On Saturday, in one of the most anticipated boxing fights of the last several years, Mexico’s Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez takes on Kazakhstan’s Gennady “GGG” Golovkin. The winner will become boxing’s middleweight champion across all sanctioning bodies, taking all belts and accolades from their opponent–well, except for the WBC belt that Canelo has already declined. But beyond the belts, Canelo and Golovkin are not fighting for the same things. Canelo is fighting for more; he’s fighting to keep his place as the future face of boxing, an unofficial title that until recently, most within boxing assumed he’d possess.
Historically, boxing’s heavyweight champion has been the face of the sport. But in the last couple of decades, after Mike Tyson and all that came with him, the division’s importance declined and along with it, the sport’s popularity—at least in the United States. Boxing will always have a loyal fan base but as with everything else, relevancy gets built on the backs of casual consumers. Just as during the height of his prowess even non-boxing fans could tell you Tyson was the champion, since then, only the hardcore fans could name the heavyweight champion. As European boxers increasingly controlled the heavyweight division, it became less interesting and allowed boxers from lower weights classes the chance to be considered as the face of the sport. Names like De La Hoya, Mayweather, Pacquiao led boxing during what was “one of the worst eras in heavyweight history.”
Before going any further, it’s important to note that a boxer’s popularity and the financial benefits that popularity brings don’t necessarily equate with skill. Until rather recently, the two most skillful boxers were Guillermo Rigondeaux and Román “Chocolatito” González. Rigondeaux, from Cuba, is a boxer whose style is so tediously technical that promoters have essentially exiled him from fighting anyone of consequence. González, from Nicaragua, did not even get major television exposure until two years ago when his skills were already in decline. Srisaket Sor Rungvisai knocked out Gonzálezthis past weekend while Rigondeaux, as usual, awaits his next opponent. Outside of the hardcore boxing fans and their respective countrymen, neither of them are well-known.
With Mayweather and Pacquiao either “retired” or no longer attracting the same viewership they once did, Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez was pegged as the next boxer to lead the sport. Multibillion dollar corporations back Canelo: Tecate, Everlast, Under Armor, and Hennessy are among the companies who’ve invested in his appeal. Further, he fights on HBO and is seemingly the only boxer keeping the premium channel relevant within boxing, as it gets passed by Showtime. Adding to who’s invested in Canelo is his promoter, Golden Boy, whose present and foreseeable future is tied directly to the boxer’s success.
All of this makes Canelo one of the few marketable boxers in the world, and an important piece towards who controls boxing. All this corporate backing begs the question, however: do corporations back Canelo because of his skill and popularity or is he simply popular because of all the vested interest that companies have in making him the face of boxing? This is boxing’s eternal and existential “chicken or egg” question, and Canelo is just the latest to inspire its asking.
In the long history of Mexican—and to some extent, Latino—boxing, Canelo is different; we will only know if he’s an exception or the new norm by what comes a decade from now. Canelo is a Mexican boxing star who is likely more popular in the United States than in his home country, where the sport is much more popular than in the 50 states. This is despite Canelo not speaking a lot of English, which is generally required to reach the wider audience here. But since boxing heavily relies on and caters to a Latino audience, the effect of Canelo speaking only Spanish matters less than it would if the sport had a wider appeal. There is another thing distinguishing Canelo from earlier Mexican boxers: his dismissal of the fabled Mexican Style.
“I think the Mexican Style does not exist,” Canelo recently stated. “In Mexican boxing there is not only one style…the people think Mexican style is to go and take [punches] and give and take. I don’t think that is a characteristic…” Among some circles, this comment is akin to blasphemy.
In making a point of not adhering to the Mexican Style tradition, Canelo has further alienated many fans. Without explicitly saying it, Canelo is moving away from the overt machismo that’s an inherent part of Mexican boxing. All this feeds into the perception that Canelo is not the rightful heir representing all that Mexican boxing symbolizes. This is, again, something different as in years past a Mexican boxer with Canelo’s accolades would be nearly universally respected. But for as many fans that Canelo has, he seemingly has as many detractors, including boxing fans of Mexican heritage that are rooting for Golovkin—a boxer from Kazakhstan.
