It’s time to give Saul “Canelo” Alvarez his due. Past time, actually.
The Mexican boxing champion has grown up inside professional boxing rings. He made his debut almost exactly 14 years ago, before most teenagers are old enough to drive. He has captured belts in three different weight classes, won 52 times, staged two memorable clashes with Gennady “GGG” Golovkin (earning a split draw in their first meeting and winning the second) and signed the richest contract in sports history with DAZN (five years, 11 bouts, $365 million). His only loss came against Floyd Mayweather Jr., in a fight he took too early. He’s also only 29.
And yet, when fans, pundits and other fighters discuss the true king of the post-Mayweather era, there remains a tendency to view Alvarez as a good, even great boxer, but not a truly transcendent one. He should be in the mix with Terence Crawford, Vasiliy Lomachenko and Errol Spence Jr. for the top slot in the sport’s mythic and much-debated pound-for-pound rankings, and there’s a strong argument to be made that he belongs at the very top, that this is, in fact, the Canelo Era.
When Alvarez met with reporters this week in Las Vegas, he made that point himself. “I’ve done better than they have,” he said. “Of course (résumé should matter). There can’t be anything else.”
On Saturday, at the MGM’s Grand Garden Arena, Alvarez will look to bolster his claim. He will jump two weight classes to face the aging but still dangerous Sergey Kovalev for the WBO light heavyweight belt. Another triumph would give Alvarez a title in a fourth division and another victory over a top-quality opponent, while making it harder to regard Alvarez as anything other than a certain future Hall of Famer, with several years of his prime left.
Even former rivals have come around. Like Abel Sanchez, the longtime and respected trainer who prepped Golovkin for Alvarez. “In the heat of trying to promote a fight, a lot of things were said, and they detracted from really all that he has accomplished,” Sanchez noted in a telephone interview. “Go back and look at his record; that’s a heck of a résumé. Since he has fought Mayweather, he’s really progressed.”
Sanchez then ticks off some reasons that Alvarez’s actual accomplishments have outpaced his acclaim outside of Mexico, where he’s something closer to a deity: the positive drug test in 2018, which Alvarez blamed on tainted meat consumed in his home country, and which led to a six-month suspension; the size of his contract; his number of close fights; the belief that Golovkin might have won their first meeting, the loss and the draw. Those are not unfair criticisms. The positive test alone has been and should continue to be regarded with suspicion. But they also mask a larger truth. “He’s definitely one of the best fighters of the last 20, 25 years,” Sanchez says. “There’s a habit in boxing of fans and writers who see a guy who’s making a lot of money and don’t put him at the level that he deserves.”
The Mayweather loss happened in 2013. Since then, Alvarez has beaten Erislandy Lara, Miguel Cotto, Golovkin and Danny Jacobs, among others. He hasn’t ducked the top fighters in his weight classes; instead, he continues to move up to face better opposition.
Those kinds of bouts have sharpened Alvarez’s skillset and made him into a more complete boxer. Under the tutelage of trainer Chepo Reynoso and his son, Eddy, Alvarez has improved his head and waist movement, bolstering his defense; he has become an elite counter-puncher who can top opponents in a variety of ways. “I never thought we’d be here,” Chepo said in a phone interview. “At the same time, what he’s done doesn’t surprise me. We’ve been working at this for 15 years.”
A mariachi band plays in the background, as Chepo is asked when he knew that Alvarez would be a champion. Always, he said. Since the first day of training, through the debut at 15, all the way to now. “In every fight, he has showed something new,” Chepo said.
That doesn’t mean he’ll walk through Kovalev on Saturday. Alvarez told the reporters assembled in Las Vegas that he watched Kovalev fight Andre Ward and noted that Kovalev would be susceptible to body shots. But Kovalev remains both a larger man and a very powerful one. Alvarez said he did not add muscle for their bout; instead, he didn’t cut weight the way he would at lower divisions. It’s possible he went up too far.
The bet here is he wins again. Sanchez also trained Kovalev for several fights, and while lauding Kovalev’s thudding jab and overall strength, he still predicts that Alvarez will win. Then he hopes Alvarez with fight GGG again, adding another essential element—a trilogy—to an all-time career. Perhaps by then, barring another drug suspension or scandal, he will have been given the due he’s earned.