In Search of Canelo: Is Saul Alvarez All Hype or Boxing's Next Big Thing?

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In Search of Canelo: Is Saul Alvarez All Hype or Boxing's Next Big Thing?
Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

Who is Saul "Canelo" Alvarez?

On the surface, this is an easy assignment, the kind you take on as a writer with a big grin. Cake. I got this.

After all, he's only the third-biggest star in all of professional boxing, one of four men in the sport capable of headlining a pay-per-view. Even Erislandy Lara, a relative unknown, is grist for the pay-per-view mill when it's Canelo across the ring from him. He's the face of Golden Boy Promotions. When it comes time for war—with Al Haymon or Bob Arum or anyone at all—he'll be there, thousands, millions of Mexican fans standing behind him offering their unwavering support.

Duh. Pay the man his money.

But that's not a profile. It's a press release. 

Who is Canelo? Who is he really? It turns out that's not such an easy question to answer. 

He's a Mexican icon, a product of poverty who now flies above it all in rarefied air, playing exactly to type. No slick stylist, he's a proud son of Juanacatlan, Jalisco, Mexico, a town of just 9,000 people where horses still whinny down dusty roads and people wait in desperate hope for the waterfall that once sustained them to rejuvenate. Hope that the trickle it's become will once again attract tourists to the "Niagara Falls of Mexico," a nickname that today seems like a cruel joke.

He's also a Mexican icon playing the opposite type—a smooth-skinned pretty boy with a shy smile built to break hearts. There's no broken nose, crooked in a way only a fighter's can be. There is no ugly scar tissue. He could just as easily be the member of a boy band who discovered the weight room on an endless world tour.

He's a television creation, hyped endlessly by Televisa to millions of Mexican immigrants, the boxing version of the too pretty television anchor. He's glamour, hair gel and a promoter's dream—ruggedly handsome and willing to wave vacuously to the crowd. 

Like all good commodities, he's whatever you want him to be: a red-headed proxy for his fans' hopes and dreams, and a manufactured icon who represents everything crooked about his twisty sport. He's both, existing side by side at the same time, incongruities be darned.

Canelo, in Spanish, means "cinnamon," a reference to his hair color. According to Grantland's Jay Caspian King, the hair is key to, well, everything:

It’s true, Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, light middleweight champion of the world, has red hair. This is unusual for a Mexican. Every conversation about Canelo starts and ends with red hair and he must know how hair opens up a back door to discuss the real issue: His very, very good looks. So, let’s talk hair and let’s talk square chins and broad shoulders and a face of mean, compact symmetries that evoke Marky Mark during the underwear period. 

Whatever else he is, Canelo is the new face of Golden Boy Promotions. He's the latest in a long line of "next Oscar De La Hoyas" perpetually created by Oscar himself in fits of either avarice, hubris or both. Canelo Alvarez is a product. A commodity. He's the most recent creation of boxing's great hype machine, both white and otherwise, his record carefully padded by a succession of has-beens and never-will-bes.

In a world that's seen Floyd Mayweather batter the box office with his motor mouth, where reality television cameras have invaded everywhere, even the once sacrosanct gymnasium, Canelo is a throwback to a very different time. His popularity, and it is very real, isn't the product of slick game. In fact, the next interesting thing he says will be the first, as Eric Nusbaum pointed out in an excellent feature at Deadspin:

The outward-facing Canelo is not a personality so much as a sum of his marketing; he exists in flesh and blood, but to most people in Mexico he is a character on television and in tabloids, a vessel for collective pride and anxiety. (The telenovela thing is not a stretch.) His main attributes—and this is confirmed by every single person I speak to in Guadalajara and Juanacatlán except his mother, who says "happiness"—are seriousness and quietness. Interviews with Canelo don't produce revelations; they hardly even manage to produce cliches.

This rings true, especially as his fight with Lara this weekend approaches. Looking for insight into what makes Canelo tick? You won't find it on press row, where his statements read like the first draft of awful political speeches.

An example?

"Titles are always nice, but for me this fight is bigger than a title fight," he told the press after his official pre-fight public workout. "This fight is for my honor and glory to bring to the Mexican people. It is a fight for honor and it is a fight that people wanted to see. My fans are the best and I want to thank them for all of their support."

That's saccharine sweet, a quote worthy of a state senator at a sparsely attended press conference. It's not, however, what we've come to expect in big-time boxing. In a sports world that has carefully limited access to anything but the most superficial, combat sports is the last bastion of real.

In part, it's because the whole process is so revealing—fighters stripped to the waist either succeeding or failing on their own strength of will—that it seems silly to try to hide who you are. In part, it's because the kind of man prone to professional fisticuffs isn't the kind of man to hide what he's really thinking.

But Canelo is different. He plays his cards so close you can't even see his vest. No, asking Canelo about Canelo is a route to nowhere.

The answers are in the ring—and in Lara, Canelo will tackle a very big question. There is no B.S. canned response for this one. There will be no marketing firm to guide him. He'll answer it alone, in the squared circle, with the eyes of the boxing world focused on him and him alone.

On the surface, it's exactly the kind of fight he should be avoiding. A Cuban who escaped Castro's regime twice, hopping a speedboat to Mexico when his first attempt was thwarted by a nationwide manhunt, Lara is arguably the best fighter in the division not named Mayweather. There was no public outcry for this fight. Lara is no star. He's just a rock-solid technician with all the tools to cook Golden Boy's golden goose.

So, why take the fight? I think the answer, more than any episode of All Access or an awkward magazine profile, explains exactly who Canelo is.

Lara wasn't the easy choice. He wasn't the most lucrative. This, a rarity in boxing, wasn't about money. Canelo knows the money will come. He took this fight because it was there. Because it was the toughest bout available. Because the world said he shouldn't.

Who is Canelo Alvarez? That's easy after all. When you remove the excess, the essence remains. He's a fighter.

How good a fighter? That answer is coming Saturday night in Las Vegas.

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