BACK in July of last year, Mexican superstar Canelo Alvarez and his team travelled to London for a press conference to promote his fight with Liam Smith. Despite Smith’s bravery in Texas, Canelo would go on to stop the Liverpudlian in nine rounds in front of a record-setting crowd of 51,000. This is our account of when boxing’s biggest attraction came to London.
Note: This feature originally appeared in an issue of Boxing News magazine. To subscribe, click here.
July 20, 2016:
MY first glimpse of Canelo Alvarez in the flesh is an underwhelming one. It occurs as I stroll through the elegant foyer of the Landmark Hotel in Marylebone, distracted by its extravagance when my colleague, Nick Bond, points to my two o’clock and says “there’s Canelo.”
It takes me a while to spot him; his broad back to us, flanked by his trainers Chepo and Eddy Reynoso while posing for a photo on the mezzanine. I was looking for a mop of red hair, the Mexican’s main idiosyncrasy, but instead he looks like more of a brunette in this light which, for some reason, disappoints me. The magnetic gravity which superstars supposedly possess doesn’t seem apparent, at least not from this distance. Maybe he hasn’t switched it on yet.
We eventually find ourselves in the hotel’s ballroom, where the press conference to formally announce Canelo’s surprise fight with WBO world super-welterweight champion Liam Smith is being held.
Shortly after we find our seats, a beaming Oscar De La Hoya emerges from behind the top table’s backdrop, shaking hands and drawing attention from every pair of eyes in the room as he wanders through it with no obvious objective.
He disappears, then pops back up on the stage where he is soon joined by Canelo, Smith and their respective teams, who file into their seats as a hush descends. The press conference is standard fare – a great fight is promised, a few laughs are had, and Canelo and De La Hoya field questions about Gennady Golovkin.
It’s a serious slight to Smith, an unbeaten champion [at the time] who is being grossly overlooked by certain sections of the media, particularly those in America. Indeed, someone even asks De La Hoya straight out: “When is the fight with Golovkin happening?”
Smith cuts in: “It’s not.”
Alvarez himself barely speaks during the press conference, instead sitting back in his chair, a slight pout on his lips, while surveying the throng of reporters who have turned out. It’s a swelteringly hot day, but there’s not a bead of sweat on Canelo. Despite being only 26, he takes everything in his stride – he has, of course, been on much grander stages than this, having fought Floyd Mayweather in what was then the richest fight in history and only last year outpointing the great Miguel Cotto in a mouth-watering clash. He is the biggest draw in the sport – his fight with Cotto drew more pay-per-view buys in America than Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao’s alleged swansongs combined. That could all change now that Pacquiao has confirmed he will end his short-lived retirement in November.
When a verbal answer isn’t required, he addresses most obligations with a curt nod – except his head to head with Smith, for which he produces the thousand-yard stare he has perfected over an 11-year career.
Eventually, he’s whisked off to a private room where he will hold court with a smaller group of writers, a privileged bunch of which I’m a part. Once I make it there, Canelo is sat at the head of a table with his translator, the sole focus of the reporters sat round it.
Fortunately, there’s a free seat right next to Alvarez and as I plonk myself down in it, the magnetism which I thought was lacking earlier in the foyer suddenly draws me in. His immaculately styled hair is suitably ginger and sits atop a face fit for Hollywood with a jawline you could cut your finger on. His tree trunk neck threatens to burst out of the collar of his pink shirt while his meaty arms sit inside a well-tailored purple suit that would make Lloyd Honeyghan proud. At the end of them are abnormally large mitts and I feel a pang of sympathy for Amir Khan when I notice them and a peculiar sense of insignificance when I glance down at my own smaller hands.
Everyone in the room – even his own team – is hanging on to every Spanish word that rolls off his tongue, despite the majority of us not being able to understand it.
“154lbs is my weight,” he says. “I’m taking care of my career step by step and I’m going in the direction I’m going, the direction of my career, not the direction of any other fighter. Right now, it’s 154 and eventually I’ll get there  but it’ll be at my pace and in my time because it’s my career.”
He is of course addressing the issue of dropping back to super-welterweight after claiming the WBC middleweight title by fighting at 155lb catchweights, despite asking for time to acclimate to 160lbs in preparation for a monster fight with Golovkin.
