SOMEONE once said he looks Irish, acts American and fights Mexican. His appearance has always meant Saul Alvarez has stood out from the crowd. When you turn professional in Mexico you are one of many, whether you are only 15 years old or not. What might set you apart from the others in the barrios could be pale skin, freckles and a sharp red haircut.
They call him “El Canelo”, Spanish for cinnamon, a nickname he has had since he turned 13. The blistering-red crop comes from his mother. The olive skin and jet-black hair of a Marco Antonio Barrera, Julio Cesar Chavez or Erik Morales is nowhere to be found on Alvarez. But it was not long before his fighting prowess focused the attention of those in the trade rather than his unusual Hispanic looks.
Alvarez has made inroads into the American market, a platform promoters Golden Boy can see him cracking before long. There is a buzz surrounding Alvarez. There are a lot of believers out there and the composed young man is being backed to the hilt.
His exciting style, fierce high-tempo punching and classical bodywork have magnetised a tremendous following. It might be an increasingly hard thing to do for a boxer in this day and age but Alvarez has crossed over into the mainstream in Mexico, an astonishing feat for one so young.
“We feel ‘Canelo’ can be the next great Mexican hero following Julio Cesar Chavez and the greats,” reckons his promoter Oscar De La Hoya. “He has the popularity now in Mexico. This kid has a rock star following. It made me realise I am retired – and that nobody cares about me anymore – because when all of the girls were following him I was left behind and getting trampled on. I thought ‘Wow, this kid. He’s the next guy’.”
Alvarez grew up on a farm and still enjoys horse-riding. His father now runs three ice-cream parlours in Guadalajara. The hype has been never-ending around the youngster, yet it has not appeared to fluster him one bit. He answers questions with the poise of an old hand and cracks a joke once in a while to show he does not take himself too seriously.
There is a growing band of followers who think Saul is ‘The One’ to bring the Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather Jnr era to a close.
For a long time he has craved a shot at one of the top guns. “To be the best you’ve got to beat the best," he said. “I would have to work on being fast. Styles make fights.”
“At 19-20 years of age he was doing things that I would never have dreamed of doing; things that Julio Cesar Chavez would never have dreamed of doing,” gushes De La Hoya. “The things he’s doing now, the feints and the ring generalship... He’s not just a face-first type of fighter who has good power and a good chin. He’s a very smart fighter. He’s a thinker.”
Yet it is Alvarez’s passion for crowd-pleasing violence that has endeared him to his people. The reason they love him is brutally simple. “I feel it’s the way I fight,” he states, trying to explain his popularity. “It’s also my skills and the knockouts. I’ve had some pretty spectacular knockouts.”
Few have caught the eye as much as the right hand-left hook that astonishingly knocked granite-chinned Argentine hardman Baldomir flat on his face in 2010.
Thirty-six professional contests (35 wins against one draw) by the age of 20 does not happen often these days. Saul dropped out of high school to focus on fighting but always knew he was handy with his fists.
“It’s very natural for me,” he explains, stating the obvious. “I feel that I was born for this, even before I started boxing I got into fights and I did very well. I was born to do it. It’s something that’s within me. I’m just very focused and when I focus on something I want I get it.”
He believes what people are saying, that he is a prodigy. It fuels his desire to be 'The next big star'.
“He wants to become a superstar,” continues Oscar. “With the way he has captured the Mexican hearts, he wants to become something special here in the States. He recognises that his English is going to be very important. Obviously he has skills and he’s continuing to work on them and he’s progressing and learning. He’s motivated but there’s no rush with him.”
Golden Boy has pushed a handful of prospects too hard too soon. After matching the likes of Danny Jacobs and Victor Ortiz against comparative no-hopers they were not ready when the step-up in class came. The expectation seems to help Alvarez tick. He likes to be adored. He cultivates the rock star image. And the hunger is there. That important ingredient – easily born but hard to maintain – burns within him. The Latino fire and desire shines brightly through his unusual features.
He sees his status in Mexico, the fans and the faith they have in him as driving factors rather than things that could see the pressure get to him.
And he is unfazed by De La Hoya’s lofty praise.
“I really see him as a mix of Chavez and me,” Oscar continues. “He has the courage the desire, he’s a proud Mexican, he’s a good-looking kid, he has the following so it’s like a mix of Chavez and I.”
“It motivates me, not just to try to be like them but to surpass them and make my own name,” smiles Alvarez, who idolised both Chavez and De La Hoya while also appreciating the many qualities of Miguel Cotto.
The youngest of seven brothers, all professionals with boot-polish black hair, like their father – they have all boxed on the same card once – Alvarez has put every faith into Golden Boy for looking after his career. “I will fight with anyone, whoever my team tells me to fight.”
De La Hoya has offered him help coping with the trappings of fame and celebrity that seem to be hurtling towards “El Canelo”. “My advice would be, ‘Don’t do what I did. Don’t chase the women, don’t go out partying,’ smiles Oscar. “I mean, it shaved four years off my career. At least four years. Imagine if I didn’t drink and I didn’t go out partying. But he’s a very disciplined fighter, he knows what he wants and he knows he can go very far.”
Alvarez already has come quite a way. He turned pro in 2005 and in only his third fight was matched with debutant Miguel Vazquez, later the IBF lightweight champion. Saul won on a split decision over four rounds and outpointed Vazquez over 10 later in their careers. Two fights after the first Vazquez clash Saul drew with Jorge Juarez, again over four.
That’s the only blemish on his ledger and veteran West Coast promoter Don Chargin, who is involved with Alvarez, has no doubts the 20-year-old is heading to the top.
“The improvement in each fight has been very noticeable,” Chargin adds. “I like his development. That hook to the liver, that famous Mexican shot, and as he goes on he’s getting to be more and more of a body puncher. He’s a terrific body puncher.”
Chargin likened him to another Mexican star who based himself in California, Mando Ramos, whose career was virtually over at just 23, mostly thanks to a wild partying lifestyle he opted to lead and an inherent lack of discipline. “There was nothing Ramos lacked but he didn’t want to behave,” said Chargin.
We are told Alvarez does. His trainer Eddy Reynoso insists the celebrity image and immense popularity will not distract Alvarez from his goals.
“He’s always been very disciplined,” Reynoso says. “I don’t think we will have a problem with that. He’s a very disciplined fighter and a disciplined kid. When bigger fights come he will be even more focused on the challenges.”
One day Alvarez could join Chavez Snr the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota one day. The pressure is on him to achieve but he has no intention of letting his nation down.
“I spoke to people in Mexico to see why they are following [him],” De La Hoya explains. “And they said, ‘Because he’s our hope. That’s why we follow him.’ The Mexican boxing fans aren’t dummies. They know talent when they see it.”