The gap between potential and proven can be measured by Jeff Lacy.
You remember Lacy, right? In 2005, Lacy was a white-hot super middleweight champion, a 168-pound portable Mike Tyson with a big chin and even bigger power. He had a belt, an unblemished record and an American fan base starved for a new star behind him.
But Lacy's career came crashing back to Earth less than a year later, when a 2006 trip to England ended with Lacy getting demolished in a unification fight with Joe Calzaghe. Over 12 lopsided rounds Lacy was punished, his face swollen and his back on the canvas for the first time in his career. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Showtime analyst Al Bernstein foreshadowed that this fight would "change the course of Lacy's career."
It did, too. Lacy was never the same after that beating from Calzaghe. He was blown out in his next big fight with Jermaine Taylor and followed that up with losses to Roy Jones and Dhafir Smith.
Saul "Canelo" Alvarez doesn't know much about Lacy. But the 20-year-old junior middleweight prospect is following a familiar path. He has the perfect (36-0) record. He has a world title belt, which he won with an easy win over Matthew Hatton last March, around his waist. He has the support of a nation (Mexico) behind him and a growing number of fans in the U.S. lining up to pay to see him.
But Alvarez also has flaws. He has devastating power (26 knockouts), but his straight-ahead style leaves him open for a lot of clean shots. His chin has been solid but his promoter, Golden Boy, has not put him in with many big punchers.
Is Alvarez good?
Is he great?
The jury is still out.
On Saturday, Alvarez will get his stiffest test to date when he defends his alphabet junior middleweight title against Ryan Rhodes in Guadalajara, Mexico (HBO, 10:30 pm ET). Rhodes (45-4) is a hard-hitting veteran who earned a mandatory shot at the title when he knocked out Jamie Moore in 2009. He's durable and comes into this fight with 16 years of professional experience.
"I'm nothing like Matthew Hatton," Rhodes said. "For one, I can punch hard. Two, I can switch hit. I can make things awkward for my opponent. Three, I'm a legitimate [junior] middleweight. I am the first person, the first legitimate [junior] middleweight who Canelo is fighting. I used to fight [at] middleweight. I fought for a world title as middleweight. Comparing me to Matthew Hatton ... if people want to do that, let them. That's a massive mistake."
A win over Rhodes won't validate Alvarez. It will take more than that. But an emphatic victory -- like Alvarez's crushing knockout of iron-chinned Carlos Baldomir last year -- will get people's attention and open the door to more fertile proving grounds.
Alvarez has everything a top contender would want in an opponent: He's young, charismatic and popular. He has HBO squarely in his corner and a growing fan base in Los Angeles that makes the Staples Center a home away from home. A convincing win puts the usual big money opponents (Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Miguel Cotto) on his radar and puts him in a position to unify the 154-pound division. A fight with the technically proficient Sergey Dzindziruk would draw an audience to HBO and a Puerto Rico-Mexico showdown with Cotto at, say, Madison Square Garden next year would sell the building out.
"He's got a rock star-like following," said Golden Boy COO Dave Itskowitch. "He sells out huge arenas to stellar ratings on Televisa. He is widely considered to be Mexico's next great champion and superstar. He is coming off of capturing his first world title on March 5 against Matthew Hatton, which also made him the youngest fighter ever to win a 154-pound title, breaking the record set by Fernando Vargas."
A loss to Rhodes, however, would be equally devastating. HBO would cut him loose, his opponents would dry up and talk of a future as the next Oscar De La Hoya would be replaced by questions about whether we are seeing the berth of another Lacy.
Alvarez says he isn't considered about his place in the sport right now, and he shouldn't be. His focus is on his next fight. But boxing fans everywhere will be watching closely. As Lacy proved, the transition from stud to dud can happen overnight.