began for the network.
Again fans demanded more. This time, they were dead-set: Alvarez had to face a legitimate contender next time out. Alvarez heard the calls, and for a kid who wants to become the biggest star in boxing, they made an impact. Miguel Cotto was lined up. All Cotto had to do was beat Austin Trout in December, seven months after a valiant loss to Floyd Mayweather, and Canelo-Cotto looked like a go for the big Cinco de Mayo weekend of 2013.
The B-Side: Austin Trout
Once again, Canelo sat ringside. And once again, he watched as a money fight was washed away in front of his eyes, as the talented but largely overlooked Trout (26-0, 14 KO) ended Cotto's legendary undefeated streak at Madison Square Garden, winning a 12-round unanimous decision on December 1.
The Curse of Canelo, it was now being called. Ortiz just had to win, and with Alvarez watching he lost. With Cotto, it was the same story, and an even bigger fight going down the tubes.
Somewhat laughably, Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer tried to put on a brave face and save the Canelo-Cotto fight, remarking that it was still a step up, still marketable, and a fight fans would want to see. In some respects, Schaefer was right, but reality had simply become too much to bear anymore for Alvarez. He knew, proving his self-awareness, that fighting a version of Miguel Cotto coming off of back-to-back defeats, including one where he looked physically overmatched at 154 pounds by Trout, would meet some intense criticism. Sure, it could be sold on May 4, with the old Mexico vs Puerto Rico storyline anchoring the fight, and Showtime and Golden Boy would no doubt do a great job selling it with all they had.
But the time for Canelo-Cotto had passed, and Alvarez knew that. He stated clearly that he was not interested in Cotto, and named Austin Trout as a potential foe. For boxing, this was shockingly sports-like, with the guy who won actually moving on to the next big fight, instead of being pushed aside for maybe not being a cash cow. Even with boxing power broker Al Haymon now guiding Trout's career, he was a hard sell to Golden Boy -- the company, flat-out, did not want to make a Canelo-Trout fight, and risk the future of their company, and perhaps even the superstar future of boxing, on someone as talented and crafty as Austin Trout.
After all, Austin Trout had toiled in relative obscurity for years. The Las Cruces, New Mexico, fighter had been promoted by Greg Cohen, a smart man running a small-time outfit. Until Haymon came on board with Trout, which put Austin in the ring with Cotto, he had gone to Mexico to win his first world title, and then had to make his first defense there, too.
Though foreign soil can be unforgiving on judges' scorecards, Trout clearly and definitively won both of those fights, handling Canelo's brother Rigoberto Alvarez and then David Lopez. He wasn't even a blip on the radar of the big two American boxing networks until he landed a ShoBox (Showtime's second-tier show, usually held late on Friday nights) main event with Frank LoPorto, a grossly overmatched Australian who was, for whatever bogus reason, ranked highly by the WBA.
Seven months later, Trout beat fringe contender Delvin Rodriguez on a Showtime undercard, in a fight that lacked action and was pretty disappointing for viewers. That Trout was able to face Cotto next was a result of two things: (1) He held the WBA junior welterweight title, and Cotto wanted to regain a belt, and (2) Al Haymon makes magic happen with the snap of his fingers.
There isn't a lot of drama to the career of Austin Trout, and there also hasn't been much fanfare. For many, he basically shot out of nowhere to beat Cotto in December. When Alvarez was ruled out of the May 4 sweepstakes, with the prize a shot at Floyd Mayweather in what could easily be the biggest money fight of 2013, Canelo put his foot down: No Cotto, no "other" options, no more baby steps. He wanted Austin Trout.
This Saturday night at the Alamodome in San Antonio, he will get Austin Trout, in a fight that presents a significant risk for both men. Golden Boy, as said before, did not want this fight. At 22, Canelo has so far proven skilled, strong, and mentally capable of handling pressure.
Trout, at 27, is the first quality fighter that Alvarez will be facing at the top of the opponent's game. While we perhaps have not yet seen the best of Alvarez, Trout is polished and if not a totally finished product, he's very close. He's a somewhat slick, skilled, and intelligent fighter, a southpaw who can box, has enough power to keep foes honest, and is riding a big wave of momentum right now.
