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Saul “Canelo” Alvarez Prepares to Begin His Title Reign

Saul Alvarez
Saul Alvarez

Whomever said “Boxing is dead” in the past decade or so had better get a look at WBC middleweight and junior middleweight titleholders Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. The 25 and 20-year-old fighters, respectively, hail from Mexico with large loyal followers, raw skills, talent, and the backing of the top two North American promoters in Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions. Chavez Jr. was just crowned a titleholder two weeks ago on HBO in Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA. Alvarez picked his strap up earlier this year in a 150-pound catchweight fight against British welterweight Matthew Hatton in Anaheim, CA. Both men draw well (Chavez, Jr. did about 6-7,000 at Staples) to extremely well (Alvarez brought 11-12,000 to the Honda Center in March) in person and even better on television (Chavez Jr. scored a 1.5 million viewership on HBO). Alvarez not only does well on HBO; he regularly kills it on Mexican TV, outdrawing, according to Golden Boy, the top soccer team there. While both men have been moved to hold the WBC title “champion” too soon in the opinion of several boxing writers and fans, there is no question; barring a blowout knockout loss from out of nowhere, Junior and “Canelo” factor heavily in the immediate future of our sport. Whether or not they will succeed when they face an elite opponent remains to be seen.

A rivalry might soon be born here if they continue to win. Chavez Jr. just did great numbers on HBO in Los Angeles. Now it is Alvarez’s turn. This weekend, Alvarez takes on British junior middleweight Ryan Rhodes, who has been the mandatory challenger for this belt since 2009. The bout will take place in Guadalajara, MX and broadcast on HBO. It is not only a big step up in terms of class but also the beginning of what will likely be a long series of “Anything you can do, I can do better” fights between the two young men. Chavez Jr. just made his HBO headlining debut and came through with flying colors. Now “Canelo” gets his chance to show he is the bigger star.


“It’s a dream come true,” Alvarez said recently on a conference call. “I’m very excited, I’m very happy to be able to defend my title in my home country, in front of my people, my public in Guadalajara and the people from Guadalajara they’ve supported me since day one.”


If there is a difference between Alvarez and Chavez Jr., it lies in the work ethic department. Alvarez is a very different fighter than most standard-issue Mexican fighters who are aggressive at all costs, more the pressure counterpuncher, who does it with combinations. He is best at mid-to-short-range. However, at long distance, he is a bit lost. The boxing gods gave him the red hair and pale skin that drive his fans crazy but shortchanged him on foot speed, smooth upper body movement, and one-punch knockout power. Work ethic is something Alvarez is also gifted with and he exhibits that not just in the gym but by familiarizing himself with his opponents through watching tape.


“I’m very familiar with Ryan. I know that he’s a very strong fighter. He’s got great ring generalship. He’s a fighter that likes to switch it up from time-to-time, right-handed/left-handed,” said Alvarez. “It looks like it’s going to be a difficult fight. I know he’s a very, very strong fighter. He’s got a big punch. He likes to switch up a little bit. That’s a little awkward and he’s lefty. So more than anything, I’ve just got to be very careful with that. I think that he’s got a big punch and that’s what we’re working on.” 


Alvarez is a prized fighter in the Golden Boy stable. He is arguably the most legit draw they have next to Amir Khan, when the latter fights in the UK. At only 20 but already a burgeoning star, Alvarez is their present and future. As such, they have done something a little different with their fighter this time, taking him to veteran trainer Abel Sanchez’s Summit High Altitude Training Center in Big Bear, CA. Alvarez was already working with his trainer Eddy Reynoso in Mexico for about four weeks when he began training at the Summit at 165 pounds and in solid shape, according to Sanchez, who was been brought in as a consultant for Alvarez’ six-and-a-half week training camp there. The camp was Alvarez’s first training camp away from his home gym in Mexico.


“[I felt] very good up in Big Bear,” Alvarez said. “At first, it was a little tough getting used to the altitude. The first couple of days I had problems breathing but I’ve adapted now. I’ve become stronger. The sparring sessions were very good. I got good sparring partners.”


Alvarez spent about a week sparring Craig McEwan and the rest of camp working with WBA middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, who fights this weekend against Kassim Ouma in Panama. “[Alvarez] improved all facets of his game,” Sanchez told me, “his speed, strength, stamina and power.”


Alvarez needs to have done all that considering he faded a bit in his last fight against Hatton, which opened up Alvarez’s defense and left him vulnerable to counters and combinations. Had Hatton any power at all, Alvarez would have been in serious trouble. Against an experienced fighter like Rhodes, he that can’t happen again.