While he’s not yet a fully-fledged middleweight, there’s not a chance in Guadalajara that the imposing figure sat in front of us can comfortably make 154lbs. His fight with Smith has been panned in America, partly due to Smith’s non-status over there and also down to the fact the Liverpudlian is not Golovkin.
“There’s always negative criticism out there, especially in this case,” Canelo says.
“Just because no one really knows his name, he’s not a big name in the United States, it doesn’t mean he’s a bad fighter. There are always going to be critics who put people down, put him down. We’re going to fight and, come September 17, see if he’s the fighter he says he is.
“I’ve seen a couple of his recent fights, his style is a come forward style. He takes punches really well, he’s very strong, very powerful and he likes to fight. It’s going to be a great fight.”
Despite the fervent criticism, Alvarez could be on the money with that prediction. To the uninitiated, Smith is just a holder of another world title for Canelo to gobble up, however those that are familiar with Liam know he is a class operator, and not dissimilar to Canelo in terms of style. In fact, Freddie Roach has openly admitted he turned Smith down as an opponent for Cotto, deeming him “too dangerous.”
That being said, this promotion – in America, at least – could prove to be an uphill battle. Not only is the fight on pay-per-view in the States, it will take place at the gargantuan AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The cavernous venue can hold around 100,000 spectators for a boxing event, and how many of those seats get sold will tell us a lot about just how big of a draw the Mexican is.
One key step to building Canelo’s brand – which has had sportswear giant Under Armour on board for several years already – is overcoming language barriers.
Though we need the translator to relay Canelo’s answers, the former two-weight world ruler doesn’t require those services for our questions – he understands English very well. The problem, for him, is that speaking it fluently is much harder. Alvarez is a perfectionist, and one gets the feeling that he won’t start publicly speaking in English until he can comfortably recite the works of William Shakespeare in it.
He’s been taking lessons for a while and, when pushed to, treats us to a taste of the fruits of his labour.
“It’s getting better, it’s getting better. I understand a lot but it’s very difficult to speak, but little by little,” he says in unbroken English.
He switches back to his native tongue to discuss the importance of learning ours, insisting that it is very important for his profile. Plenty of other fighters before him, including Cotto, Wladimir Klitschko and Manny Pacquiao, have seen their stock skyrocket after learning English.
A few moments later, we’re given another nugget of English. As Canelo picks up a mobile phone buried in the bundle of Dictaphones laid out in front of him, he quickly realises that it’s not his own but a reporter’s, who is using it to record the interview.
“Nice phone,” he chuckles, before picking up his own identical mobile and checking the time.
Mexico stops what it’s doing whenever – and whoever – Alvarez fights, though that’s not to say the boxing-crazed country, which has produced some of the sport’s greatest ever exponents, will be happy regardless of Canelo’s opponent.
Right now, he’s a rock star in his homeland, but does not yet enjoy the iconic status fighters like Julio Cesar Chavez and Juan Manuel Marquez hold.
“The rankings, the reporters make the rankings. There are so many great legendary Mexican fighters out there and I never like to answer that question about the rankings, it’s up to the reporters to decide and the fans and I leave that to the boxing writers,” he says in response to a query over how he feels he is ranked against his compatriots, past and present.
“I don’t know where they rank me, to be honest I don’t pay too much attention to it, I just dedicate myself to training, being in the gym, fighting, but we’ll find out at the end of my career.
“Only time will tell, in the sport of boxing you never know. I have high hopes for a long career, maybe nine [more] years, that’s my goal, but you never know.”
It’s easy to forget he’s only 26. He has a worldly presence, understandable given his experiences; he turned professional at 15, was a father at 17 and since then has amassed millions of dollars and relocated to a beautiful home in San Diego, California.
He’s also fought some of the best fighters in and around his weight but, as is so often the case, that’s never enough. There’s a Kazakh elephant in the room.
Ever since HBO have picked up on his destructive talents, Golovkin has laid siege to Canelo’s star status, banging the drum for a superfight with the Mexican with each concussive blow he lands on his victims.
‘GGG’ is even building a decent fan base in Mexico, with TV network Azteca – rivals to Televisa, the powerful network who have broadcast the majority of Canelo’s career – picking up his fights.
Canelo knows he has to fight Golovkin.
“It’s going to happen, it’s a fight that has to happen, I want it to happen, the world wants it to happen. It’s just a matter of when it’s going to happen, it will happen soon and sooner rather than later,” he says.
