LAS VEGAS -- In 2004, Golden Boy Promotions matchmaker Eric Gomez met Mexican trainer Jose "Chepo" Reynoso in Los Angeles to discuss a few prospects. In the meeting, Reynoso pushed one fighter in particular: Rigoberto Alvarez, a punishing middleweight from Jalisco, Mexico. As the conversation wound down, Reynoso pulled a picture of Alvarez's brother, 14-year old Saul, out of his pocket.
"He said, 'This is my next project,'" Gomez recalls. "He said, 'I call him Canelo.'"
Eight years later Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez ranks as one of boxing's most marketable young fighters, a power-punching 154-pound titleholder that has premium networks tripping over themselves to pay him millions to fight in prime time. On Saturday night Alvarez, 22, defended his WBC junior middleweight title against Josesito Lopez at the MGM Grand.
Gomez would love to say he saw a star in Alvarez early. But when Reynoso sent him a VHS tape of Alvarez sparring with super bantamweight champ Oscar Larios, he wasn't overly impressed. "He had good footwork and good head movement," Gomez said. "But I've seen plenty of 14-year olds who are good. It's like seeing a good Little League baseball player. You don't know then if he is going to make the major leagues."
Gomez tabled the talk of Canelo --"I told him to get back to me when he was 18," Gomez said -- but over the years kept tabs on him. As time passed, word of a flashy, heavy handed prospect with fiery red hair started to pour out of Mexico. Newspaper articles, television features; in a short time, Alvarez had become something of a phenom.
Gomez pitched Alvarez to Golden Boy President Oscar De La Hoya and CEO Richard Schaefer, who agreed to sign Alvarez and bring him to the U.S. for a fight. In 2008, an 18-year old Alvarez scored a unanimous decision over journeyman Larry Mosely. Again, Gomez came away unimpressed.
"He looked decent," Gomez said. "But I didn't see anything special."
Alvarez's star power was undeniable, however, so Golden Boy stuck with him. In 2010, Alvarez beat Jose Cotto in the co-main event of the show headlined by Floyd Mayweather and Shane Mosley. Two fights later, Alvarez stopped granite-chinned veteran Carlos Baldomir in the seventh round, a win that changed the opinion of Alvarez of many in the Golden Boy office.
"That shocked me," Gomez said. "Baldomir had beaten Zab Judah. He went the distance with Floyd Mayweather. Vernon Forrest hit him with some shots and Baldomir just kept coming. We felt [Canelo] was going to go the distance with this guy. We couldn't believe he knocked him out."
Since beating Baldomir, Alvarez's career as taken off. He won the WBC junior middleweight title in a lopsided win over Matthew Hatton in 2011 and stopped Ryan Rhodes, Alfonso Gomez and Kermit Cintron in his next three. Last May, Alvarez notched his biggest win to date, a near shutout decision over Shane Mosley.
As the U.S. audience gets to know Alvarez, the Mexican fans continue to embrace him. According to Schaefer, Alvarez-Mosley did a 26.1 rating on Televisa, higher than the Mexico-Brazil Olympic soccer final (19.1) in August and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.'s win over Andy Lee in June (10.1). Gomez says Alvarez "can't walk down the street [in Mexico] without being being recognized" while De La Hoya recounts that on a recent trip to Guadalajara, Canelo was mobbed by fans when he stepped off the bus. When it was De La Hoya's turn, "I could hear crickets chirping."
Golden Boy is expecting big things from Alvarez (40-0). If he beats Lopez -- who was selected after Paul Williams, James Kirkland and Victor Ortiz bowed out, for various reasons -- a showdown with either Mayweather or Miguel Cotto is in the works for next May.
Either Mayweather or Cotto would be a big jump in talent for Alvarez. But to a man, Golden Boy execs believe he is ready.
"His leg movement, his balance, it's so much better," De La Hoya said. "He's not throwing everything with power. He's not so tense anymore. He's elusive. I've told him, not everything has to be thrown with power. Throw punches, throw them fast. It's amazing me how fast he is learning."
As he watched the final press conference for Alvarez-Lopez, Gomez was asked what he hoped to see from Alvarez on Saturday.
"Dominance," Gomez said. "If he can dominate, it will be a big statement."