It is a bright, sunny California afternoon in downtown Los Angeles, and a throng of enthusiastic, mostly Latino fans gathers to salute two of today's most revered fighters as they prepare for a historic battle on an almost-historic Mexican date: September 16th (8 PM ET/5 PM PT, HBO PPV) at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
First up on the makeshift outdoor ring is the fellow from Kazakhstan, a babyface/stone-cold killer with one of the most feared records in boxing, walking out to a crowd many expect to be hostile.
But, the cheers in Gennady "GGG" Golovkin's training session are just as loud for him as they would be later for his Mexican foe, Saul "Canelo" Alvarez.
One might think that the folks doing the cheering on the wrong side are simply disoriented, dazed by the sound of "Despacito" blasting out of the speakers at a deafening volume and blinded by the scorching sun. After all, this event was supposed to galvanize an entire nation in support of their countryman before the greatest challenge of his career.
But the "Mexicans for Golovkin" movement defies the common impression of Mexico as a patriotic country full of people who stand united behind their flag every time duty calls, especially if that duty involves punching a foreigner in the face.
"[Canelo] always fights with an advantage; he's always making excuses and imposing his conditions," says the anonymous bearer of a Mexican flag emblazoned with the words "Mexicans for Golovkin." The fan waves his flag just a few feet away from the ring. While there may be some merit to his complaint, surely that’s not reason enough to root against your home country’s fighter.
Turns out, there are deeper, even historical, forces at play. Some Mexican Canelo supporters are accusing these GGG fans of "Malinchismo." Not to be confused with its near-opposite, "machismo," malinchismo harkens back to centuries-old wounds that date back to Mexico's origins as a country.
It is the heritage of La Malinche. A native during the time of the Hernan Cortes invasion that led to the colonization of what later became Mexico, Malinche became Cortes' mistress, translator and aide in his effort to round up support for the invaders against the local Aztec empire. She has since become the very symbol of betrayal to one's blood and country.
Right across the philosophical street, "machismo," a word with its own meaning in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, became the very opposite of this derogative term, with "male pride" and "patriotism" joining forces in one word to become the antithesis of the female-led treachery embodied in its counterpart.
But that still doesn't explain why Canelo, a chiseled, Greek-god-like figure with a reddish beard that gleams under the sun, and a wholesome young man with very few scandals to his name and an impeccable run as a pugilist, has failed to connect with large groups of his countrymen.
"To me, what he felt was that truly a lot of people don't support him even if they are Mexican," says Jonathan Cervantes, a fan who preaches the anti-Canelo gospel on social media with gusto. "I would never support him, regardless of who he fights."
The comparisons with Malinche seem to be far-fetched, given the circumstances. After all, these fans have a clear preference for Golovkin that may be well justified in their boxing taste, and that doesn't mean they are conspiring to turn the red, white and green flag into a doormat for the invaders. But malinchismo is such a deep-rooted conundrum for the country, that every action that bears the resemblance of infidelity to the homeland is instantly branded with the word.
The scale of the Canelo-bashing among some Mexicans is startling. It is one thing to see keyboard warriors duking it out from the loneliness of their rooms, or anonymous buyers ordering a "Mexicans for Golovkin" T-shirt online, but quite another to see Mexico's biggest boxing icon showing those off like Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. recently did in an infamous Instagram post. The pain is obvious and palpable to many Mexicans, but Canelo himself has repeatedly dismissed these demonstrations as the laughable hoots of derision of a resentful few. This does not reflect the sentiment of a majority of fans that, as he has repeated again and again, stand behind him.
But even so, the unique phenomenon has a life of its own that cannot be denied or hidden, and is not ready to die out anytime soon.
"Golovkin is what Mexicans want, a fighter with balls," says Erik Hernandez, an ardent fan of "GGG" from San Antonio. "And even if he loses, Mexicans will continue to respect him more than Canelo."
Erasmo Arreola, a self-defined “neutral” boxing observer with regards to Canelo, expands on the fighter's lack of empathy."Mexicans are not too happy about the way he conducts himself in interviews,” Arreola argues, “because he always answers in a defensive and dismissive way that comes out as arrogant."
Other critics mention his lack of a killer punch, preferably the almost-trademark shot to the liver (the closest thing to a national Mexican punch that there will ever be) to withdraw support for Canelo as an unfit representative of the vaunted "Mexican school of boxing" and its brawling-first approach to pugilism. A style that, as the "anti-Canelistas" claim, is perfectly represented by Golovkin, a point that has found an outspoken apologist in his own "Malinchist" trainer Abel Sanchez, who has taken it upon himself to question Canelo's "Mexican-hood" in favor of his pupil's manly virtues.
"Unfortunately, ‘Malinchism' comes naturally to many Mexicans, who don't like their own people to win," says Ismael Munguia, a fan from Mexicali who often makes the trek to the American southwest to support his compatriots in high-profile bouts. "Personally, I think that the homeland comes first, and Canelo represents our country. And even though he may be in clear disadvantage, although I do see this as a 50-50 proposition, just by carrying the Mexican flag into the ring he will have my support."
The length and enthusiasm of the anti-Canelo campaign has cornered the freckled boy wonder in a difficult position.
"Regardless of who he may beat in the future, Canelo will always carry that stigma of having had a protected and tailor-made career. Even if he wins, a lot of people will dismiss his victory and will continue looking for reasons to withdraw their support from him," expands Munguia. Fellow fan Cecilia Martinez agrees, "People are used to romanticizing boxing, and some of them see Canelo's career as a mere commercial enterprise. They can't fathom the idea of him fighting for honor. I don't believe this is ‘malinchismo,' it's just that some people see Mexican boxing as a sacred activity. They sympathize only with fighters who have suffered, and they perceive Canelo as arrogant and egoist because of the way his career was handled."
Whether the anti-Canelo crowd qualifies as Malinchist or not, there are some favoring a third position, one that flatly dismisses the notion of Malinche as an evil traitor and portrays her as a victim who was overwhelmed by the more powerful Cortes and had no choice but to surrender to the will of a stronger conqueror.
"Patriarchal culture portrays Malinche as a traitor," says Silvina Settecase, a formerly adoptive Mexican book editor from Argentina with intimate knowledge of the subject. "But there is another perspective that says that she was a woman from a minority group that was just overpowered by an oppressor with a stronger will, and as such, she was just a victim."
Should Canelo lose against Golovkin, the spirit of Malinche may certainly be burdened with some of the blame. But for her sympathizers -- and for those “Mexicans for Golovkin” -- some things matter more than country.