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The main attraction, the reason thousands of fans withstood a broiling, shadeless, 97-degree afternoon for hours Friday, emerged in pink silk Dolce and Gabbana pajamas.
Canelo Álvarez is technically the challenger for his fight Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena, but the top-ranked pound-for-pound fighter in the world was given the champion treatment for the weigh-in.
He was presented to the crowd second after a long-winded introduction from the event’s emcee before he stepped on the scale wearing pink Dolce and Gabbana boxers, weighing in at 174.4 pounds for his second career light-heavyweight fight. A mariachi played behind him. The Mexican fighter's red, white and green sea of fans roared whenever possible.
It was the celebration before the celebration, before the 31-year-old Álvarez steps into the ring for another Cinco de Mayo weekend Vegas special and another presumed victory. His opponent, Dmitry Bivol, isn’t being given much of a chance.
Bivol, 31, is undefeated, an eight-time defending champion with a good jab and significant size advantage, but he isn’t a draw. He’s relatively unknown. If anything, he’s best known for something nobody around the event seems willing to talk about.
While Álvarez’s background has been highlighted at every possible chance, Bivol’s origin has been a taboo topic since the fighters descended on the strip this week. Bivol’s introduction at Friday’s weigh-in didn’t include his birthplace or hometown. His national flag wasn’t on display. He was a man presented without a home.
It wasn’t by accident. Bivol, though born in Kyrgyzstan, is Russian. He hails from St. Petersburg. None of that was mentioned Friday as Russia continues waging a war in Ukraine.
Boxing figures have spoken out against Bivol’s participation this weekend. In March, Don King blasted Álvarez for giving Bivol the shot. Earlier that month, Wladimir Klitschko, a former Ukrainian heavyweight champion, said Bivol shouldn’t be allowed to fight.
Klitschko took up arms on the ground in Ukraine when Russia invaded in late February. His brother, Vitali, another former heavyweight champion, is the mayor of Kyiv, the country’s capital. Oleksandr Usyk and Vasiliy Lomachenko, prominent Ukrainian boxers still active, also returned to Ukraine to defend the country.
On Friday, Tom Loeffler, the Klitschko brothers’ promoter, reiterated Wladimir’s criticism of the fight.
“He’s disappointed that it was sanctioned as he believes [it should be] like Wimbledon and other international sports tournaments,” Loeffler wrote in a text message. “He will be more disappointed if Bivol presents the Russian flag in the ring, as representing a country that is creating so many atrocities and human suffering would be unacceptable.”
That isn’t expected to happen. The World Boxing Assn. announced surface-level sanctions in March, including prohibiting Russian and Belarusian boxers from entering the ring with their national flag. The national anthems won’t be heard and the countries won’t be named. But the WBA declined to go as far as Wimbledon did, banning athletes from those two countries.
MGM, which is hosting Saturday’s fight, declined to comment through a spokesperson. The Nevada Athletic Commission didn’t respond to a message Friday.
“All of his career, I supported him,” Bivol told iFL TV this week, in reference to Klitschko. “I liked how he was fighting, so of course I was glad when he won. He’s a sportsman. He should know that sports and politics are different. He was an athlete. But now he’s [a politician]. It is sad that he wants to shake it up and mix sport and politics."
On Wednesday, Álvarez became visibly uncomfortable when asked whether he understood why some people don’t want the fight to happen.
“Maybe I understand a little bit, but we are here,” Álvarez said. “It is what it is.”
Dmitry Salita, a former boxer, was born in Soviet Ukraine. He moved to the United States when he was 9 years old, months before Ukraine regained its independence, and went on to post a 35-2-1 record as a light welterweight and welterweight. He said he has “no problem” with Bivol fighting Álvarez.
“When we're at peace, when we're war, when there's conflict, I believe that sports brings people together, can bring people together in a positive way,” Salita said. “But I'm saying it from my point of view. When you're in a conflict and a war, your perspective may change and I respect it. They're not wrong to say what they say based on their experiences.”
Bivol is guaranteed $2 million for the fight and 30% of pay-per-view sales Saturday while Álvarez stands to make up to $40 million, according to reports. If Bivol pulls off the upset, a chance to become the undisputed champion at 175 pounds with a bigger payday is undoubtedly ahead.
The soft-spoken Bivol appeared confident Friday and tried to placate the crowd.
“First off, I see a lot of Mexican fans against me,” Bivol said to begin a brief on-stage interview. “Feliz Cinco de Mayo, guys.”
The people weren’t having it. Boos rained.
“What?” Bivol asked. “Why?”
Chants of “Mexico!” followed, drowning out the Russian.
“Why?” Bivol asked again. “People motivating me. I'm here listening to the crowd, and it's motivating me. All my life, I'm in boxing and I won many times and why I shouldn't win this time?”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.