Photo: Will Hart
By Diego Morilla
Saul "Canelo" Alvarez has been bred to be a winner, but in the eyes of some of his Mexican countrymen he will be in a no-win situation against Amir Khan this Saturday. He’s headlining in an HBO Pay-Per-View main event at the brand new T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, but in spite of the challenge presented by Khan, many back home regard this as a mere preliminary for the fight they really want to see.
“We are all waiting for him to face Gennady Golovkin at some point,” says Denisse Calixto, a boxing judge and referee in Mexico City. She voices a widely-held sentiment within the boxing-crazed country, where many fight fans are growing restless about Alvarez's choice of opponents. “Canelo has lost a lot of popularity [by not facing Golovkin yet]. But even so, no one in Mexico wants to miss his fights.”
“The clamor for the GGG fight is real, because we all see a true challenge for Saul,” adds Cecilia Martinez, another ardent follower of the sport from Mexico City.
Far from the country’s capital, the boxing faithful are equally skeptical.
“The fight does generate a lot of expectations, but it is an uneven fight because Khan is a lighter fighter who has barely fought at welterweight,” says Ruben Estrada Tapia, from the easternmost resort town of Cancun, who runs a 20,000-member strong boxing discussion group, Boxeo Con Respeto. “And for this reason, Saul will be criticized regardless of the result of the bout. His entourage continues trying to build a ticket-selling monster of epic proportions, going as far as saying that he has accomplished more things than [Julio Cesar] Chavez at his age.”
Canelo has already shared a ring with some of the best in the sport – his lone defeat came at the hands of number one pound-for-pounder Floyd Mayweather – but that's old news for many of his countrymen. They want to see the middleweight champ take on the man widely regarded as the true king of that division, if not the whole sport.
But, according to another close follower of the sport, there's another reason for Canelo's mixed reception back home.
“Mexicans who dislike Televisa [the powerful network on which Canelo has fought almost his entire career] are very radical. They associate Televisa with the PRI [Mexico’s most popular political party], with bad government administrations and more,” says Erasmo Arreola, a savvy boxing observer from the western city of Morelia, offering a broader view on the issue of Canelo’s likability. But Arreola doesn’t deny that a resounding win against a top pound-for-pound entrant would put Canelo above all criticism, political or otherwise. “True boxing fans in Mexico hope to see Canelo explode with a KO against an elite fighter that will bring him the same glory that Chavez achieved against [Meldrick] Taylor. But first, they expect him to stop Khan and then move on to bigger foes.”
Interestingly, Golovkin has earned a lot of fans in Mexico because rival network TV Azteca is giving him a lot of exposure and putting considerable resources into drumming up a potential mega-bout between he and Alvarez. That is fueling the rivalry beyond the confines of the boxing realm.
One thing is clear: Love him or hate him, nobody ignores Canelo.
“Canelo is taking the place of Juan Manuel Marquez among the Mexican fans,” says Ismael Munguia, a resident of the northernmost town of Mexicali and a frequent presence in boxing events in the American southwest. “Everyone stops whatever they’re doing to watch him in Mexico, whether to see him win or lose. But if they’re going to sell Canelo that hard, then let him face the best ones in his division, and the best at that weight is GGG. Canelo is young and has a lot of qualities, but in order to be a star you have to face the best in their primes.”
Any fighter knows about the dangers of looking past their most immediate opponents, but for Mexican fans, the true opportunity for Canelo to claim greatness lays ahead of his impending date with Khan. Arreola leads the charge in this crusade to force Canelo to put up or shut up. “Canelo’s fight against Floyd Mayweather was the perfect fight for him to shine. Everyone talked about it and they were expecting to celebrate in a big Mexican party on that day, but all we got was just another chance to get drunk,” says Arreola through a laugh.
From the other side of the country, Estrada Tapia feels the same way about the Mayweather fight, though he harbors great hopes for the 25-year-old's future.
“He is far from what Chavez once was, but he is a popular public figure in a country that is desperately seeking an idol,” says Estrada Tapia. “It’s too bad that Canelo is not quite there yet.”