Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez may be the world’s most popular boxer, and yet he has a problem: He lacks credibility among the sport’s largest fan bases, Mexicans and, increasingly, Mexican-Americans. Questions about Álvarez’s boxing skill extend beyond these two groups, but since he is Mexican, attempting to understand why he lacks credibility must start here, among his fellow countrymen and those with whom he shares a heritage.
As the best boxer from a country obsessed with the sport, Álvarez should not lack for credibility. There was a time when fans would have lauded a boxer of Álvarez’s accomplishments, when he may even have amassed a cult-like following. With a good part of his it remaining, though, it seems Álvarez will go through his career without the respect given to past Mexican champions. He will not be shown the same reverence Julio César Chávez was; his technique will not be viewed with the same appreciation as that of El Finito López; and fans won’t romanticize him as with Salvador Sánchez who died tragically, aged 23, in a car accident. Nor will they, I suspect, remember Álvarez as fondly as Mantequilla Nápoles, who, though born in Cuba, became a Mexican citizen and so ingrained in the country’s culture that he even starred alongside the iconic luchador, El Santo, in the movie Santo y Mantequilla Napoles en la Venganza de la Llorona. Among near-contemporaries, Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Márquez, or Érik Morales will all be better respected than Álvarez.
Instead, Álvarez will have a divided legacy. There will be those who see him as a genuine talent continuing the proud Mexican boxing tradition, and those who see him as a fraud, created by Televisa and propped up and protected by Oscar De La Hoya. The latter opinion is influenced by more than watching him fight, and has largely to do with Álvarez’s continual presence in Mexican tabloids. We also cannot discount Álvarez’s close association with De La Hoya, who has his own complicated history with Mexican and Mexican-American fans and has used his own career to guide his protégé’s—a model emphasizing mass appeal by attracting casual boxing fans.
On Saturday, Álvarez will face Gennady Golovkin, his toughest opponent and one of the latest reasons why his credibility is questioned. Alhough not quite Mexico’s Great Usurper, Golovkin, for a fighter from Kazakhstan, has attracted a surprising amount of Mexican and Mexican-American fans, marketing himself as a “Mexican style” fighter whose ringwork is based on “attacking instinct and body punching.” In contemporary times the style has been associated with Julio César Chávez, and it was taught to Golovkin by Abel Sanchez—his Mexican-American trainer, who has contributed to questions over Álvarez’s boxing credibility. At one point, when it appeared the fight would never happen, Sanchez said Álvarez had to face Golovkin “or he is not Mexican.”
This growing divide between Álvarez, and the Mexican and Mexican-American fan base is not new. But it is also not as simple as some claim. “You have two types of different Mexican fans,” Ernesto Amador, commentator for Univision Sports, told the New York Times. (Univision is the parent company of Deadspin.) “Those who live in the United States know their stuff and appreciate the efforts. He is an idol. But in Mexico, his critics know nothing about boxing. They drink two beers and think they are experts.” This assessment oversimplifies the problem, simultaneously turning Álvarez into a Mexican-American boxing idol and ignoring Mexico’s rigid class hierarchy—a historical problem that makes Álvarez a 21st-century conundrum borne out of centuries of bullshit. It is this class divide—which is complicated, even contradictory, in its application—which influences how we see Álvarez.
At just 27 years old, Álvarez is entering the prime of his career, making this the halfway point of a still evolving story; an intermission recap of who should be Mexico’s next great boxer—and may well be—but one who has yet to inspire the same devotion usually accompanying that unofficial title. Álvarez is the first Mexican boxing superstar of a new era, where instead of knowing just about his boxing and filling in the rest, the public knows too much about the rest and allows it to influence how he’s viewed inside the ring. He is also the first Mexican boxing superstar to belong just as much, if not more, to the United States—an export built for popular consumption and one that, detractors say, lacks substance.
In an intimate, dark arena where only the ring stood illuminated—the type that in both geography and importance stands thousands of miles away from the glamorous side of boxing—Canelo Álvarez began his professional boxing career. It was the kind of place where a sober, introspective mind might wander and begin understanding criticisms made against the sport. A quiet, inner question of “Maybe boxing is human cockfighting” could be made louder by thinking about Álvarez following a long history of Mexican boxers by beginning his career at an obscenely young age. While he was not as young as Alberto “Baby” Arizmendi, whose career began at 13, this was also not the 1920s. It was 2005 and Álvarez, fighting grown men, was 15.
