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Balancing the Building of Saul “Canelo” Alvarez

(Photo © Carlos Delgado, HoganPhotos/ Golden Boy Promotions)
(Photo © Carlos Delgado, HoganPhotos/ Golden Boy Promotions)


The conundrum that is 21-year-old Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, rising star, WBC junior middleweight titleholder, and Golden Boy Promotions future pay-per-view attraction, fights this Saturday against welterweight Alfonso Gomez. The bout is the co-feature to the Victor Ortiz vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr. “Star Power” pay-per-view extravaganza split between the MGM Grand in Vegas (where the majority of the PPV fights will be held) and Los Angeles’ Staples Center (where Alvarez and Gomez will get it on). The fight, which will certainly be full of action as Gomez is an aggressive fighter and Alvarez likes fighters who come straight to him, is something of a touchy subject with fight fans. On one hand, you have Alvarez fans both in Mexico and the US, who love the red-headed kid as if he were their own. They understand that despite his record, 37-0-1 with 27 knockouts, he is simply developing as a fighter.

 

 

 

The other camp of fight fans and writers treat Alvarez like a red-headed stepchild, claiming he is but a middling fighter who won a vacant paper belt by beating Matthew Hatton last March in a 150-pound catchweight fight. In said fight, Alvarez weighed in at a pound-and-a-half over the limit both sides ultimately agreed upon. The critics feel Alvarez is being coddled by Golden Boy while avoiding the genuine challenges at junior middleweight.

 


Somewhere in between is the truth. Regardless, Alvarez is no doubt a solid ticket draw, drawing close to 11,000 people to Anaheim for the Hatton fight as well as doing excellent ratings on both HBO and Mexican TV. Love him, hate him, criticize or praise him; the kid is here to stay.
 
The delicate balance of building a champion out of a fighter whose popularity and titleholder status belie his lack of experience falls to the Golden Boy matchmakers who, depending on the fight, are either maligned or praised for being dangerous or brilliant in their choices. Such are the day-in-and-day-out peaks and valleys of being in the Fighter Development Department of any promotional company, particularly one as relatively young as Golden Boy Promotions.
 
“Its work,” Golden Boy matchmaker Eric Gomez told Maxboxing.com of the balancing act between expectations and reality with “Canelo.” “It’s very difficult. You have to improve the opposition and keep [Alvarez] moving in the direction where he is getting experience but also fighting the legitimate fighters in his division. Because you can get away fighting the Ryan Rhodeses, [even though] he was a mandatory, but obviously, it’s a delicate balance. It’s a team effort. We have a whole team behind him and Oscar gets involved. Oscar’s brother, Joel, gets involved, [Hall of Fame promoter and matchmaker] Don Chargin. So it’s a team effort. We discuss everything. That’s how we do.”
 
Beyond the red hair and great TV ratings, what Golden Boy has going for them with Alvarez is a hard-working kid who loves to fight. Since he was a kid, it’s all he ever wanted to do. Alvarez so wanted to pursue his dream, he left high school during his sophomore year.
 
“I love it. I love boxing,” Alvarez told members of the media in Big Bear a few weeks back. “I knew it when I was 15 years old. I left school and began boxing. I have to be honest; I didn’t like school. I didn’t pay attention in school.”
 
One place he does pay attention is the gym and in the ring. Alvarez, who makes his home in Guadalajara, MX, prefers to train in Big Bear, CA at Abel Sanchez’s training facility, The Summit.
 
Here with his trainer, Eddy Reynoso, and under the watchful eye of Sanchez (who lends an expert opinion to the proceedings), Alvarez works hard to add something to his game each moment he is in the gym.
 
“I am learning new things but the most important thing is to be calm, be relaxed. Nothing bothers me, so that is why I chose Big Bear,” said Alvarez of The Summit. “The high altitude is excellent. I am training very easily. I don’t have any worries. Nothing. My mind is just right there. I am not thinking nothing else.”
 