Austin Trout, to be blunt, wasn't supposed to be here. Golden Boy doesn't promote him. Top Rank doesn't promote him. He's forced his way into this fight by winning everywhere he's had to fight, against anyone who would fight him.
Like Josesito Lopez last year, Trout is getting this fight because he upset the apple cart and made headaches for Canelo and Golden Boy. Unlike Lopez, Trout will not be physically overmatched. He's a true junior middleweight, a bit taller than Canelo, maybe faster, and uses his legs better than Alvarez does. For the most part, Canelo has faced a series of guys who were there to be hit, either because their legs were gone, or they just weren't fighters who could move.
Trout can move. He can use the ring, create angles, stay out of Canelo's wheelhouse, and give the youngster looks that he simply has not had to see thus far in his pro career. And no matter how good training camp and sparring have gone, no matter how well a sparring partner may have replicated Trout's style and possible plan of attack, Alvarez wasn't sparring the real Austin Trout, who can do those things, and then execute better than a sparring partner.
But while this is the Big Step Up for Alvarez, don't discount that this is also an incredibly tough fight for Trout. Alvarez is a very talented fighter, which often goes overlooked for criticism of his opposition to date. On the offensive side, he whacks hard to the body, though he can sometimes headhunt a bit too much. He puts punches together in combination beautifully, and while he doesn't look fast, his can move his hands, and it would be unfair, in my estimation, to write him off as someone who's flat-footed or even slow of foot; he hasn't shown much speed or notable mobility in that area, but he also hasn't had to do so yet. With opponents who stand in front of him, that means just as much for what we don't know about his game against someone like Trout, as it does for what we think we do know.
Like last weekend's Donaire-Rigondeaux fight, which produced an upset when an amateur legend stepped his game to a new level in the pro ranks and beat a very highly-regarded A-side opponent, this is about as close to a 50-50 sort of fight as boxing's big events can be. And this is truly a big event, too: This is a fight of PPV headlining quality (better matched than most of those fights, in fact), and over 30,000 tickets have been sold at the Alamodome. This will likely be the largest live crowd to see any fight in the United States in 2013.
There has been a late-developing side story, though: Officials in Jalisco are seeking an arrest warrant for Alvarez, stemming from an alleged altercation in 2011 with junior flyweight (108 lbs) boxer Ulises "Archi" Solis. Alvarez allegedly attacked Solis over a personal dispute, which resulted in Solis suffering some pretty serious injuries. Alvarez denies involvement in the attack, but that's something that could be a huge mental distraction.
Perhaps the biggest concern about this fight, however, is the officiating. Texas has a long history of some downright puzzling scoring from its judges, head of the athletic commission Dickie Cole has been heavily criticized for years, and his son, the oft-maligned Laurence Cole, will be the referee.
Indeed, this matchup, the location, the bad history in Texas, Cole as referee, all send up a big red flag. Trout, who likely will look to work off the counters, with Canelo coming forward, could easily fall victim to the old, "The other guy made the fight happen" logic, which is often at odds with what effective work is being done, giving credit instead to ineffective aggression. If Canelo marches forward, closer rounds or even slightly debatable rounds could go his way. This doesn't even address the fact that Alvarez is without question the cash cow of this fight, the guy Golden Boy is banking on to carry the company long-term, a future PPV star in the making, and the man with the power promoter behind him. And that doesn't even start to consider the WBC, even though the WBA is also sanctioning this unification bout.
Far too often, we are left scratching our heads, wondering if a fight's outcome was the result of corruption or incompetence, neither excusable. This is a great fight, in that it's significant, has piqued the public's interest, and features a pair of rising fighters who aren't going down the other side of the hill in their careers. These are two elite-level fighters taking a serious gamble for the betterment of their careers and, hopefully, the sport.
The only real hope is that we get the decision that is earned in the ring, and the right man's hand is raised without controversy when all is said and done.
For more on Canelo vs Trout and other upcoming fights, including Mayweather vs Guerrero, visit Bad Left Hook.