In Mexico, where one may box to escape more so than for sport, fighting as an amateur for too long is counterproductive. The point is to make money first; if one has the appetite and toughness to learn on the job, then technique comes. Álvarez was no different. Thus, he threw wide, looping punches. His defensive posture was more instinctual than practical. And yet, despite it being his first professional bout, there was a fluidity to his fighting, a natural result of learning how to defend himself long before he ever entered a ring.
Álvarez’s red hair and freckled skin had inspired his peers to label him with feminine, unflattering nicknames like “Canela” or “Canelita.” Álvarez fought back, maybe inspired by his older brother, Rigoberto, who was the first Álvarez family member to box. While neither red-haired nor freckled, Rigoberto, like the other Álvarezes, is fair-skinned, so much so that during his fighting days, his nickname was “El Español”—the Spaniard, a nickname whose history in Mexico can be villainous and with a specific class connotation.
In 1519, when Hernán Cortés led a successful Spanish expedition into New Spain—what later became Mexico—there was a clear class divide, with the Spanish on top. And while there was a hierarchy among indigenous people, with those who helped the Spanish overthrow the Aztecs near the top, Spaniards controlled the important aspects of society. The class divide became forever muddied when Cortés’ translator, Malintzin, called Doña Marina by the Spanish, birthed their child. Mexicans call her La Malinche or La Chingada—the fucked one—noting her role as a violated woman. From this dual betrayal comes the birth of Mexicans. We are all children of the fucked one.
As Octavio Paz argued, the phrase “Hijos de la Chingada” serves multiple purposes in everyday Mexican life. It acts as a curse and sorrowful acknowledgment of the past when said in anger; when yelled in joyful enthusiasm, it becomes a cry toward uniting all birthed by the violated Eve. In New Spain, the Hijos de la Chingada fell within the class hierarchy, sometimes higher than others, but always beneath the Spanish.
Despite the history informing the “El Español” nickname, the Álvarezes were anything but high-class. Had this been centuries before, their light skin would have given them an even higher level of class than it does now. Perhaps, if able to fake a Spanish accent—replacing the “ess” sound in the S with a “thh”—few would question them had they claimed birth on the Iberian Peninsula. But this was a different time, and under the current societal hierarchy, the Álvarezes were paleteros.
Paletero essentially means an ice cream man, which is the Álvarez family business. But a paletero is more than that, and no English word can capture the entirety of what the Spanish word connotes. Lost in translation is the low social class implied with paletero. It is a word evoked as an extreme example a parent may use to make a point or offer a warning to their child. “Has caso en la escuela o serás paletero”—pay attention in school, or you will end up as a paletero.
Álvarez won his first fight along with the many more that followed. As he did, the nickname that once infuriated him, became cheers of adoration but this time, said in the masculine form. And where he boxed, chants of “Ca-ne-lo! Ca-ne-lo!” accompanied him. By 2008, he signed a four-year deal with promoting company, All Star Boxing. The following year, just four years into his career, Álvarez signed with Televisa, the largest media company, not just in Mexico, but across all the Spanish-speaking world. Among the things Televisa produces and exports are novelas—Mexican soap operas—where the rag to riches storyline is among the most common.
For better and worse, signing with Televisa became a turning point in how people perceived him. But for the time being, Álvarez—the youngest son of the paletero from a nowhere town—was doing the improbable, almost impossible: skyrocketing through Mexico’s rigid class structure and on the verge of becoming a household name across Mexico.
To say Televisa is state-influenced media would be an understatement. The PRI is a political party, born out of Mexico’s revolution, that increasingly turned conservative and corrupt as it maintained power for over 70 years, until the 2000 elections. Televisa, in turn, depended on the PRI for its licensing and infrastructure development. Further, the Azcárraga family that controlled Televisa were unabashed members of the PRI.
“We’re from the PRI, we’re members of the PRI,” said Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, the company’s chairman of the board. “[W]e don’t believe in any other party. And as members of our party, we will do everything possible to make sure our candidate wins.” With this mindset, Televisa and the PRI became intertwined, with the former projecting the latter’s ideas, ignoring their political opponents, and providing them with favorable news coverage along with attempting to spin their failures. This became clear during the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre that occurred days before Mexico hosted the summer Olympics.