Gomez has been a part of Golden Boy Promotions since the beginning but more than that, he has been Oscar De La Hoya’s friend his whole life. He has seen it all being at the side of one of the most popular fighters of all time. I asked Gomez how he compares the two fighters at age 21.
 
“I think they’re right there,” compared Gomez. “Honestly, I think Saul has a little more [of a] following than Oscar did at that age, which is always great. I think they’re there. Oscar had that great amateur background. He fought a lot of tough guys in the amateurs and won a gold medal. Saul had over 50 fights as an amateur. It’s a little different but I think that [Alvarez] is coming into his own. I think that Saul right now still needs a lot of work. He’s only 21 but he might be a little more complete with both his hands because he has a very good left hook but he also has a very good right hand. But Oscar for the first part of his career [only had that jab and left hook].
 
A solid work ethic and an expanding bag of tools are only part of the equation here. To build a fighter, you need to match him well as he develops. You get him opponents with maybe one or two solid attributes to test him and bring out different parts of his game but it’s always a balancing act. This is boxing, where obviously anything can happen. Gomez points out, at some point, he will have to let loose the reins and see what he truly has in “Canelo.”
 
“He’s got a lot of skills. We’re just training him, developing him a little more. Obviously, I think this is a good fight for him with Gomez. It’s time to step it up. Little by little, start going after these bigger names,” said Gomez.
 
Recently, the WBC ordered a fight between the top two contenders to Alvarez’s belt, Alfredo Angulo and Vanes Martirosyan. Ultimately, Martirosyan turned down the offer to face Angulo. I asked Gomez what he thought of Alvarez someday facing the man known as “El Perro,” who also draws well in Mexico, in what could be an all-Mexican blockbuster sometime next year.
 
“Yeah, no- no, it’s fine. He’s ready,” said Gomez.
 
As an interview subject, Alvarez is a lot like Miguel Cotto. Neither man is what you’d call loquacious. They don’t like to discuss future fantasy fights nor do they like to discuss just what they plan to do against an opponent. At the L.A. press conference, right after a traffic videographer asked Alvarez for the millionth time about a fight with compatriot Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., I asked Alvarez what his least favorite question is.
 
“The Chavez Jr. question,” he said with a smile as he looked the videographer.
 
When pressed for the answer to question 1,000,001 about Junior up in Big Bear, Alvarez again replied, “I’m not focused on Angulo or Chavez Jr. I am focused on Gomez. I will fight whomever my promoter tells me to fight. I am not focused on Martirosyan or whoever. Right now, I am focused on Gomez.”
 
Still, Alvarez handles his fame with grace, humility and at times, a sense of humor.
 
When I asked Alvarez if he had studied Alfonso Gomez’s rap skills (in reference to Gomez’s profanity-laced rap to “Canelo” at the presser in L.A.), he smiled and said, “No. I don’t even care about it. I didn’t even pay attention. A lot of fighters talk different. Whatever he talks, they have to show up in the ring.”
 
So it’s safe to say we won’t see “‘Canelo’: the Album”?
 
“No,” Alvarez insisted through laughter.  
 
What we will see is a fighter who studies his opponent well and hopes to improve every time out. Alvarez studied four separate fights of Gomez for this fight, taking in both his best wins and his losses. When it came time to reveal what he learned, Alvarez was succinct but still kept his hand close to his chest.
 
“I know he has a big heart and he has a good chin,” explained Alvarez. “However, I don’t think it will be difficult especially next Saturday. I worked hard. He worked hard. It’s going to be a good fight.”
 
When I asked him what changes he had made to his game for this camp, Alvarez simply said, “I don’t want to talk too much. I just want to do my job. I am going to show my changes. Whatever I did is going to be good. It’s not going to be bad. Hopefully, all my condition and everything are going to be reflected on the 17th.”
 
Eric Gomez was quite open about the process of matchmaking and how he himself has grown over the years. He understands just what an important key to Alvarez’s continued success he will be just as “Canelo” will be a key component of the future of Golden Boy.
 
