"This Is the Moment": In Camp with Canelo Alvarez
Austin, Texas, April 2009. The small knot of reporters standing in a hotel lobby was in town to cover a Golden Boy Promotions fight card headlined by the controversial and ultimately tragic Venezuelan lightweight Edwin Valero. But at this particular moment, the thoughts of Ramiro Gonzalez – formerly a sports writer for Mexican newspaper La Opinion, and subsequently a media liaison for Golden Boy – were on a younger boxer south of the border, and he wanted to share what he knew.
“There is a tremendous young boxer called Saul Alvarez,” Gonzalez explained. “He is Mexican, but he looks Irish, and they call him Canelo, or ‘cinnamon’, because of his red hair. I think he is going to be a great champion.”
San Diego, eight years later.
The gym does not, from the outside, appear to be the kind of place where one would find a celebrated athlete. It has no exterior markings at all, its windows are blacked out and its setting appears to be a mall of commercial and industrial offices. Which, in fact, it is: brief examination of its nearest neighbors reveals a collection of companies catering to your nutritional, dietary and pharmacological needs: Ultimate Labs. Cellagen Technology. Medico. Dexcom. And, offering a slightly different approach, Nature’s Harvest (“The Easy Choice for Whole Grains”).
Open the doors, however, and its function is apparent, as is the identity of its proprietor. A boxing ring sits in one corner, along a wall draped with a large Mexican flag. Near to it hang a variety of heavybags. A weight machine initially impresses with its sleek, modern appearance, an anomaly in many boxing gyms; on closer inspection, a couple of small cobwebs suggest it is not the most frequently-used piece of equipment in the facility. High on the walls are photographs of the man himself, Saul Canelo Alvarez looking down on us, the fledgling welterweight of 2009 now the lineal middleweight champion of the world.
Outside, the temperature in the southern California sunshine is north of 70 degrees. Inside, it is closer to 90. This is the cause of some agitation among the small group that is awaiting Canelo’s arrival, an overwhelming desire to make the environment habitable conflicting with the realization that Alvarez may like it just the way it is.
The situation is resolved as soon as Canelo arrives, driving himself in a silver Mercedes-Benz AMG G65 SUV and pulling up as close to the gym as is physically possible. He clambers out, walks through the front doors, and immediately sets the thermostat to 69. He politely and professionally greets the small knot of waiting guests and swiftly changes into gym clothes.
It will not be his first workout of the day. At 6 AM, he went running for a half hour, as he does every morning. After breakfast, rest and a light lunch, he comes to the gym for his afternoon session; two days a week, he spars, but today, he is focusing on basic fitness, shadow boxing and heavybag work. It will be a relatively short session; camp is only in its second week.
He sits on a chair by the ring apron as trainer Eddy Reynoso wraps his hands, and while he sits, he takes a few minutes to talk.
He has used this gym, he explains, for about three years; San Diego has been his base for eight previous fights, dating back to his sole professional loss, to Floyd Mayweather in 2013. It is, he offers, a comfortable location.
He has, of course, enjoyed many big fights before. He defeated future Hall-of-Famers Shane Mosley and Miguel Cotto. He attracted a crowd of nearly 40,000 as he outpointed Austin Trout in 2013, almost 32,000 when he demolished James Kirkland in 2015, and greater than 51,000 to watch him knock out Liam Smith at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium last year. But the September 16 showdown with Gennady Golovkin, the bout for which he is now beginning to train, is the one that has been anticipated the longest and the most feverishly, the one he has been accused of ducking for almost two years, the one that has the potential to be the fulfilment of that Ramiro Gonzalez prophecy from eight years ago that he would be a truly great champion.
“I’m very happy to finally get what I wanted; I’m very happy that people have talked a lot about it, but now the time has come and people can expect a great fight,” he explains. “This kind of fight takes time. Negotiations take time. But this is what I’ve been asking for.”
Told that Golovkin has referred to him as a warrior, he responds not by being similarly complimentary, but with an affirmation.