On October 2nd, students and others protesters demonstrated against the government’s corruption and authoritarian measures. They also argued the money spent on the Olympics should have been spent elsewhere—on infrastructure, housing, or education. The protesters gathered in Tlatelolco at the La Plaza de las Tres Culturas. The plaza reflects three cultures and periods of Mexican history, containing the remains of an Aztec temple, a church built by the Spanish intended to replace Aztec temples, and a large housing complex built by the Mexican government that replaced Spanish rule. With opening ceremonies 10 days away, police and military attacked the protesters—opening fire from helicopters and nearby buildings. Televisa defended the government’s actions and since the government had no interest in investigating a massacre they authorized, the exact number of deaths is unknown. Some estimates claim the number as high as 3,000.
Allegedly, hours after the massacre, Jacobo Zabludovsky, opened his news program by saying, “Hoy fue un día soleado”—today was a sunny day. Zabludovsky was Televisa’s main newscaster and the default figurehead for what they symbolized. He is Mexico’s version Walter Cronkite, without the credibility. Zabludovsky is so reviled he even inspired a song from Mexican rap/rock band Molotov called “Que no te haga bobo Jacobo”—don’t let Jacobo bullshit you. Few in Mexico deny the connection between Televisa and the PRI. It remains the most powerful media company in Mexico, but it has also become common knowledge that it is bullshit, just one of the many things in Mexico one knows of and must maneuver through.
This is the history that came with Álvarez’s four-year contract with Televisa. A contract that paid him 250,000 pesos per month (equivalent to $19,230 in 2009 when the peso hovered around 13 per US dollar). Besides having exclusive Mexican television rights to his fights, Televisa could also feature Álvarez on their contest shows and novelas. The deal was also Televisa’s attempt to stay relevant in Mexican boxing. Its main competitor, TV Azteca, owned the rights to televise Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.’s fights—a boxer who advertisers and television saw as more marketable than Álvarez, due to his being the son of the boxing national hero.
Rafael Mendonza, who represented Álvarez during his early career, explained what was at stake for the two television rivals. “If Canelo loses Televisa loses, their [boxing] business is over and TV Azteca wins; but if Julio Cesar Chavez loses TV Azteca loses and Televisa wins.”
With their history and all Televisa stood to gain, or lose, those who saw each one of his heavily promoted fights questioned Álvarez’s credibility. There was an assumption that Álvarez was nothing more than a product, formed and pushed by Televisa. In the eyes of many, Álvarez was a made-up fighter, created for the masses—a light-skinned protagonist, in the same way the leading roles in novelas go to those with “European” features. Here, the blonde and light-eyed leading actor became a redhead. Álvarez had become famous. People across the country knew his name but didn’t know if, as a boxer, he was any good or worth the hype.
In the years after his Televisa contract, Álvarez increasingly found himself in legal disputes and tabloid fodder that further turned public opinion. The first of them began when he signed with Golden Boy Promotions in January 2010. “I really think today is a historical day for Golden Boy,” said Oscar De La Hoya, owner of Golden Boy Promotions. “We believe Saúl is going to be a star. He’s already a big attraction … in Mexico and we’re going to do everything we can to help him become a champion and a star in the United States.” Álvarez was just excited, stating that working with Golden Boy promised to help him reach his full potential as a fighter and extend his success into the United States.
Everyone appeared joyful except for All Star Boxing, Álvarez’s former promoter, which claimed to still have the Mexican star under contract. All Star Boxing offered to settle with Golden Boy Promotions for $5 million but believing it an attempt to extort them, De La Hoya’s company refused. All Star Boxing filled a law suit against Álvarez and Golden Boy Promotions in 2011.
That same year, Álvarez was back in the news for his conduct outside of the ring. Archie Solís—a flyweight boxing champion at the time—claimed that on an October morning, while doing his roadwork, Álvarez attacked him. “I was about to finish my route,” Solís recounted. “[Álvarez] called me, he threw me and began yelling, ‘Why are you with my woman?’… I don’t even know her.” Solís suffered two breaks on his jaw along with the loss of several teeth. Due the injuries and the multiple surgeries that followed, Solís couldn’t box which led to IBF stripping his title due to inactivity. Solís also claimed people associated with Álvarez threatened him and his family’s life, even warning they would decapitate them. Solís sued Álvarez for $9 million.
Two years later, in 2013, former lightweight titleholder Javier Jauregui died. Jauregui was the type of champion that gets lost in the sport’s spectacle. For every Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez that gets backed by multibillion dollarcorporations, there are countless Javier Jaureguis. They are the boxers whose career earnings will only be a fraction of what Álvarez makes in endorsements—who, when betrayed by age, arrivesat the realization they can’t afford to stop doing one of the few things they know how to do. So, they must sell their services as a sparring partner to let others practice technique on their body. Jauregui, at 40 years old when he died, was Álvarez’s sparring partner.