“My fans are going to support me through thick and thin, 100 per cent they’ll always support me. There’s a group of fans that are criticising me but my fans are there – that group of fans criticising me don’t concern me.”
It’s one of boxing’s cruellest traditions for one fight to be completely overlooked because of a bigger, shinier one. Mayweather and Pacquiao both dealt with it for years until they finally fought each other in 2015, both past their best but cashing in a stupendous amount of money in the process.
Canelo must get past Smith and Golovkin fights Kell Brook a week before – they are both heavy favourites, but they are both also running the risk of creating an unwanted Mayweather-Pacquiao sequel in which we all have to wait years before they finally enter the same ring as adversaries.
So far, Canelo and his team have taken the brunt of the blame for the fight having not happened yet. Straight after he flattened Khan in May, Canelo beckoned Golovkin – who was ringside – into the ring. The boxing world let out a collective gasp as it looked like the next huge, stonking superfight was unfolding before our eyes. “Like we say in Mexico; we don’t f*** around, I’ll fight him now!” an adrenaline-fuelled Canelo barked (through an interpreter).
A few weeks later, Canelo vacated the WBC middleweight title he had defended against Khan and for which Golovkin was the mandatory challenger. The fight seemed further away than ever.
“The critics out there are going to use their power to try and make the fight, with good comments or bad comments, or criticising me for the fight not coming across,” Canelo says.
“Big fights like this take time, negotiations take time, there are things behind the negotiation table that we need to get together and come across. Especially with the WBC organisation, they wanted to put in a timeline and their rules and input into the negotiation – this is a negotiation between promoters and fighters, not with the WBC, they can’t dictate and try and pressure me into this fight as soon as possible when I had other things to take care of in my personal life.”
In June, after a lengthy court battle, Alvarez was ordered to pay $8.5million to his former promoters, All Star Boxing. They claimed Alvarez breached a contract he had with them by jumping ship to Golden Boy, but the jury found that no such contract existed. Peculiarly, they still turned in a verdict that requires Canelo to hand over a hefty sum – though at this stage his legal team plan to lodge an appeal.
“We spent 24 days in Miami until we finalised the case,” he continues.
“Why do the WBC have to put on a timeline? There’s no reason for them to dictate anything in the negotiations for a fight or a fighter, there’s the belt but my personal issues were in court, we were in court for 24 days and first things first.”
That means squat to fans. In their profession, boxers risk a lot. However for most, they’re expected to risk everything and Canelo’s decision to can the WBC title – so intrinsically linked to his country – wounded his image. Such are the demands of his status; anything other than signing to fight the best in the world is seen as cowardice.
September 2017 is the mooted date for the Golovkin fight, though some observers remain sceptical despite Canelo’s assurances. There would be a large question mark over his career if he never fights Golovkin, but Canelo does not feel his standing in the sport relies on his facing ‘GGG’.
“I’m 26 years old, I’ve fought some of the best fighters in the world out there, every fight I’m making history. He’s the older fighter and he hasn’t fought anybody, he’s the one who has to worry about his legacy, I don’t have to worry about mine.
“The fight’s going to happen, it has to happen, but he hasn’t fought anybody so why would you put ‘GGG’ in the history books if he hasn’t fought anybody? Why would fighting ‘GGG’ make someone a Hall of Famer when he hasn’t fought anybody?”
There is a unique aura about Canelo which, perhaps, is only carried by boxers. In our marginalised world, he’s a bone fide star who has reporters, fans and even other fighters scrambling for their camera phones to get a photo with him. Outside of that bubble, it’s a different story.
As he leaves the meeting room where we’ve just spent around 30 minutes in his company, he is ferried over to the top of a flight of stairs where a menagerie of video journalists have been flocked, waiting their turn. There’s no time for one on ones – he is Canelo Alvarez, after all – so it turns into a huddle in which the Mexican is talking into well over a dozen camera lenses, looking more like a head of state than a paid puncher.
Across the mezzanine is the seating area for one of the hotel’s numerous restaurants. I glance over and notice that none of the various businessmen, mothers with their children or young families enjoying their immaculately prepared brunches are paying any mind to the media scrabble occurring just a few metres away. Perhaps they’re used to it, or would just rather focus on the pianist tickling the ivories of a gloriously white piano sat on a balcony overlooking the hotel’s entrance.
He may not yet be the crossover superstar De La Hoya constantly claims him to be, but Canelo is boxing’s golden boy and has time on his side.