“Rhodes is a very strong, hard-punching, experienced, switch-hitting middleweight coming down to junior middleweight but ‘Canelo’ is on a different level,” said Sanchez. “His stay in Big Bear Lake has converted him into a different fighter. His speed, strength, power and, most of all, confidence will break Rhodes down. ‘Canelo’ will punish and stop Rhodes in the championship rounds.”


If Alvarez draws in the 11-12,000 people range in Anaheim, in Mexico he’ll draw extremely well. Golden Boy matchmaker Eric Gomez estimated that for Alvarez’s December fight against Lovemore N’dou in Vera Cruz, MX the crowd was 35-40,000 strong.  


Why is he such a big star in Mexico? Well, there is a theory to that. Unlike his counterpart, Chavez, Jr., Alvarez was not born into boxing royalty but rather with an unusual trait that makes him memorable. “Canelo” means “cinnamon” in Spanish, a reference to the red hair and freckled, pale skin of Alvarez. In short, he looks like a white guy but fights with the heart of the Mexican he is.


“And I’ve always said this – the first time you see him fight, you’ll always remember him,” said Gomez. “You’ll always remember him and you’ll see him again and you’ll say, ‘Yes, I’ve seen that redhead kid before.’ So that has a lot to do with it as well. It’s something that’s different, something that we’re not used to seeing, especially in a Mexican kid. You know, Saul looks Irish. He looks Irish, so I think that has a lot to do with it.”


To hear Alvarez tell it, yes, his red hair helps but his skills and winning ways keep him on the upward swing.


“I feel that my boxing has really taken me to the top and [fans] really appreciate the way I fight and the way I box. You know, yes, it’s a combination,” Alvarez admitted. “It has something to do with the hair. People like it but they’re not just going to follow me because I have red hair. I feel that I can back it up because I can fight as well and at the end of the day, the bottom line is the boxing skills. And I’ve been winning.”


Winning will be everything if Alvarez and Chavez Jr., along with Golden Boy and Top Rank, can someday cash in on what will possibly be the biggest Mexico vs. Mexico fight in history. Like them, love them, or loathe them for their hair or names, these two fighters are here to stay and will make big-time ratings and cash for their respective companies.


Not just yet, says Alvarez. First things first.


“You know, in the future, we can talk about that, possibly in the future,” said Alvarez of a match-up with Chavez Jr. “Right now, I’ve got other things on my mind. I’m concentrating about this fight and we’re in different weight classes as well, so maybe sometime in the future if something can be worked out. This is a very tough fight. Ryan Rhodes is a tough customer and we got to get past this fight. There’s nothing written in stone, so after this fight, if everything comes out okay, then we’ll sit down and talk. We’re concentrating on Ryan Rhodes and it’s a big obstacle.


Rhodes has been down in Mexico for the past three weeks, finishing his sparring and tapering to peak on fight night, appearing very motivated for the fight. Alvarez has barely been in Mexico for a week, though the altitude training will help make his acclimation process easier as he is dropping a mere thousand feet and change. Experience does play a factor here as Rhodes has been in front of big crowds before, fought for a title, been knocked out and then battled back to go on a long win streak heading into this bout. At 34, Rhodes has seen it all while “Canelo” is just scratching the surface of experience.


“Look, even though I’m young, I have a lot of experience. I have a lot of fights as well,” said Alvarez, who is 36-0-1 with 26 knockouts to Rhodes’ 45-4 with 31 knockouts. “So I have some experience as well but look, I’m going to be ready for anything. Those first couple rounds, I’m going to be ready; I’m going to see what he brings to the table and I’ll be able to capitalize.”


To Abel Sanchez, the fight will come down to class level and he believes he has the fighter of a higher caliber.


“Once Rhodes feels the difference in levels and starts running, it will be ‘Canelo’ by late referee stoppage,” predicted Sanchez. “If Rhodes gets brave, [Alvarez wins via] dramatic KO, mid-rounds.”


However it goes, thus begins the 154-pound title reign of Saul Alvarez. With a step-up opponent like Rhodes, who is hungry for one last shot at the title and experienced enough to go after it, this first defense is anything but soft. Saturday night, we will find out just exactly what Saul Alvarez has going for him besides his looks.


“Ryan Rhodes is the official mandatory and not just anybody gets that title. You have to earn it to become the mandatory,” said Alvarez without a hint of irony, “so I feel that he’s a very good fighter. It’s going to be a tough test but I’m ready for that and that’s what I’ve been training for. I think it’s going to be a tough fight. It’s going to be a very, very tough fight but I think that whoever prepares better is going to win and we’ll see up in the ring. It’s going to be a tough fight, so I’m not leaving anything on statistics or anything on paper. Whoever prepares best is going to win.”


You can email Gabriel at, follow him on Twitter at 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, Thursdays at 5-8 PM PST. Gabriel is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

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