According to TV y Novelas, who claimed to have spoken with someone inside the camp, Jauregui’s death came from a sustained barrage of punches during a training session—essentially, they said, Álvarez beat his sparring partner to death. Álvarez and his camp vehemently denied the accusation and wanted Televisa, which owns the magazine, to condemn the accusations. When this did not happen, Álvarez ended their business partnership. His handlers claimed they had no long-term contract with the television company and were free to negotiate others, including TV Azteca.
Álvarez and Televisa made amends. “Yes, the thing with the magazine happened,” Álvarez’s manager said, explaining the reconciliation, “but like we say, ‘talking is how people understand each other’ and we came to an agreement, we will continue to hold events on Televisa through Canelo Promotions.”
All’s well that ends well for those who have it all. And in Mexico, as with other countries, often those who have it all are aprovechados.
An aprovechado is a disparaging term. It roughly translates to a person who takes all possible advantages for themselves, even unfair and unnecessary ones. An aprovechado is a bully that takes from everyone else, even when they don’t need to and usually done at the expense of those with far less. Few like or root for aprovechados since they have few scruples and think foremost of their own interest.
Hernán Cortés was an aprovechado; the United States have historically been aprovechados in their dealings with Mexico and Latin America as a whole; the PRI—and most other Mexican political parties, including drug cartels—are aprovechados, as are those who run Televisa. If what All Star Boxing, Solís, and TV y Novelas say about Álvarez is true, then he, too would be an aprovechado. In Solís’s case, it would mean that Álvarez sucker-punched a man he outweighs by about 50 pounds. Critics who rightfully claim Álvarez often fights opponents out of their weight limit, may see the accusation as fitting.
In 2015, a Miami jury ruled that Golden Boy Promotions owed nothing to All Star Boxing. They also ruled that Álvarez owed his former promoter $8.5 million. That same year, Álvarez and Solís reached an out-of-court settlement.
In the winter of 1963, Mexico City hosted a boxing convention. Representatives from Latin America, Asia, Europe, and the United States attended, intent on reforming and unifying boxing across the globe. The convention culminated with the creation of the World Boxing Council—the first global boxing sanctioning body. Though 11 countries officially founded it, the WBC’s main founders were Mexican, and the organization very much remains associated with that country, where it yields a large amount of influence. Unsurprisingly, as PRI’s vast influence extended beyond media, one of the driving influences behind creating a boxing organization was Adolfo López Mateos, the Mexican president who portrayed himself as a sportsman. López Mateos also began the tradition of presidents meeting publicly with boxers.
Since its founding, the WBC has found itself embroiled in allegations of corruption—ironic, since one reason given for its creation was to protect Mexican boxers from being exploited in the United States. Other allegationsagainst the WBC and José Sulaimán—its president for close to 40 years—include nepotism, favoritism, and overall incompetence. Álvarez was among the fighters who enjoyed this alleged favoritism—at least for a time.
In a remarkable television show, broadcast on Televisa and set up as a court hearing debating Álvarez’s merits, Juan Manuel Márquez and his legendary trainer, Nacho Beristáin, questioned why the WBC not only ranked Álvarez so high but also placed him against inferior opponents. Incredibly, Sulaimán responded by calling Márquez “jealous” and “envious” before all but admitting ticket sales and television ratings—essentially popularity—justified Álvarez’s ranking. Before the television show ended, Álvarez challenged Márquez to a fight and thanked “Don José” for the confidence he had shown in him.
Sulaimán died in 2014. One obituary, noting the power he wielded, described him as “respected, feared and hated in just about equal measure.” A month after his death, the WBC unanimously elected his son, Mauricio Sulaimán, to succeed his father as president of the organization. With the younger Sulaimán leading it, the relationship between the organization and Álvarez appeared as strong as ever. In keeping with their history of creating belts, including for last month’s Mayweather vs. McGregor fight, the WBC even presented Álvarez with an honorary Diamond belt. Then things fell apart.
The problems began after Álvarez defeated Amir Khan—another opponent fighting out of his weight limit. After the fight, in which Álvarez said in his animated post-fight interview he’d fight Golovkin immediately since he didn’t “fuck around,” Sulaimán and the WBC gave him a 15-day deadline to make that fight. Álvarez, who had to be in Miami to defend himself in the lawsuit brought by All Star Boxing, said he refused to let an “artificial deadline” pressure him into a decision. So instead of agreeing to fight Golovkin, Álvarez vacated the title. The WBC immediately recognized Golovkin as their undisputed “middleweight champion of the world.”
