LAS VEGAS -- To understand the surging popularity of Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, think back to your first boy band experience. And for the guys who won't admit there was a time they liked pop music, and won't cop to belting out tunes like "I Want It That Way" or "It's Gonna Be Me" at a late night karaoke jam, well, Google one. Observe the huge crowds and deafening cheers. Soak in the electric atmosphere and rabid fans clamoring for more.
This is what it's like to be Alvarez. The mop-topped, freckle-faced fighter is a Backstreet Boy with a body attack, a Menudo member with a mean right hand.
"He is the most popular athlete in boxing today," Alvarez's promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, has said, and Alvarez's arrival at the MGM Grand on Tuesday did little to dispute that. Dressed in a thin white hoodie and blue dress pants, with a pair of designer sunglasses shielding his eyes, Alvarez walked down a makeshift runway, grinning at a crowd that spilled out of the hotel lobby and into the casino. It was a reception that recalled the memory of the nearly 40,000 fans who packed the Alamodome in San Antonio for Alvarez's last fight, on April 20. It reminded reporters that Alvarez's last two fights on Showtime both peaked at more than a million viewers, giving him two of the top five highest-rated fights in the network's history.
At 23, Alvarez is one of boxing's biggest stars.
But is he one of its best?
Remove yourself from Canelo-mania for a moment, and take a microscope--O.K., use BoxRec--to his last five fights. There was a knockout win over journeyman Alfonso Gomez, who outboxed Alvarez for the first few rounds before bowing out. There was Kermit Cintron, a long faded former 147-pound titleholder who was well out of his depth. There was Shane Mosley, the washed-up legend who never stood a shot. There was Josesito Lopez, a 140-pounder leaping up two weight classes for career-high payday.
The reality is this: Alvarez's biggest win was his last one, an ever-so-slender decision over Austin Trout.
Yet the promotional machine has hyped this fight as a clash of the titans. Hyperbole has run amuck. If you believe the rhetoric (here's looking at you, Leonard Ellerbe) Mayweather-Alvarez is the most anticipated fight in history, surpassing such club shows as Muhammad Ali-George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard-Tommy Hearns or Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield. It's been dubbed "The One" for reasons passing understanding. As of this writing, Alvarez was a 2½-1 underdog, shockingly short odds when you consider that Mayweather is coming off a 12-round obliteration of Robert Guerrero.
"People have hope and people strongly feel that Mayweather is going to get beat," said De La Hoya.
But why? What has Alvarez done to earn more respect than Guerrero, Miguel Cotto, Victor Ortiz or any of the Mayweather opponents who have come before him? Is it because of the weight? Mayweather and Canelo will fight at 152-pounds, putting Mayweather in a weight class at which he has historically struggled. His last two trips to junior middleweight led to an unusual amount of punishment for Mayweather at the fists of De La Hoya and Cotto. But Mayweather still beat De La Hoya and cruised past Cotto.
Is it because of age? Alvarez was little more than a toddler when Mayweather turned pro in 1996. Younger means fresher, right? Well...Alvarez faded late in his win over Trout, while Mayweather, 36, is among the most finely conditioned athletes in sports.
Is it because of strength? Chatting with a roomful of reporters on Tuesday, Alvarez flashed a framed picture of himself with Tyson, who had stopped by Alvarez's gym that morning. Attack him, Tyson had advised. Pressure him. Canelo will rehydrate into the 160's the day of the fight, giving him a big beef advantage over Mayweather, who may actually drop a couple of pounds. But the pressure-Floyd-to-beat-Floyd song has been sung before, and not even Alvarez appears to be buying into it.
"Pressure is going to help me in this fight," Alvarez said. "But it's going to be an all-around thing."
So Alvarez's advantages are what, exactly? Sure, there is the hope that Mayweather will age in the ring, that at 36 his reflexes will make him a half second slower, allowing Alvarez to catch up. Like Roy Jones, for example. But Jones's technique never matched his speed and reflexes, whereas Mayweather possesses is a unique blend of all three. So even when Mayweather's physical tools start to fade--and they already have--he is able to adapt and still dominate. The same punches Guerrero pounded Andre Berto with connected harmlessly with Mayweather's arms, shoulders and, in many cases, nothing at all.
Promoters of Mayweather-Alvarez walk around with permanent smiles, and it's easy to see why. Tickets sold out in a matter of hours, creating the largest gate ($19.9 million) in Nevada history. Closed circuit seats are selling like Taylor Swift albums, international money is pouring in--the show is expected to generate the largest pay per view sales in Australian history, according to Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer--and, with its hefty purchase price ($64.95 for standard definition, and since nobody buys anything in SD anymore, $74.95 for high def), Mayweather-Alvarez could challenge the $132 million record revenue De La Hoya-Mayweather grossed in 2007.
Mayweather, meanwhile, will cash a check for $41.5 million after the fight while Alvarez will likely deposit one close to $10 million.
That's Scrooge McDuck money for...remind me again? The script for this fight is short, simple, and should play out like a PBS special. Alvarez will come forward, be the aggressor, look to pin Mayweather to the ropes and damage him with thudding combinations. Mayweather will move, make Alvarez miss, build an early lead and potshot him on the way to a comfortable win. One punch can change a fight, Alvarez reminded reporters on Tuesday, but few opponents have been able to land that type of punch on Mayweather—and those who did have found his chin to be firmer than they thought.
There is talent in Alvarez, no question, and a sport for him to succeed in for years to come. But this is a stud Single-A prospect stepping in to face Max Scherzer, a one-and-done college star being asked to defend LeBron James. The future is bright, but that future isn't here yet.