Historically, boxing has consistently had captivating fighters with crossover appeal. Whether related to in-ring prowess, engaging personalities or confusing behavior, names like Muhammad Ali, Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather, to name a few, quickly come to mind as boxers whose popularity transcends the sport itself.
Floyd Mayweather currently sits atop boxing’s mythical pound-for-pound rankings, and he has also assumed the “cash cow” distinction last held by De La Hoya.
But with Mayweather’s career in the midst of its twilight phase, the search for boxing’s next genuine superstar has been going on in earnest. In a sport where hype often outweighs substance, such a process can be fraught with false starts and shattered expectations.
When it comes to finding a fighter who combines genuine talent—and the realization of that talent—with a somewhat indefinable ability to captivate fans and pundits, Mexico’s Saul “Canelo” Alvarez has become, for many, the logical choice. At only 22, Canelo should seemingly be in the novice stages of his career, and it is precisely this meteoric rise that is part of his appeal.
But why are fans and pundits so sure Alvarez (42-0-1) will be boxing’s next superstar?
Is it based on Alvarez’s body of work and flourishing popularity, or do desire and the need for instant gratification play as large a role in this anointing?
With Golden Boy Promotions strongly backing Alvarez, the parallels between Canelo and his boss, the aforementioned De La Hoya, is obvious. But unlike De La Hoya, Alvarez did not ride the wave of Olympic glory into the professional ranks. In fact, Alvarez turned professional in Mexico at 15 in 2005, which means he has learned on the job and had a “hard knocks” beginning to his career.
With 43 fights under his belt, Alvarez has progressed at a fairly remarkable rate considering his brief—yet still successful—amateur background, which consisted of 20 fights. That the bulk of Alvarez’s experience has come as a professional also suggests that he has vast reserves of untapped potential. This palpable sense of promise that might be the most tantalizing aspect of his brief career arc.
While Alvarez had seemingly outrun his age for much of his career, things slowed, relatively, when he became a champion. Understandably, after winning the WBC light middleweight title outright in 2011 against Matthew Hatton, expectations and demands increased for Alvarez.
There was skillful maneuvering that led to Alvarez getting a WBC “Silver” title shot against Luciano Leonel Cuello in 2010. During Alvarez’s official title reign, almost of all of his opposition has been mediocre at best, and this includes the likes of Ryan Rhodes, a continental-level fighter; Alfonso Gomez, a tough but limited boxer; Kermit Cintron, a former titlist well past his best; Shane Moseley, a legend who was way past his prime; and Josesito Lopez, a game fighter, but a natural 140-pounder (and occasional welterweight).
But just as dissenters were starting to wag their fingers at Alvarez, he defeated Austin Trout to unify titles in a major bout.
With this victory, Alvarez secured a new level of legitimacy. Alvarez-Trout was far from a classic, but the fight was still cagey and fought at a high level. Other than scoring a clean knockdown that had Trout on jelly legs and clearly being the more powerful fighter, it was Alvarez’s defense that was so impressive.
According to CompuBox, Alvarez limited Trout to 154 landed shots out of 769 punches thrown for a paltry connect percentage of 20. This was achieved through a combination of Alvarez’s own offense and his surprisingly slick head and upper body movement.
If there was any knock on Alvarez heading into this fight, it was that Trout could outbox him; ultimately, one could argue that the opposite ended up happening.
Given that Alvarez’s defensive improvement was most evident against his best opponent (by far) to date, it seems plausible that he has just entered the elite, championship phase of his career. Added to this is the fact that Alvarez-Trout involved a disproportionately significant promotion—over 38,000 fans watched it live—when considering Trout’s relative anonymity (compared to Alvarez).
Will Saul Alvarez be boxing's next major superstar?
Alvarez has long been marketable beyond his accomplishments, while also possessing boyish looks and an engaging fighting style. He has now shown himself to be a quality, improving young champion with a rabid fanbase, even if it is unclear whether he’s actually charismatic outside the ring.
All that matters is that Alvarez brings out latent excitement and passion in fans, which is why he has been considered as a potential opponent for Floyd Mayweather for some time. That the Mayweather camp has insisted a fight against Alvarez take place at welterweight is clearly an aggressive power play meant—at least partly—to thwart the legitimacy Alvarez brings to the bargaining table.
Mayweather is in no rush to pass his torch to Alvarez, nor should he be. Alvarez is coming up to a crucial stretch in his career, and fighting Mayweather at the expense of continuing his logical development could be a mistake.
Then again, maybe remaining undefeated isn’t as important to Alvarez’s popularity as it is for other fighters.
Alvarez, thus far, has simply gone about his business and won fights. His willingness to fight the best as a response to criticism is admirable, and those traits, if he continues to nurture them, are what will ultimately fuel his stardom.