Anyone unfamiliar with the business end of professional boxing would be well-served watching the 1996 satire The Great White Hype. In the film, Samuel L. Jackson plays flamboyant Fred Sultan, a promoter who has run out of credible opponents worthy enough to fight James Roper, his dominant heavyweight champion. So what does Jackson’s character do? He creates one.
To generate public interest in Roper’s title bout with unknown Terry Conklin, Sultan portrays the challenger to the media as a humble everyman with a heart of gold. He then illicitly manipulates the rankings chairman into propelling Conklin into the top slot despite a nonexistent pro career, and even plays on racial tensions by fabricating the newcomer’s Irish heritage. (“I’m not Irish,” Conklin incredulously pleads throughout the movie as a running joke.)
It works. By fight night, rabid green-clad fans fill the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas to the rafters, pay-per-view records are shattered, and everyone is bamboozled into believing Conklin actually has a legitimate shot to dethrone Roper—that is, until (sorry, spoiler alert) one right hand from the champ takes the sting out of Conklin’s buzz in the very first round.
Perhaps it’s fitting—ironic, at least—that Saturday’s showdown between Floyd “Money” Mayweather and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez will occur at the same venue. A massive throng of partisans in green (and white and red) has inundated Vegas to support a relatively untested Mexican with European facial features. The gate has already done record numbers, and the pay-per-view revenue is expected to approach them as well.
Will life imitate art, or is the boxing world in for a Hollywood ending of a different kind this weekend? Three questions come to the forefront.
1. First and foremost, can “Canelo” fight?
Alvarez is no Conklin in that regard, so the short answer is yes. The long answer, however, involves a few more contingencies.
Sporting an official record of 42-0-1 with 30 knockouts, it’s easy to forget that Alvarez is merely 23 years old. With deceptive quickness, a rib-cracking left hook, and a mighty right hand, the youngster has simply overwhelmed foes who have unwisely chosen to fight fire with fire.
“My counter-punching is going to help [against Mayweather]. It's going to be an important factor, but it's going to be an all-around thing,” said Alvarez, who fights with the demeanor of an even-keeled poker player. “Obviously, pressure as well…but you know, smart pressure. [I’m] going in there not careless, but being very smart about it.”
But as precocious as Alvarez might be, his handlers have brought him along slowly. After impressive performances against aging former champ Shane Mosley and a gutsy-but-undersized Josesito Lopez in 2012, it’s arguable that the phenom’s first true “50-50” fight was his last one—a unanimous decision over crafty southpaw Austin Trout in April for the unified junior middleweight title that was closer than the judges’ scorecards would indicate.
As a result, Alvarez must deflect doubts that he’s too green for Mayweather (44-0, 26 KOs), a fighter universally recognized as the best in the world regardless of weight class. In a way, Alvarez is going from defending boxing’s equivalent of an All-Star like Joe Johnson to going one-on-one with a transcendent legend in Michael Jordan.
“I think that any fighter at any given point can land and hurt anybody,” Alvarez said. “You know that's why you have to be ready and you have to look out for that. If you get caught by something solid by any fighter, I'm sure that you can get hurt.”
One thing’s for certain; the kid whose Spanish nickname “Canelo” is derived from his cinnamon-red locks can sure draw a crowd. His pale skin and freckled face presents quite a novelty in Mexico, where Televisa, which owns 73 percent of the television market share, has fed his story to the masses.
From his humble origins in the tiny town of Juanacatlán to his subsequent sharp rise to prominence (which even included a well-publicized romance with a Televisa reporter), the Mexican public has treated his life like a novela, showering him with the type of adulation that made Oscar De La Hoya a superstar in America two decades ago.
No less than 40,000 fans stuffed San Antonio’s Alamodome for his win over Trout, a statistic that gave his promotional team at Golden Boy—whose president is none other than De La Hoya himself—enough juice with the Showtime brass to make the Mayweather fight a reality.
“You have a young guy in Saul who is like a seasoned veteran,” said De La Hoya, who will not attend the fight after checking himself into a drug treatment facility earlier this week. “People have hope and people strongly feel that Mayweather is going to get beat.”
2. Is this the night Father Time finally catches up to Floyd?
At some point in any athlete’s career, his prime concludes. For boxers, that moment can come suddenly and painfully, as exhibited by the brutal knockouts suffered by former pound-for-pound kings Roy Jones Jr. and Manny Pacquiao in recent memory.
“He's a fighter that maintains himself very well,” Alvarez said. “He takes care of himself and I still think that he's at his peak. So, no, not at all. I don't think that he's lost anything. I think that he's still there. He's still Mayweather.”
There is no way to truly determine whether the 36-year-old Mayweather’s physical gifts have deteriorated until Saturday. The Las Vegas resident showed no signs of slowing down against Gilroy’s Robert Guerrero in May, when he returned from a two-month jail sentence to outfox the South Bay southpaw with his impenetrable Rubik’s Cube of a shoulder-roll defense and garden variety of right hands.
