In 2012, Alfredo "El Perro" Angulo, a former Mexican Olympian and the kind of all-action boxer who leaves an imprint on fans even when he comes up short, walked into the El Centro Service Processing Center, just 14 miles from the United States' Mexican border, for what he expected to be a routine immigration proceeding.
It turned out, due to a mistake by his manager or promoter or lawyer, depending on where the finger was pointing at any given moment, Angulo's visa to live and compete in America had expired. Securing an immigration bond, he thought, would take two or three days, tops.
Seven months later, he was still there, his career and life in limbo, just one of 544 prisoners living in a series of barracks, awaiting justice.
The center cycles through more than 5,000 detainees a year. Angulo, however, for reasons that remain unclear, attracted some special attention. Denied basic privileges and rights, simple items like sneakers or a book to read, Angulo was told at one point he might be there forever.
"I saw what hundreds of thousands of immigrants have gone through and endured. I respect all those who sacrificed to bring their families better lives in America," he told Bleacher Report through his translator and lawyer, Lucy Haro. "It was very difficult there. I thought of retiring from boxing. I only had my lawyer, who assured me justice had to be done."
Before El Centro, hardship for Angulo had become, as it is for most fighters, defined in boxing terms. The loss to James Kirkland just two months before his immigration nightmare began, for example, seemed like a complete disaster.
After knocking Kirkland down in the first, Angulo quickly punched himself out looking for a finish. The remaining five rounds featured Kirkland starring in a glorified snuff film as Angulo gamely fought on.
After El Centro, he knows things could be much worse.
"I value every moment of my life, and every moment with my daughter," Angulo said. "God shall have to forgive that warden for separating me from my daughter and taking time from me."
Even at his lowest point, however, Haro said Angulo's focus was often on others. He had been very fortunate in his life, fighting often on HBO in exchange for six-figure paydays.
Many of the people biding their time in the processing center came from extreme poverty in Central America and Mexico. They lacked his high-priced legal team, often left in the lurch by scam artists who promised advice and solutions and then disappeared into the wind.
While he waited and endured, Angulo insisted his legal team, Haro and Kelly O'Reilly, help many of the people he met. They looked over hundreds of cases besides his own.
"Alfredo's strength came from helping those in there with him...it saddened all of us to witness his struggle and the other immigrants," Haro said. "If Alfredo lost his case, I would have lost faith in our American justice system, in everything I believe in, as an attorney."
Fast forward two years, and it's clear Angulo has come out the other side, if not unscathed, at least unbowed. His career, sidetracked by an absence of more than a year, all told, has reached new heights under trainer Virgil Hunter.
Despite a loss to the slick Erislandy Lara, a fight many ringside observers thought Angulo was winning before an injury withdrawal in the 10th round, he was handpicked by promoter Richard Schaefer to face budding star Saul "Canelo" Alvarez.
It's Canelo's first fight since falling way short of the mark against Floyd Mayweather. In a sense, the fight is also a lifetime achievement award for Angulo's willingness to bravely trade punches, no matter the circumstances or opponent.
"Basically, the reason why we chose him is because we made a decision that he was the best style for me," Canelo said during a media conference call. "He's a very strong fighter. He comes forward. He makes good fights, and I feel that this was the best fight for the fight fans style-wise."
That's a nice way of saying Angulo is expected to be willing cannon fodder for the young star. Angulo is never going to be mistaken for a sophisticated boxer—after Mayweather, that's likely welcome relief for Canelo. But not everyone is so sure this fight is a blowout, including Bad Left Hook's Scott Christ:
Can Alvarez deal with the 100 mph, straight ahead style of Angulo? Tactically, sure, he can handle it. But for how long? Can he be broken down to the body by Angulo? Will he wilt in the heat of a battle that allows him no room or time to breathe?
That's the danger on Saturday night for Canelo Alvarez. It's not that Alfredo Angulo is an elite fighter. It's that Alfredo Angulo has to be knocked half-blind to stop bulldozing at his opponents.
It's more than worth finding out if Canelo Alvarez can stay calm and logical against that sort of attack, and nobody available does it better than Alfredo Angulo. Even if Alvarez wins as is favored, Angulo can be counted on for a legitimate gut-check.
Christ is not alone. Although he's calling the fight (and thus not exactly impartial), Showtime commentator Paulie Malignaggi is known for speaking his mind. He told Bleacher Report the fight was much closer than the odds suggest.
"The intriguing thing about Angulo is that Mexican passion he brings to the table," Ring Magazine's eighth- ranked welterweight Malignaggi said. "Any time you have a fighter who brings this level of, dare I say it, machismo, it makes for a great fight. Especially when both guys want to show who's more Mexican. Who has more fire in their belly?
"He's not a guy who dominates the camera when he walks into the room. So he gets thrown into the opponent role. But he's a good fighter. And when a good fighter gets thrown into that opponent role, you use it as motivation and something to drive you.
"But at the same time, you try to take something positive out of it. You can say, 'At least I'm here. I'm at least getting the opportunity to upset the apple cart.' It's one night to change the entire look of things. You have an hour of your life to change a lot of things."
In our interview Wednesday, Angulo was all Canelo-ed out, perhaps weary after months of talking. In just days the talking will, blissfully, be over. Soon it will be time to fight.
"I don't worry about Canelo," he said simply. "I have to always be strong and fight for my fans."
In a January media call, however, he was more willing to expound on the matchup.
"Look, everybody knows my style, everybody knows how I fight, my pro record proves that, you can see my fights, and I'm always in very, very good fights," Angulo told the media. "I always give great fights. I always give 100 percent of me. So it's going to be a very interesting fight because he's trying to come back from his first loss, and I just feel that it's the right time for this fight."
Already speculation has begun. A win over Canelo, perhaps, would put him in the hunt for a fight with Mayweather. Even if that doesn't come to fruition, a win changes everything for Angulo, opening the door wide for bouts with a variety of prominent fighters.
Before the fantasy matchmaking begins, however, Angulo needs to win. As far as he's concerned, that makes this a bout no different than any other in his career, despite it being the brightest spotlight of his life.
"I don't think of it that way. It's another fight, which are all important to me. I do my job," he said, before conceding this was, indeed, a powerful opportunity. "It opens doors for more good fights."
"Toe to Toe: Canelo vs. Angulo," a 12-round super welterweight fight, takes place Saturday, March 8 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The four-fight telecast, distributed live by SHOWTIME PPV, begins at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT.
Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were gathered firsthand or via participation in media conference calls.
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