Superstardom Came When Saul Alvarez Morphed Into Canelo

Lots of athletes have nicknames. Some are carryovers from childhood, some are self-invented, still others are the products of imaginative publicists or promoters seeking to coin a word or phrase that will separate their guy (or gal) from the madding crowd.  But it takes a truly special talent or personality to rise to the level where the nickname supersedes what’s printed on a birth certificate, and even more so in those rare instances when a nickname becomes a stand-alone method of identification.

When people familiar with baseball history think of the most legendary of New York Yankees sluggers, do they mention someone who came into the world as George Herman Ruth or a larger-than-life figure known and beloved by all as Babe?  Does the average NBA fan hail a certain Lakers superstar point guard as Earvin Johnson or Magic? How about Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known to the soccer world as Pele? And when boxing buffs speak about “The Greatest,” is there any doubt they’re referring to Muhammad Ali and not some other candidate possibly worthy of such an exalted designation?

By that rather arbitrary standard for determining what constitutes fame, the Sept. 16 matchup of a couple of guys named Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin and Santos Saul Alvarez Barragan, at the T-Mobile Center in Las Vegas, might not resonate all that much with a public that knows these splendid middleweights so much better by their shorter, snappier sobriquets. It’s simply GGG vs. Canelo, a dream pairing to be televised via HBO Pay Per View that requires no further explanation. For publicity purposes, last names, and maybe even given first names, are optional.

“This is by far the biggest boxing event of 2017 and we are expecting a nonstop action fight between two of the most skilled fighters in the sport today,” Golden Boy CEO Oscar De La Hoya, Alvarez’s promoter, turning the knob on that ever-humming hype machine as high as it will go, said during a teleconference with the media on Tuesday. “In terms of magnitude, in terms of people that will be watching, this has to be the biggest (160-pound fight) ever. Obviously, we have to wait ’til Sept. 16 to see if it’s going to be the best, which I think it will be, in the history of the middleweight division.”

If De La Hoya is guilty of jumping to extremes – and he is, as is so often the case in an athletic enterprise where hyperbole is as omnipresent as crooked noses and scar tissue – he isn’t egregiously off the mark. Not only is the showdown of Kazakhstan’s Golovkin (37-0, 33 KOs) and Mexico’s Alvarez (49-1-1, 34 KOs) the most anticipated in a storied weight class since Sugar Ray Leonard scored a controversial upset of Marvelous Marvin Hagler on April 6, 1987, it is a gross-revenue referendum on traditional boxing in relation to the Aug. 26 event in which boxing’s longtime pound-for-pound best, Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr., ends a two-year retirement against mixed martial arts sensation Conor McGregor, who will be making his debut as a pro boxer. That bout, also to be staged at the T-Mobile Arena but televised via Showtime Pay Per View, has been dismissed by some media skeptics as an apple vs. an orange, or maybe, should the breathless promotion fail to deliver the promised excitement quotient, an apple vs. a kumquat.

It was a half-hour into the teleconference before the first question about Mayweather-McGregor was posed, as it surely had to.

“Obviously, we have the real fight, we have a serious fight – two of the best fighters fighting each other,” responded De La Hoya, seemingly miffed at even having to address the existence of the earlier event. “I think that the fans have recognized that. This is the fight they want to be at, the fight they want to see. A clear indication is that we sold out in 10 days.”

In the days and weeks ahead, torrents of copy and TV face time will be devoted to both fights. All the principals will have their chances to further predict, posture and speculate, but Alvarez got a crack at making an unopposed case for himself during Tuesday’s teleconference and he and the other key members of Team Canelo – De La Hoya, lead trainer Eddy Reynoso and manager/cornerman Jose “Chepo” Reynoso – did so with the requisite air of confidence. At 27, Canelo is arguably the most marketable boxer in the world, at least since Mayweather retired, and he certainly is the most avidly supported in boxing-obsessed Mexico since the heyday of the great Julio Cesar Chavez. He will have overwhelming crowd support on Sept. 16 in Vegas, where he has previously fought nine times (to none for Golovkin), and especially so with the bout taking place during Mexican Independence Day Weekend.