“I wasn't impressed with my fight against Robert. It's probably because I took over a year off, but I think I'll be a lot sharper this fight because I got right back into the groove of things,” Mayweather said.
Alvarez, a 2-to-1 underdog, is banking on his youth as an asset instead of a liability. Rather than wait for Mayweather’s shelf life to depreciate by facing him next year, he has taken aim for the throne now, a move both admirable—and possibly foolish.
“Sometimes when there’s pressure, a guy fights better; he competes better,” Mayweather said. “We don't really know [about Alvarez]. We have to see how the fight plays out. Hopefully the pressure and everything that's surrounding the event makes him fight better.”
At Wednesday’s final press conference, Mayweather continued to question Alvarez’s readiness for the task at hand.
“I've been here before so I know what it takes,” Mayweather added. “He's 42-0, but he hasn't faced 42 Floyd Mayweathers because he'd be 0-42. I'm at the pinnacle. I'm the face of boxing and I'm dedicated to my craft.”
The tale of the tape dictates that Mayweather is superior in almost every other aspect, especially in terms of speed, footwork, defense, reach, and experience. Alvarez, on the other hand, might have conceded his only material advantages, power and size, at the negotiating table.
Mayweather, the reigning 147-pound welterweight champion, signed the contract on the condition that Alvarez meet him at a “catchweight” of 152 pounds—two below the Mexican’s regular junior middleweight limit of 154.
“It's not going to bother me at all,” Alvarez said. “I've been able to make the weight in the past without a problem. In fact, in my most recent fights I've been under on the day of the weigh-in…In fact, I think it's going to help me. I'm going to be a lot faster.”
On Wednesday, Alvarez looked noticeably trimmer than usual at this stage before a fight, prompting Mayweather’s adviser Leonard Ellerbe to taunt him through Twitter.
“That's two days in a row I saw you and you look very drained. Hope your [sic] not still working out in that plastic,” Ellerbe posted.
The question also remains whether Alvarez can win a close decision in Mayweather’s hometown, but he won’t have to worry about an overly hostile crowd. With this weekend coinciding with Mexican Independence Day, “Canelomania” has already taken over the Strip and will rival the presence of Mayweather’s “Money Team” in the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Even Mayweather admits that his upcoming foe has amassed a devoted following.
“In Mexico he's a young rockstar, and [against] everybody that they put in front of him he was able to go out there and do his job,” Mayweather said. “He done it in a tremendous fashion. He's a good, strong, solid boxer, and I mean, it's a very intriguing matchup.”
3. What impact will this fight have on boxing going forward?
The talking heads’ rants about boxing’s imminent demise were greatly exaggerated.
"[Mayweather's] fights are the Super Bowl of boxing and we all know his nickname is ‘Money,’ ” said Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer to Yahoo! Sports’ Kevin Iole.
Most of the live gate of $20.3 million, a new Las Vegas record, was attained two months before the fight, and industry insiders estimate that the pay-per-view buys could meet the two-million mark, another staggering mark when considering the broadcast’s $65-$75 price tag per household. Then add the 25,000 closed circuit seats and tickets sold in 542 movie theaters nationwide, and the sport is alive, kicking, and screaming.
Showtime Sports executive vice president Stephen Espinoza, who was instrumental in luring Mayweather away from HBO, expressed his excitement in an interview with SB Nation’s Luke Thomas.
“We're in uncharted territory, because we haven't seen the number of pre-buys like this before. It's unprecedented,” Espinoza said.
Mayweather, in the second of his six-fight deal with Showtime, will pocket a minimum of $41.5 million in under an hour’s worth of work. (That number will likely increase after all the other revenue streams are tabulated.) To put that figure in perspective, when the Tampa Bay Rays made Major League Baseball’s playoffs two years ago, they earned roughly the same amount—as an entire team.
Alvarez, according to several insiders, is to receive a check around $12.5 million, which is also a career-high payday for him.
Of course, the sport’s detractors will contend that because there is no bigger fight on the horizon after this one, that it’s all downhill from here. While it’s true that Mayweather-Alvarez was the most marquee matchup to be made, boxing is the cockroach that refuses to die. Saturday is far from the sweet science’s last hurrah.
No one here expected a foreign fighter like Pacquiao to sweep through America and resonate with the fans over the last decade. With Mayweather’s polarizing personality and love-hate relationship with the public, if Alvarez can pull off the upset, he might yet crossover stateside despite lacking a firm grasp of English. The winner of Saturday’s undercard bout between junior welterweight champion Danny Garcia and upstart bomber Lucas Matthysse could produce enough buzz to become the next threat to Mayweather’s crown.
At the end of The Great White Hype, Fred Sultan says of boxing, “This is the beauty of America. May the best man win.”
The burden of proof is on Alvarez to demonstrate he is more hope than hype.
WHAT: The One: Floyd Mayweather vs. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez
WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 14
TV: Showtime PPV, 9pm ET