Deep in an area called Mira Loma, near Riverside, California, prizefighters from Mexico regularly congregated in an outdoor gym made of aluminum siding in the early 2000s.
Trainer Jose “Chepo” Reynoso often brought his fighters from Guadalajara, Mexico to the gym owned by Willy Silva. They formed a bond and friendship that still lasts to this day.
One autumn day the veteran trainer brought a redhead kid named Saul “Canelo” Alvarez to Southern California to fight in a casino in Riverside County. That was nine years ago.
After nine years of meeting many of the world’s best super welterweights, Alvarez (49-1-1, 34 KOs) is poised to meet the undisputed middleweight world champion Gennady “GGG” Golovkin (37-0, 33 KOs) on Saturday Sept. 16, at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. HBO pay-per-view will televise.
Reynoso had brought many of his fighters to the Riverside area, some world champions like Oscar Larios and the late Javier Jauregui. But when he brought along the redhead he took him directly to Morongo Casino, as if to hide the talented welterweight from the normal trajectories of boxing life. He was special.
It was late in October when Reynoso proudly walked into the casino with his then 18-year-old protégé Alvarez. He recognized me from my visits to the Mira Loma gym and walked over excitedly to introduce me to the redhead. He then gave me a dark brown t-shirt that had a picture resembling the Mexican fighter and words that said “Canelo, Pure Gold” in front and “Canelo, Oro Puro” in the back.
I saved the t-shirt mainly because I had never seen Reynoso so animated about any fighter before. It seemed the trainer absolutely believed in Alvarez’s talent.
Though only 18, Alvarez had been fighting professionally in Mexico for three years or since 15 years old. That’s amazing in itself because Mexico has an abundance of bloodthirsty boxers just ready to tear down an Anglo-looking kid like Alvarez. Call it the revenge of the Aztecs.
When trainer and boxer entered the boxing ring at Morongo Casino’s theater (that only holds about 400 people for boxing) it was Alvarez’s first venture into the United States and Golden Boy Promotions was interested in taking a look at Alvarez.
That night Alvarez battled Larry Mosley a crafty veteran boxer whose style was something the Mexican boxer had never encountered in his country. Aggressiveness is a Mexican staple but Mosley was the opposite. He was all defense and seldom attacked. Alvarez was frustrated.
Alvarez won that night though he visibly was befuddled at times by the passive style of Mosley. The Mexican fighter turned on the after-burners midway through the 10 round fight and won on pure aggression. After the fight he was still slightly perplexed.
“I can do better,” he said after the fight.
Alvarez would not return to the U.S. again for another two years.
Many had wondered about the Mexican redhead. When Golden Boy announced they had signed Alvarez to another fight that was the answer some in the media had waited to hear.
In May 2010, Alvarez fought on his first Las Vegas card against Jose Miguel Cotto, the brother of Miguel Cotto. The 19-year-old Alvarez was wobbled badly by Cotto early in the fight but retaliated with a knockdown of Cotto. It was a back and forth skirmish that Alvarez finally ended with another of his after-burner explosions to win in the ninth round.
The media pounced on Alvarez for getting wobbled.
“He can’t take a punch,” is what many were saying though Alvarez never did go down and still has not tasted the canvas. He was only 19 years old but many ignored that fact.
That wobble by Alvarez against Cotto became the source of proof for detractors throughout his career that he could not take a punch. Even when he fought Miguel Cotto in November 2015 detractors cited “the wobble” as proof of Alvarez’s weakness. Still, he has never been knocked down.
Wins over Shane Mosley, Josesito Lopez and Austin Trout led him to a showdown with Floyd “Money” Mayweather in September 2013. Alvarez was only 23 but filled with pride from his achievements.
Many loudly claimed he was not ready for Mayweather. But how could anyone resist making $10 million or more to fight? Of course he accepted it.
“I was not ready for Mayweather,” said Alvarez recently. “I learned a lot from that fight.”
Perhaps the biggest lesson learned against the boxing wizardry of Mayweather was you don’t try to out-box a boxer.
Battle of Mexicans
After tasting defeat against Mayweather it was time to return to a true warrior’s battle and who better to fight than another Mexican?
Alfredo “El Perro” Angulo had risen through the ranks old school style and was part of a group of old school Mexican bangers led by trainer Javier Capetillo. It was a hard-edged group led by world champion at the time Antonio Margarito and also consisted of Jesus Soto Karass. All would train at South El Monte and engage in some of the most brutal sparring wars I’ve ever seen. Occasionally East L.A.’s Serio Mora would engage in sparring sessions with them.
Eventually Angulo broke away from the group and became a popular fighter among fans in the Southern California area. But immigration officers arrested him and he was detained for more than a year near San Diego. When he was finally freed, he was quickly navigated to contender status and earmarked to fight Alvarez. They met in March 2014.
Alvarez expected the toughest battle of his career especially considering Angulo’s style and the Mexican pride factor. It just never developed into a competitive fight. Though Angulo’s spirit was willing, the legs seemed stuck in quicksand. The Mexican redhead had his way and roared to victory by stoppage in the 10th round.
Victories over Erislandy Lara, James Kirkland, Miguel Cotto, and Amir Khan followed. When fellow Mexican Julio Cesar Chavez was offered many expected the Mexican war to finally appear. It didn’t.
Now, it finally looks like a real Mexican war like those seen in the 1960s and 70s will finally unfold. Ironically, only one was born in Mexico but in Golovkin you have a fighter engrained in the Mexican style who loves to fight. It’s also a match that fans around the world have been waiting to see.
“My team says that this fight is the most dangerous and we have assessed that these 14 years have prepared us for this fight here,” said Alvarez when in Los Angeles. “We had time to rest, plenty of time, now it’s time to prepare for maybe the toughest challenge of my career, but we are ready for it.”
Golovkin agrees and exhibits an extra glee in his eye. After years of waiting and never having fought in Las Vegas, he gets the entire enchilada in one swoop.
“Canelo is a special guy, he is not a regular guy. I don’t know who would stay close to us in the middleweight division. If he beats me he is better. If I beat him I am better,” said Golovkin. “Seriously, the last three four fights he destroyed everybody. It’s hard work. Seriously, it’s not easy.”
It’s been a wild and treacherous journey for both akin to the winding drive up to Big Bear.
“We have a done a lot since my first visit to the United States. We’re very honored to start from nothing to where we are today,” said Alvarez. “That first fight in the United States we had that vision to one day be here and here we are.”
Two warriors from different parts of the world have finally reached the mountain peak. While one was waiting the other has finally arrived.
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