“It’s good,” said Gomez of his own development. “I have the best teacher in the world in Don Chargin. He’s given me so much advice and helped me out. A lot of it is trial and error. You have to live it. You have to breathe it day in and day out. You have your highs and you have your lows. Somewhere in between is where you find yourself. As a matchmaker, you don’t know. It’s trial and error and sometimes you are forced into fights. Sometimes you have to do fights for certain reasons and you are against them. Prime example was the [Marcos] Maidana fight. I was against that fight from day one when he fought Victor Ortiz. I was against that fight but because of HBO and pressure from Victor’s management that wanted to get paid. Victor needed to get paid and they didn’t want to let go of the date. That fight is a prime example. There’s a lot of things like that. There’s a lot of fights where behind the scenes, you are pressured to do them. You don’t want to do them but it happens to everybody. I’m sure Bruce Trampler, he didn’t want to do the Bernard fight with Pavlik but HBO pressured him to do it. That’s the only way you are going to get the date.”  
 
Gomez took a lot of lumps for putting the then-22-year-old Ortiz into an HBO main event with Marcos Maidana who had world championship fight experience. The result was a great fight but a terrible loss for Ortiz who has taken five fights and two years to rebuild from that moment. What people don’t credit Gomez with is how well he put the kid back together. The evidence of that might just be the fact that Ortiz is about to fight the best fighter in the world. While many don’t feel “Vicious” will win, no one ever expected him to be in this position, holding a WBC welterweight belt and fighting on a major PPV as the headliner.
 
Gomez talked about how sometimes he gets blamed for what fighters themselves ask for. A perfect example of that was this year’s Erik Morales vs. Maidana fight which many people called a massacre waiting to happen.
 
“The Morales fight, everyone was calling me a masochist or an executioner, sacrificing this legend,” said Gomez, “but sometimes the fighters know better. That was the second time that happened to me. Erik Morales told me, ‘I want Maidana. Get me that Maidana.’ I was against it in the beginning. When he explained it to me, how he was going to fight him and how he could beat him, he made me a believer. I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ That was the second time it ever happened to me. The first time was Shane Mosley when he fought [Antonio] Margarito. I was against that fight. Shane said, ‘Eric, I’m going to knock this guy out. Let’s do the fight. I know how to beat him. I know the combinations. I trained my whole life with Mexicans. I know his combinations. He’s slow. Methodical. Get me that fight.’ He was right.”
 
It will most likely be some time before Alvarez is telling Gomez who to match him against. For now, the two men and the company they work for look forward to Saturday night at Staples Center and Alfonso Gomez. Yes, the opponent is another career welterweight moving up in weight but he does present some tests. He can box and move and has experience. Unfortunately for Gomez, that pro experience includes getting blown out by Miguel Cotto in five rounds.
 
None of those pro-Gomez factors phase “Canelo.” Alvarez understands a loss is only around the corner should he fight down to his competition.
 
“Obviously a KO would be the best to close the show but if I am thinking of the KO, maybe it’s not going to come,” said Alvarez. “Let me work on it. Let me think on it. But like I said, to close the show with a KO would be superb.”
 
As for the criticism Alvarez receives for facing less than stellar opposition?
 
“I am not worried for anything. It’s my job to keep fighting,” Alvarez told me. “I am very focused on myself, my fight and everything. I am not focused on [stealing the show.] I am just focused on myself.”
 
Whether fight fans have to wait a year or two for Alvarez to face a top contender in his prime with the ability to beat the kid remains to be seen. For now, the roles are clear. Alvarez, ever cool, calm and collected, will do his thing in the ring while Gomez and company have their discussions, pore over opponents and worry about the decisions they make with their young star.
 
“I don’t look calm. I am calm because I am working very hard. That’s makes me feel very happy, very calm. When you train 100%, there is no problem,” said Alvarez.
 
If it were only that easy for the matchmakers.  
 
You can email Gabriel at maxgmontoya@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gabriel_montoya and catch him on each Monday’s episode of “The Next Round” with Steve Kim. You can also tune in to hear him and co-host David Duenez live on the BlogTalk radio show Leave-It-In-The-Ring.com, Thursdays at 5-8 PM PST. Gabriel is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.


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