Alvarez still holds the lineal and The Ring magazine titles while Golovkin comes in as the champion of the WBC, WBA, IBF and IBO, although the belt bestowed by the Mexico City-based WBC will not be on the line, at Canelo’s insistence, the result of his feeling that he has been wronged by his home country’s sanctioning body.

“I’ve already talked about that,” he said when asked about the ongoing kerfuffle with the WBC. “Whatever I’ve said in the past, it’s the same thing.”

What Alvarez said then, when he could not meet a tight deadline for negotiating a fight with Golovkin in early 2016 and was thus stripped of the WBC title, which was arbitrarily handed to GGG, is this: “They made it look as if I gave the belt away because I was afraid. No, I’m not afraid of anyone … I won that title with blood, sweat and sacrifice by beating Miguel Angel Cotto. When I vacated it, they gave it to the other guy like that, without making him drop a bead of sweat … They put it on the table. That’s not an organization I can respect.”

For a Mexican fighter, any Mexican fighter, to so publicly call out the WBC is stunning, but it is a testament to Alvarez’s burgeoning faith in himself and his ability to dance to his own tune, or maybe De La Hoya’s, instead of that called by anyone else. That was not always the case for a once-unknown kid from Juanacatlan, in the Mexican state of Jalisco, who was dubbed “Canelito,” or “Little Cinnamon,” by Chepo Reynoso at age 12. The nickname – it was shortened as the kid, who turned pro at 15, grew older and no longer in need of the diminutive – is a reference to the red hair, fair complexion and freckles that make him instantly recognizable from the vast majority of his olive-hued, dark-haired countrymen.

“Family members and friends call me Saul, but sometimes they’ll slip and call me Canelo,” he said of his evolution from anonymity to the rampaging celebrity of today. “It doesn’t matter. I’m happy to accept that. (Being called Canelo) became natural to me.”

The eighth of eight children, seven of whom are boys, little Saul became enamored of boxing because of older brother Rigoberto, who briefly held the interim WBA super welterweight title before relinquishing it on a unanimous decision to Austin Trout on Feb. 5, 2011, in Jalisco.

Saul often appeared in the Reynoso Gym where Rigoberto, 12 years his senior, would train, and it was there that the inquisitive onlooker, and his red hair, was noticed by Chepo Reynoso. Destiny was about to be set into motion, but then perhaps it already had been, by Rigo, who presented the youngest Alvarez with his first pair of boxing gloves when the child was 10.

“I didn’t have the slightest idea that hidden under that red hair there was an enormous talent,” Rigo, who retired in 2011 with a 27-4 (20) record, said in an article that appeared in Deadspin. “We put on the gloves, started to box and when I began to see how he defended himself, how he moved his hands, his eyes, the way he began to throw punches with that courage, I swear it surprised me. And I said, `God, I think this is a gift you’ve given to our family.’”

Canelo might have jumped into the deep end of the pool too soon when he was schooled in losing a majority decision to Mayweather on Sept. 14, 2013, but he is more experienced now, and better, so much so that he is widely considered one of the top 10 pound-for-pound fighters in the world, and No. 1 by, although that might be a few slots too high at this juncture.

But if he beats the favored GGG?

“Canelo is an ambitious person, an ambitious fighter,” De La Hoya said in describing the four years of personal and profession growth that have transformed a very good fighter into a potentially great one. “Yes, he did take that (Mayweather) fight a bit too soon, but the progress he has made has been incredible in terms of his punching power, his boxing abilities. His jab has improved tremendously. And it’s only the beginning. I strongly feel that he’s only going to get better.”

The 35-year-old Golovkin and his savvy trainer, Abel Sanchez, no doubt have their own ideas about that. But barring a draw, only one fighter will emerge as the finest middleweight on the planet and, just maybe, the top guy in any weight class.

“I think that the winner (on Sept. 16) should be recognized as the best fighter in the world,” said Canelo, who for now, and maybe for posterity, needs no more introduction than that.

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