“He knows what he’s going to confront, he knows the type of fighter that I am and the type of fight he can expect,” he says. “He’s used to certain fighters, certain styles, but he knows the kind of warrior that I am.”
With a faint smile, he stands up and the brief conversation is over. He is not here to talk, he is here to work out, and he steps up on to the ring apron and climbs between the ropes to begin shadow boxing. As he does, Gonzalez and I recall our conversation from 2009.
“In 2008, Oscar [De La Hoya, Golden Boy Promotions founder, Chairman and CEO] said to me and Eric Gomez [then the company’s matchmaker, now its president]: ‘You know about this kid Canelo Alvarez. I want you to go to Mexico, track him and see if we can sign him.’” It was, for an assortment of reasons –primarily related to the thorny issue of whether he had an existing promotional agreement, a dispute that is yet to reach its final resolution – a protracted courtship. But Golden Boy pulled the trigger shortly after Alvarez defeated Lanardo Tyler in a welterweight bout, to take his record to 30-0-1, with just 22 KOs. He was just 19 years old, and had been boxing professionally since he was 15.
The music plays as Canelo slides around the ring, stabbing punches at an imaginary foe. The mood is light, but it would be wrong, says Gonzalez, to underestimate the fighter’s focus.
“He’s very systematic,” he asserts. “If he feels something isn’t working, he says he’ll often worry about it at night and then he’ll come right back into the gym to work on it some more, over and over, until he gets it right.” Canelo’s professionalism reminds him, he says, of Salvador Sanchez, the great Mexican featherweight whose outstanding career was cut short by a fatal car accident when he was just 23.
Gonzalez notes also that the size of the boxer’s entourage is inversely proportional to his wealth and fame. Just two other team members, Luis Sevilla and Raul Torres, support the twin trainers: Eddy Reynoso and his father Chepo. It was Chepo who initially guided and developed the young Alvarez, when Canelo was just 13 – “He told his parents, ‘I’ll take the boy, and I will bring you back the man,’” Gonzalez says – but these days his is a more supervisory role, and the younger Reynoso takes on day-to-day duties.
After building up a sweat in the ring, Canelo gloves up and moves over to the heavybags. The music cuts, and a more serious, focused air settles on the gym, as if the bags represent a more accurate approximation of Golovkin. Alvarez tears into the bags, his ripping hooks and uppercuts familiar to anyone who has watched him fight, and it is easy to imagine him hurling those very same short, hard shots at the Golovkin ribcage and chin. He moves from one bag to the other, putting in several rounds, his eyes focused on each inanimate opponent as if it were the Kazakh flesh and blood he’ll be facing in Las Vegas.
Then, suddenly, he is done. He sits quietly on an exercise ball in the corner as the music starts again. He gets back in the ring, but he isn’t going to work the mitts or really do much else: Eddy has already removed his hand wraps. He stretches, warms down, and then he is in the bathroom to change, emerging with another smile and sitting by the ring once more to immerse his hands in a bucket of ice.
Despite the abbreviated nature of the session, Chepo Reynoso looks on contentedly. It is, after all, early days; there will be harder to come. And he has watched firsthand, for nearly 15 years, at the work ethic and intelligence that has propelled his fighter to the apex of the sport.
“He came to me when he was a little boy,” he recalls. “He was a very strong boy, but he didn’t move his head and he didn’t know how to jab. After one week, he was already developing those things. That’s when I knew how good he could be. After one week in my gym, I knew it.”
He, like Alvarez, is serene about the time that passed, and the sturm und drang that enveloped boxing fandom, between the showdown with Golovkin being first discussed and it being eventually signed.
“Everything in life has its moment,” Chepo says. “And this is the right moment to do this fight. And we are so confident that we will win.”
And now it is the moment for Alvarez to leave. And when Canelo leaves, everybody else leaves, too. In a flash, he is up and out the door, the small team in his wake. He climbs back into his SUV, rolls down the window to wave goodbye, and then he is gone.