LAS VEGAS — For months, I kept hearing about this freckle-faced teenager from Mexico who had been knocking grown men out cold. Sure, most of the men he was kayoing were never big stars, and were on the backstretch of their careers, but it’s still an accomplishment for a 17- or 18-year-old to be handling veteran professional boxers so easily.
He’d turned pro with no fanfare in almost complete anonymity as a 15-year-old. Before his 17th birthday, he was 19-0-1 with 15 knockouts. One of those wins was against a future world champion. Another was an 11th-round TKO over a 29-year-old who’d entered the bout with a 17-0-1 record.
Most 16-year-olds struggle to work up the courage to ask a girl out on a date, and this one was making an undefeated 29-year-old pro boxer quit on the stool.
The first time I laid eyes on him, it was a decade ago in a dilapidated section of Las Vegas. There was a gym above two businesses, one an auto repair shop and the other sold retread tires.
You had to wend your way through a maze of tires scattered about, past the car lift and climb a creaking, rickety pair of circular stairs which had cases of motor oil stacked on them to get to the gym.
There, I saw Canelo Alvarez for the first time.
He was 19 by then, a welterweight with a strong musculature and a baby-face covered by a mop of bright red hair. He didn’t spar that day and so it was impossible to tell whether he could really fight.
Boxing promoters are known for matching their guys favorably, especially one they think has promise, and so they’ll feed him a series of less-than-fearsome opponents. That’s why not all 20-0 records are equal, because one guy is beating up on legitimate opponents and another is just being fed table scraps.
He didn’t come up as a blue-chip prospect. He wasn’t signed out of the Olympics, or tagged as a can’t-miss bonus baby. He fought himself to the top.
And now, as he stands on the precipice of arguably his greatest achievement, claiming a world title in a fourth weight class, it’s fair to ask if, yes, Alvarez has been underrated.
He’s the face of boxing now, and no less an authority than Top Rank’s Bob Arum would say that. Arum has had a long and often bitter rivalry with Golden Boy Promotions, which promotes Alvarez, but ask him and he’ll rave about Alvarez now. Alvarez also is not too enthralled with the folks at Golden Boy, particularly its founder, Oscar De La Hoya, and he’s taken this fight with Sergey Kovalev in somewhat of an act of defiance.
DAZN, the online broadcaster that signed him to a mammoth deal in 2018 that would guarantee him at least $350 million, wanted him to fight Gennadiy Golovkin in September. It invested heavily in Golovkin, money it wouldn’t have spent had it known Alvarez would balk, because for as great of a fighter as Golovkin is, he can’t sell pay-per-views or subscriptions on his own. Put him with Alvarez and he does big business. Put him with anyone else and he does not.
But DAZN and John Skipper, its executive chairman, desperately wanted that third Alvarez-Golovkin fight. Golden Boy wanted it. Alvarez, though, wasn’t interested.
“That fight represents no challenge to me,” said Alvarez, who got a fortunate draw in their first encounter and then won a close fight in the rematch.
Alvarez, instead, was focused on making history, and so he challenged Kovalev for the WBO light heavyweight title, a fight that will go down on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, DAZN) at the MGM Grand Garden. He’d already won championships at 154, 160 and 168 pounds, and wanted to become only the 20th fighter in the sport’s history to win a belt in four separate weight classes.
He gets so much attention, and he makes so much money, that to think that he’s underrated is almost ludicrous. By this point, he’s built the type of résumé that suggests he’s not just one of the elite fighters in the world now, he’s one of the best fighters who ever lived.
Clearly, this is a guy who deserves to be considered among the Top 100 fighters who ever lived. Before it’s all said and done, he may be among the Top 50.
He’s a guy who would have been successful in every era. For my money, far and away the greatest fighter who ever lived was Sugar Ray Robinson. But Robinson, for all his greatness, once lost to Carmen Basilio.
Now, Basilio himself is a Hall of Famer, and was as tough as they come. But if you could transport Alvarez to the 1950s, it’s not hard to think he’d have been competitive with, and perhaps beaten, Basilio at 154 or 160. And while Robinson would have been a handful for Alvarez because of his tremendous speed, quickness and power, he’d have been a handful for anyone. While Alvarez wouldn’t have beaten Robinson, that says more about Robinson than it does about Alvarez, and Alvarez would not have been embarrassed.
Alvarez has a chin that ranks among the best ever. He’s rarely been rocked, and he went 24 rounds with Golovkin, a notoriously heavy hitter, and not only didn’t go down, but he was never in trouble.
He’s not a blazing speedster like Floyd Mayweather, the only man to defeat him, but he’s quick enough to deal with just about anyone he’d face. He’s not a massive knockout puncher, but he hits hard enough that there are many who expect he’ll stop Kovalev with a body shot.
Alvarez isn’t regarded widely as the pound-for-pound best in the world — he’s ranked No. 3 by Yahoo Sports, ESPN and The Ring, with Terence Crawford and Vasiliy Lomachenko in some order the two ahead of him — though he believes he should be.
“I’ve done better than they have," Alvarez said of Crawford and Lomachenko. “I’ve done things that are better than they have done. It’s never really not allowed me to get to sleep to not be No. 1 pound-for-pound because at the end of the day, it’s somebody who puts you there.”
He has the résumé to be No. 1. But it’s a greater step to be considered among the all-time elite of the elite, and it’s obvious that Alvarez belongs in that kind of company.
He was taken apart by Mayweather in 2013 when he was clearly not ready for that level of a fighter. This isn’t to say a prime Alvarez would have beaten a prime Mayweather, but there is little doubt a bout between them during their primes would have been vastly more competitive than the one they had.
Alvarez is in many ways like Manny Pacquiao, who has always sought the best challenges. Pacquiao is a legend precisely because, like Alvarez is doing with Kovalev, at 40 he sought out an unbeaten and in-his-prime Keith Thurman, and then went out and knocked him down and clearly won the fight.
Pacquiao did that throughout his career, and so has Alvarez.
Alvarez is one of the greatest fighters of his era, but he’s also one of the greatest ever, period. We sometimes forget that because we get distracted by the many problems that boxing faces.
But Canelo Alvarez is the real deal, and you’re missing out when you don’t take advantage of every opportunity to see him.
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