Saul "Canelo" Alvarez didn't look like a winner as he faced the boxing media minutes after his split-decision win over Erislandy Lara at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. And perhaps he shouldn't have. After all, Lara had spent the previous 48 minutes running circles around him, refusing to stand his ground for even a moment, winning the fight on many scorecards in the process.
It was not, suffice to say, the fight Canelo, a straightforward slugger, wanted. Much like the Austin Trout fight in 2013, it was a struggle from bell to bell, the cutie-pie boxer frustrating the brawler in front of millions. Canelo got the benefit of the doubt in that one too. That's the advantage of being the "A-side" in a sport that needs all the drawing cards it can get.
Still, you have to fake it better than that. Just or not, Canelo was the victor—yet he approached the podium without the swagger you'd expect from a championship-level fighter coming off one of the biggest wins of his career. Wearing a clean white shirt and oversized sunglasses, likely to hide the swelling around his eyes, Canelo instead had the body language of a man facing a firing squad.
"I wanted to give you guys this fight because you said I wouldn't take it," a clearly frustrated Canelo told the media, explaining why he took this fight so many called foolish. "And I did it. He said he was going to take me to school. I don't think anybody wants to go to that school."
The criticism of Lara echoed what Canelo said immediately after the fight to Showtime interviewer Jim Gray. Just 23, Canelo doesn't quite have a poker face in place. And his reaction, to Lara's talk, to his lack of action, was telling. It was, to be frank, loser talk, the kind of thing a guy says to convince himself things weren't really as bad as they seemed.
"I came to fight, I didn't come to run here," Canelo said after the fight. "You don't win by running. You win by hitting. He does have a great jab and he moves around, but you don't win a fight that way. You don’t run.
"I want to leave people with a good taste in their mouth. This wasn't the fight I expected; I wanted to go toe-to-toe. He didn't come to fight. He came to run. He's a great boxer. I respect him. But he has to learn how to throw more punches."
The fans in attendance roared for that, as they did for every Canelo move throughout the night, from the first time he appeared on screen to the last. It's this intensity of feeling, even more than his very real boxing prowess, that makes Canelo such an interesting prospect. There are a lot of pretty darn good fighters. There are only a handful who can make their fans care.
"I think he's similar to Oscar [De La Hoya]," former Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer told Bleacher Report last year. "He's so good-looking they call him the 'Mexican James Dean.' So he has the looks. He's just a sweetheart. Every woman he talks to falls in love with the guy. And he has the skills."
Equal parts matinee idol and old-fashioned ethnic hero, Canelo is in place to succeed Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao when boxing's biggest stars finally ride off into the sunset. Yahoo boxing writer Kevin Iole believes Canelo may end his career as the biggest earner in the sport's history:
Because he became a star at such a young age, Alvarez is looking at the very real possibility that he will become one of the richest boxers in history. If he fights even 10 more years, he's going to command purses so large that he'll clear several hundred million in the process.
Though it will be hard for him to surpass Mayweather in career earnings, it's not totally out of the question, particularly if he fights until he's 38 or 40. That could leave him as many as 35 or more fights, many of which could bring him eight-figure paydays.
There are two significant roadblocks, however, that may prevent that prediction from coming true. First, there's the small matter of the English language. It's almost a necessity to make it big on pay-per-view. While Hispanic Americans have their own powerhouse promotional tools like Univision and Telemundo, Mayweather money is created by reaching the broadest possible demographic.
|Julio Cesar Chavez's Greatest PPV Hits|
|Opponent||Date||Estimated PPV Buys|
|Frankie Randall II||5/7/94||678,000|
Until Canelo can connect directly with the tens of millions of fans who don't speak Spanish, he's unlikely to truly cross over into the American mainstream. Yes, the great Julio Cesar Chavez carved out a place on pay-per-view on the strength of excellence alone, drawing more than 500,000 buys for five consecutive fights and approaching a million buys against Pernell Whitaker in 1993. But, with due respect, Canelo is no Chavez, arguably the best fighter of his era.
And that leads us to the bigger problem—right now Canelo's budding boxing game hasn't quite caught up with the rising tide of his stardom. Canelo is no Chavez or Roberto Duran, pressure fighters who knew how to force a recalcitrant foe to stand and fight. Watching him struggle to cut off the ring against Lara was a clear indication that Canelo is still learning his craft.
Most top fighters are just beginning their professional journey at his age. They've taken on tricky fighters like Lara and learned these hard lessons in the amateur ranks, in front of friends, family and teammates. Canelo is perfecting his game on pay-per-view, in front of the watchful eyes of the world.
Will he be boxing's next crossover star? It's a question that will be answered in large part inside the ring. Like all boxing legacies, it will be written in blood and sweat.
Signs point to Canelo's desire to be great. Simply taking the Lara fight tells us plenty about his competitive makeup and willingness to take chances. To be young, handsome and rich beyond anyone's wildest fantasies—yet still have a chip on his shoulder large enough to compel him to take an ill-advised and dangerous fight—makes me think there's a very real chance Canelo will indeed plow a path to athletic immortality.