Saul Alvarez: The Making(s) of a Superstar By Gabriel Montoya, MaxBoxing (Aug 11, 2010) Special to Doghouse Boxing
There are a series of somethings about Golden Boy Promotions’ junior middleweight prospect Saul Alvarez, 33-0-1 (25) that sum up to an X-factor that makes him innately watchable. Known as “Canelo” to his growing legion of Mexican national fans for his red hair, pale skin and freckles (“Canelo” means “Cinnamon” in Spanish), the 20-year-old Tlajomulco de Zúñiga, Jalisco, Mexico native has what film and TV execs for years have called the “It Factor.” Blessed with an easy, confident charm with a dash of shy, quiet calm, Alvarez, who fights ex-linear welterweight champion Carlos Baldomir, 45-12-6 (14), as the co-feature to Shane Mosley vs. Sergio Mora, September 18 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA, is a young man being groomed for not just elite fighter status but crossover superstardom. He already enjoys a healthy following in Mexico, drawing ratings that rival and topple the national soccer team. But now, Golden Boy Promotions is bringing him to the States in an effort to broaden his appeal and build a star for their young but successful company. With a rare blend of good looks, an appealing fighting style and a common appeal, Alvarez represents a rare opportunity for Golden Boy Promotions. He has a chance to not only develop into a young, unique talent but to grow an international brand virtually from scratch.
If you haven’t seen him fight, you’re in for a treat, a double-take or both. Saul Alvarez is not your typical Mexican pressure-fighter. Rather, he is part of a shift in approach within the sport of boxing. Like middleweight titleholder Dmitry Pirog and super middleweight titleholder Andre Ward, Alvarez eschews conventions in favor of an out-of-the-box approach to traditional boxing. He is a natural counter-puncher who uses tools like the shoulder roll and Philly shell rather than the typical Mexican shell defense and is not above using movement to retreat and set up shots. His style is a hybrid of tools acquired from American stars like Pernell Whitaker, Floyd Mayweather and Roy Jones Jr. mixed with the pressure and aggressive technician demeanor of the great Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. It’s a blend that is slow in brewing but one that is definitely taking form as his recent destruction of Luciano Cuello in just six rounds showed.
“My development has been very good,” Alvarez told me at the L.A. press conference to announce the pay-per-view card. “I’ve been learning from my last fights. I am going day by day. I’m taking it each fight at a time but I’m learning. I’m still learning.”
Alvarez possesses the qualities that made his promoter, Oscar De La Hoya a household name, though his development as a fighter will take much longer than De La Hoya, who enjoyed a healthy seasoning as an amateur en route to Olympic gold immortality.
Alvarez’ first and only lead trainer, Edy Reynosa, says Alvarez came to his gym already exhibiting his style at age 13, albeit in raw fashion. Through Reynosa’s guidance and fostering of this naturally unorthodox style, Alvarez fought a short amateur career. He turned pro at age 15 as both he and Reynosa realized the opportunities were better than the Mexican amateurs could offer him. And so the raw fighter began to work his way up the ranks, nibbling first on journeymen meant to give him experience and then slowly working his way up the food chain; a man-child fighter feasting on older fighters in a never-ending quest to fine tune what was there from the beginning. That process is still underway.
“You have to have a strong mind,” Alvarez explained of his development. “You have to be capable of taking things how they come. I have to. I am working and working each fight.”
Alvarez’ fame seems to be moving faster than his fighting experience. With 33 pro fights and a promo machine behind him, it’s easy to forget how young he is, both as a fighter without an amateur career learning on the job and as a man. Because of that, some fans are already clamoring impatiently for him to take on a prime undefeated challenger. All in good time, says Alvarez.
“I believe sometimes people forget I am 20,” he said. “I just turned 20. Sometimes they are eager with better opposition and stuff like that. But I don’t take it personally. I am learning, learning, learning; putting it together piece by piece.”
When I first spoke to Canelo, he was making his U.S. debut on the undercard of Mosley/Floyd Mayweather last May against Jose Cotto at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, NV in support of what was the biggest fight of the year thus far. The fight was supposed to be his coming-out-to-the-U.S. party but it came off more like a baptism by fire. Cotto, a career lightweight, hurt Canelo early and asked the kinds of questions regarding Alvarez’ heart and toughness that a journeyman is supposed to ask. Luckily, Alvarez answered them all correctly and the crowd was treated to a spirited struggle as Alvarez and Cotto battled for nine rounds until finally Cotto could take no more. To hear Alvarez tell it, the rough performance was more about nerves than anything. While he had fought in front of large crowds and was already a burgeoning star in Mexico, nothing could have prepared him for the bright lights of Las Vegas; just another test on his way up the ladder.
“Let me be honest; it wasn’t Cotto the opponent,” Alvarez explained. “It was the atmosphere. It was the thoughts in my head. I couldn’t adjust. The fights are coming one by one and I am still learning. But basically it wasn’t Cotto. It was the people, the fans.”
