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Canelo Álvarez Is Sports Illustrated’s 2021 Fighter of the Year

He triumphed in four different cities, in three different states, against orthodox and southpaw fighters, brawlers and technicians, by decision and stoppage, amid a global pandemic.

In boxing, the mythology is stronger than in other sports. It lands harder than a right hand from Deontay Wilder. Contenders are fit into neat-and-tidy storylines, narratives are soaked in hyperbole and “history” is “made” seemingly every other weekend.

Add it all up, and boxing becomes its own sort of champion, an entity with a world-class skill at morphing reality into something more. But sometimes, in some years, there’s no need to exaggerate events, or heighten what happened, because a fighter achieves something that actually matches the unending hype.

Such is the case for Canelo Álvarez, the sport’s reigning pound-for-pound king, owner of boxing’s most impressive résumé and, in 2021, Sports Illustrated’s choice for Fighter of the Year. With apologies to Josh Taylor, Terence Crawford, Nonito Donaire and Tyson Fury, the selection of Álvarez was easy, warranted and grounded in real history and an ambitious plan.

Canelo Álvarez (right) is Sports Illustrated's 2021 Fighter of the Year.

The context: Álvarez began his pro career in 2005. He was 15 years old. By December 2020, he had won 53 bouts, lost only to Floyd Mayweather Jr. and recorded two draws. After battering champions at welterweight, super welterweight, middleweight and cruiserweight—the toppled included Shane Mosley, Josesito López, Austin Trout, Alfredo Angulo, Erislandy Lara, Miguel Cotto, Amir Khan, Liam Smith and Gennadiy Golovkin (who also fought Álvarez to a draw) —Álvarez could already boast of a Hall of Fame-caliber career. He didn’t need to seek out risk, let alone take aim at what he ultimately embarked on. Rather than duck out of an arena after a highly anticipated potential challenger triumphs—looking at you, Errol Spence Jr.—Álvarez settled on a quest few boxers of his stature would even consider.

The plan, starting in mid-December 2020: stage a coup in the super middleweight division. Álvarez desired to fight four times between December 2020 and November 2021. If each bout took place as scheduled, against the right opponents, he would collect all four major belts—WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO—and become the first-ever “undisputed” champion in the division and the first fighter from boxing-mad Mexico to become an undisputed titlist in the three- or four-belt eras.

A pugilist who exists in the rare air Álvarez breathes would almost never fight more than twice in any given year, let alone attempt something unprecedented in the 37-year history of a division loaded with elite champions. Sugar Ray Leonard never won an undisputed title at 168 lbs. Nor did Roy Jones Jr. Nor did Thomas Hearns, James Toney, Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank, Joe Calzaghe, or Andre Ward.

Álvarez, of course, is not like most fighters. (Full disclosure: I also work as a writer/producer for Showtime’s All Access series, which featured Álvarez and his bid for history late last year.)

The quest kicked off Dec. 19, 2020, when Álvarez bludgeoned Callum Smith for 12 rounds to seize victory by unanimous decision, along with, more importantly, Smith’s WBA title and the vacant WBC belt. That night, Álvarez also became a four-division champion, claiming an accolade only 20 other boxers have achieved.

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Two months after that, Álvarez took on Avni Yıldırım, the mandatory WBC challenger whose contract stated he would face the Álvarez-Smith winner. The bout unfolded as expected, with Álvarez dominant and intent on delivering an early ending, which he supplied after three punishing rounds.

Next up: Billy Joe Saunders, the English champion and unbeaten WBO belt-holder. With COVID-19 restrictions relaxing in Texas, they squared off at AT&T Stadium on May 8, where a crowd of 73,126 formed the largest horde ever assembled for an indoor boxing event, breaking the old mark by almost 10,000 people on the weekend of Cinco de Mayo. Saunders threatened to not partake in the bout as it drew nearer, and his complaint centered on the size of the ring. But Álvarez provided more proof of just how game he was last year by agreeing to a compromise: the ring would be 22 feet in length, roughly halfway between what each foe wanted. But the size didn’t matter. The rare southpaw opponent for Álvarez didn’t matter. Saunders’s technical proficiency didn’t matter.

Turns out, Saunders was right to be concerned. Álvarez landed a thudding right uppercut that broke bones—multiple—in his opponent’s face. Saunders’s right eye swelled shut. His injuries would require surgery. The referee stopped the bout between the eighth and ninth rounds, as Álvarez obtained the WBO belt. By then, he needed only the IBF title to etch his name into boxing’s record books again.

As the quest neared fruition, only one option remained: Caleb Plant, the undefeated IBF belt-holder. The first time the combatants stood face to face, at the first press conference to kick off a publicity tour, they came to blows. Stoked by animosity and historical implications, Álvarez confronted a greater challenge than expected, but still registered two knockdowns and a TKO in Round 11. Plant fought well, and yet, he also required treatment at a local hospital after the bout. The performance highlighted just how feared Álvarez is in boxing now. Simply almost surviving the whole bout well was billed—fairly—as proof of Plant’s bonafides.

Thus Álvarez had completed a remarkable spin through the super middleweight division in all of 11 months. He triumphed in four different cities, in three different states, against orthodox and southpaw fighters, brawlers and technicians, by decision and stoppage, amid a global pandemic. He made history for Mexico and history in boxing, becoming only the sixth male fighter in the four-belt era to unify a division. His 2021 proved even more significant than his 2019, when he beat Danny Jacobs by decision at middleweight and jumped two divisions to knock out aging Sergey Kovalev, winning many Fighter of the Year honors (including SI’s).

What’s fascinating is that, despite the enviable résumé that includes 60 professional bouts, Álvarez is only 31 years old. He’s still square in what most boxers consider to be their primes. Where’s he headed? Up, naturally, to face someone like heavy-handed Artur Beterbiev, a light heavyweight champion who has ended each of his 17 victories via stoppage. There’s also clamor for Álvarez to take on Oleksandr Usyk at cruiserweight or heavyweight, David Benavidez at super middleweight, or even one of the heavyweight champions in Fury, Wilder or Anthony Joshua. That’s more proof of how high Canelo has ascended: facing him now is akin to a lottery sweepstakes, albeit with quite a bit more pain than buying a scratch ticket.

Only five boxers have become quintuple champions—world champs in five divisions—in the sport’s four-belt era. The bet here—one placed with favorable odds—is Álvarez will soon join them, becoming one of the best fighters of any era, no hyperbole necessary, no exaggeration needed.

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