There are two main criticisms against Canelo. First, that Canelo has been a protected fighter, first with Televisa and then Golden Boy Promotions keeping him from fighting proper competition and when he did, them having enough influence to sway a few close decisions his way. The second criticism, related to the first, is that for two years, Canelo and/or his handlers have avoided fighting Golovkin—a boxer 8 years his senior—to let him get older and have his boxing skills naturally diminish. Even when Canelo agreed to the fight Golovkin, he received all advantages, including a one-sided rematch clause where if he loses, he can fight Golovkin again but if he wins, Canelo can avoid a rematch and fight anyone he wants.
Even with his critics, until this year, most assumed Canelo would be the boxer leading the sport into the future as the link between the Mayweather/Pacquiao era and the sport’s next decade. Canelo has staked claim to this being his era of boxing (#MiEra), while continually stating he feared no one–presumably as a way of attempting damage control from years of avoiding Golovkin. Everything appeared going as planned…but then, the heavyweight division suddenly became relevant and interesting.
In April, Anthony Joshua, a 27-year-old former Olympic gold medalist, defeated Wladimir Klitschko, the 41-year-old Ukrainian heavyweight who, along with his brother, dominated the heavyweight division for the better part of the last decade. Joshua is from England–the birthplace of modern boxing–where the sport has experienced a spike in popularity over the past several years. Even before the April fight, GQ magazine profiled Joshua, including making a point of his natural gifts despite taking up boxing later in life and claiming that he “isn’t just a boxer; he’s a brand.” Thealready-high expectations soared after Joshua’s exciting victory over Klitschko, with claims his win could “spark [boxing’s] renewed interest in the US [it’s] slipped from public consciousness since Tyson’s heyday.”
Since boxing’s success is inextricably tied to commercial impact, part of the narrative towards Joshua as the future of boxing includes his plans for becoming a billionaire. For as much commercial backing as Canelo has, Joshua has garnered more. Even in public workouts, Joshua appears more like a walking, punching Under Armour billboard. Joshua, who has not yet fought outside the United Kingdom, is so coveted that both Showtime and HBO agreed to share broadcast rights for his fight against Klitschko—an incredible agreement between “bitter premium cable rivals.”
Unlike Canelo, Joshua hasn’t faced the same amount of criticism that his Mexican boxing peer has, in part because he fought Klitschko before most expected him to, and beat him after it appeared—for a few rounds—he may lose. Also, much of the English criticism goes to their other heavyweight champion, Tyson Fury; a suicidal, cocaine-snorting boxer who besides being 100 pounds out-of-shape and alternating between retirement and training, has made sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic comments. By comparison, it is easy to see why some already consider Anthony Joshua a national hero.
Although advertising is not entirely a zero-sum game, Joshua’s increasing marketability has some effect on Canelo. Because he is a heavyweight and speaks English, Joshua will sooner be a household name here in the United States than Canelo will. Canelo must win to keep Joshua from outright passing him in the “who is the face of boxing” conversation. If he loses against Golovkin, Canelo’s marketability will take a massive hit, along with legitimizing many of the criticisms made against him. A loss will mean that Canelo lost to the two best opponents he faced—Floyd Mayweather Jr. being the other, whom he fought to a majority decision loss in 2013.
Of course, the corporations that have invested millions into Canelo will attempt to salvage his career. They will sell a rematch with an even older Golovkin as some redemption. That angle works best, however, when there isn’t a chorus of critics bellowing that a fighter confirmed his assumed fraudulence.
Saturday’s fight is important for both fighters, and for their legacies, but only one of them is fighting for the right to be considered the face of a sport whose popularity is at risk. For Golovkin, Saturday will be the result of years-long quest towards a career-defining fight against the most popular boxer of the current era. For Canelo, however, the result of the fight will decide the next several years of his career and how he’ll ultimately be remembered.