When I first met him, Alvarez was wearing torn blue jeans and a white t-shirt ala James Dean. His hair tousled, answers soft but pointed behind a cool squint, he came off as a confident, mature teenager.
This time around, Canelo still exhibited that quiet confidence. Only this time, he was much more stylish wearing black slacks and a matching vest over a white button-down. He may as well have been a young rock star greeting the press. What is fascinating is how well he seems to understand his role in and out of the ring and how in-stride he takes it at such a young age.
“In a way, I enjoy it. I enjoy the press conference,” he said with a smile. “I enjoy talking with the people and the media. I can say the same thing when I am training. When I am training, I am more focused. But I enjoy [them both].”
One reason Alvarez handles the press and attention so well is that he has none other than one of the sport’s great crossover stars, Oscar De La Hoya, as a mentor.
“We had a great conversation with Oscar,” said Alvarez. “He is a superb person. He gave me a lot of advice; how to manage me inside and outside of the ring. And I believe that I can become a superstar with his help, his promotion and obviously with my skills. If I am still winning and winning, I am going to be next. I am working very hard. I have a great team and they are working hard. I am developing my technique. I don’t want to sound cocky but I don’t want to be just a star in Mexico. I want to be a star all over.”
Golden Boy publicist and translator for Alvarez while he learns English daily from a tutor, Ramiro Gonzalez, pointed out an amusing commonality between De La Hoya and Alvarez.
“He has something in common with Oscar,” interjected Gonzalez. “Oscar used to sell ice cream on the streets. [Canelo]’s father has four shops. He used to sell ice cream.”
For the record, Canelo’s favorite flavor is strawberry cream.
As the conversation progressed, Alvarez spoke on a number of subjects.
When was asked by fellow reporter Mike Rosenthal of The Ring if he would be in this position if he didn’t have the trademark red hair, pale skin and freckles, Canelo joked, “I don’t know. But I don’t even want to imagine having dark hair.”
I asked him about fellow hybrid stylist middleweight titleholder Dmitry Pirog. Canelo’s thoughts were interesting for a fighter taking his first big step up in class in September
“Let me be honest, [Pirog] is a great fighter but I believe I am ahead of him,” he said. “He’s a great fighter but, as a fighter, I consider me much greater than him [but] he is not even in my division.”
Fellow Maxboxing.com scribe Steve Kim said recently that he feels one of the most important future stars in the sport is none other than Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Himself a rising star in Mexico, Chavez Jr. has now begun his North American invasion, training under Freddie Roach and fighting in New York recently. In this writer’s opinion, Alvarez vs. Chavez Jr. represents a huge megafight down the road, should Golden Boy and Top Rank, Chavez’ promoter, ever see fit to co-promote a card again. To hear Alvarez tell it, no build-up is necessary. He is ready to take on his home country rival anytime, anywhere.
“If the promoters want to make the fight, I am ready to fight him today, tomorrow, or after tomorrow,” he said. “I am ready to fight whoever my manager and my promoter says.”
Finally, the talk turned to the opponent at hand, Carlos Baldomir. An iron-chinned but limited journeyman turned brief welterweight champion out of Argentina. What he brings to the table is a pressure style, slow feet, and not much of a punch but a ton of experience facing fighters like Joshua Clottey, Vernon Forrest, Zab Judah, Arturo Gatti and Floyd Mayweather. Baldomir will be the first ex-champion on Alvarez’ résumé.
“We’ve seen tape of him with Zab Judah, Mayweather and everybody,” said Alvarez when asked to break down his opponent for us. “I know he is a clever fighter. He’s difficult but I think he will be a test for me that I am going to pass.”
Despite facing and losing to several elite fighters, Baldomir has not lost by stoppage (if you don’t count back-to-back technical decision loses to Ariel Chaves in 1996 and 1997). Being the first to do that would be the cherry on top of Alvarez’ strawberry cream sundae but he says he is not fighting for any result other than victory.
“I am going to work on that,” he said. “But I will say, I never promise myself, ‘I am going to knock this guy out’. I am just going for the victory because I don’t want to put pressure on myself. If the KO is coming, it’s welcome.”
Now there are some fans and press saying this is not a good fight. That Baldomir, with his slow feet, low-power wattage, and 12 losses is a gimme of an opponent. But all that says is they don’t understand how to build a fighter. It takes time and patience; putting your fighter in with the right opponent at the right time to bring out a specific tool. Facing someone like this is a necessary step in the building of an all-around prize fighter much less a future star. Experienced opponent or not, from Alvarez’ point of view, he is ready for this and looks forward to this challenge and many more to follow.
“It doesn’t worry me. It doesn’t bother me,” Alvarez said of Baldomir’s championship experience. “This is the type of opponent that I have to face. We go little by little. And that’s it.”