I’m standing on the set of our studio at Sports Illustrated, next to Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez—the two-weight world champion from Jalisco, Mexico—as we get ready for an intimate one-on-one conversation, when I catch him yawning for a brief moment.
“I haven’t slept for 36 hours,” he says. “It’s been a long trip.”
I can’t blame him. From London to New York and Los Angeles, Canelo (Spanish for Cinnamon) has been touring alongside his promoter and boxing legend, Oscar de la Hoya, and his opponent, Gennady “GGG” Golovkin, as they get ready for the much-anticipated fight on September 16—Mexican Independence Day—in Las Vegas.
“Do you want a coffee or a water?” I ask. He politely declines. As we get closer to shooting, I remind him that this whole segment will be in Spanish and he breathes a sigh of relief.
I get it.
Canelo Alvarez, you see, is a totally different person when he is interviewed in his native tongue, as his answers, when translated, are often lost in generalizations. This has been the case for most of the tour, where you don’t really get to know the man or the fighter but rather an interpretation of him.
So it was important for us to that we spoke to him in Spanish, and to really understand where Canelo stands and how he sees his chances against the undefeated machine that is Gennady Golovkin.
Once you really let him speak, without the need of a translator, that’s when you can understand where Alvarez is coming from. There are no pauses, no awkward interactions, just his thoughts on the most important challenge of his young career.
“In boxing, there are two different types of fights,” says Alvarez, speaking exclusively to SI. “Those that are difficult and those that are tough. And this one against Golovkin is a tough fight, because these are the ones when fighters are tough, scrappy, who keep coming forward and never stop throwing punches, so this going to be hard. But we’re ready because I think that both my experience and my abilities as a fighter have me prepared.”
Alvarez, 26, has had his fair share of tough fights including his 2013 showdown with Floyd Mayweather Jr, where he was beaten by a majority 12-round decision; the only loss of his career (he’s 49-1-1)
Alvarez was 23 then.
Since then, fights against Miguel Cotto and Erislandy Lara at a 155-pount catchweight tested just how much Alvarez could take as a fighter. But this upcoming fight against Golovkin, a brawler who holds so much power and undisputed force, means more to the Mexican than any other.
“Personally, getting any victory is important but this one especially so because this fight summarizes 16 years of hard work,” he says. “So it’s important to take on this challenge in front of us, and without a doubt, with the hard work, we will achieve it.”
In 2011, when Alvarez was 21, he was invited to training camp at Big Bear, Calif., to spar with the 28-year-old Golovkin, at the request of his trainer. According to Abel Sanchez, Golovkin’s well-respected trainer, the main reason for this session was so both fighters—one, an up-and-coming Mexican star, the other, a relatively unknown middleweight champion—could learn from each other. Alvarez would learn how to adapt with brute strength while Golovkin would learn how to deal with versatility and speed. It was a time before anyone knew anything about both fighters and as The Ring’s Doug Fischer (who was there that day) said despite the fact that it was just a 24-minute sparring session (and six years ago) there was so much to talk about.
Everything you think this fight will be is probably true.
“I expect fireworks in this fight come September 16,” said Bernard Hopkins during last week’s press tour in LA. “But I also look at the fans, and see that this is what they want. This is a fight worthy of a red carpet because they are two future champions, and I believe two future Hall of Famers.”
Alvarez is the youngest of eight children, seven of them boys who all became professional boxers. When he was 13, he was watching his older brother Rigoberto fight for the very first time as a pro and that changed everything for him. That’s when he knew he wanted to join in the family trade. “That’s when my love for boxing was born.”
As we talk some more about his family and his Mexican roots, it occurs to me how professional he is in front of the camera. As sport fans, we marvel at athletic talent but we often forget just how young they are, and Alvarez is no different. But his composure coupled with his fair skin and red hair deceive the eye. He looks much younger than 26.
“When I was in school, kids would always make fun of my hair ,the color of my skin,” he says. “So I would always have to fight.”
Perhaps this is what made him into the fighter he is today.
Or perhaps it was always meant to be, no matter what color hair he had, as after all, living in a house with six brothers might be enough to push you in that direction.
One thing we know is that on Sept. 16, on the day when Mexicans will celebrate el Día de la Independencia, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez will enter the ring with the chance of becoming not just a champion but a Mexican hero.