Without throwing a single punch, Golovkin became the WBC’s champion while the relationship between the organization and Álvarez disintegrated. Álvarez claims the WBC made it appear as if he was afraid of Golovkin.
The WBC, possibly recognizing it may have overplayed its hand by alienating the most powerful boxer in Mexico, and maybe even the world, has attempted to remain a part of Álvarez’s career. Earlier this year when he faced Julio César Chávez Jr., the WBC created a belt for the non-title fight—they named it the Adolfo López Mateos Huichol belt.
The Huichol—or Wixarika, in their own language—are an indigenous group within Mexico that and were among the most resilient against Spain’s incursions, including Catholicism. They used rebellions as part of this resistance to keep their culture and customs alive. Today, one thing the Huichol are known for is their colorful art, which made for a beautiful, albeit fake, WBC belt, which Álvarez immediately rejected.
Explaining his decision to not accept the belt, Álvarez stated, “[Sulaimán], on his own, began the Huichol belt. And in my mind, I thought, I knew that he was going to say, ‘He does not want a belt made by Mexicans.’ That is exactly what happened.” Álvarez went on to state that as he highly respects the Huichol, his decision to not accept the belt had nothing to do with them, as Sulaimán insinuated. Rather, his decision came from being against the WBC. “[Sulaimán] made it seem like I was the bad guy, that I didn’t want to accept a Mexican art. That is completely false.” Álvarez further added, “It is not that I am being disrespectful to the Huichol in not wanting the belt. I want nothing to do with the WBC.”
In keeping with his claim of not wanting anything to do with the organization, Álvarez says if he beats Golovkin this weekend, he will not accept the WBC belt.
The WBC presented the Adolfo López Mateos Huichol belt to the former president’s granddaughter. In the ceremony, she accepted the belt while offering advice to Álvarez: “Do not lose sight that boxing is a sport; that people admire you, children overall. Try to set an example for them. That they, along with yourself, learn to choose their battles as it is not always worth the effort to fight them all.”
A sports museum in Mexico City has scheduled to display the Adolfo López Mateos Huichol belt—another relic whose history will eventually be distorted. It’s doubtful the museum placard will read, “Este cinturón queda como símbolo del momento cuando uno de los de abajo le dijo a los de arriba que chinge a su madre.” (This belt remains as a symbol of the moment when a member born of the lower classes told those above them to fuck off.)
Instead, it will be coopted and used as a symbol for something else, something that those above us, who can’t even imagine what life is like for those below them, will never question if true.
The WBC has again attempted to work their way into Álvarez’s career by making another Huichol belt that’ll go to Saturday’s winner. But unlike the Cinco de Mayo version of the belt, the WBC will not end up having to donate it, as oddsmakers favor Golovkin against Álvarez, who if he wins, will accept their belt. Golovkin will be the second toughest opponent that Álvarez will face, the first being Floyd Mayweather Jr., whom he fought in 2013.
When Álvarez fought Mayweather, he was a 23-year-old facing a boxer 13 years his senior. Mayweather, the one fighter who has ever been the A-side against Álvarez, took every advantage, including setting a 152-pound weight limit, five pounds over the first proposed weight limit, which Álvarez said was “physically impossible” to make. Asked about the catch weight, Leonard Ellerbe, Mayweather’s manager, responded, “They’re the ones who said they would fight at a lower weight … we can’t help it Álvarez has idiots for managers, but we’re going to take every advantage they give us.”
Leading up to the fight, Álvarez’s critics suspended their doubts. Sure, they still saw him as a protected fighter, but the fight was Álvarez’s chance to show that all hype is not without talent. It showed Álvarez would test himself against the toughest opponent. And even if he had taken the fight years before he was ready, he’d at least account himself properly against the generational talents of Mayweather. If nothing else, Álvarez—as those who have nothing to risk like to demand of boxers they watch from comforts of not being punched—would “go out on his shield.” Right?
Mayweather dominated Álvarez, neutralizing any size advantages he may have had. It did not help that Álvarez’s and his trainers based their fight plan on trying to outbox one of the best pure boxers of the past quarter century.
Part of the supposed problem with Álvarez, both in the Mayweather fight and how he’s now perceived, has to do with his style. He is not the stereotypical “Mexican warrior” that often gets fetishized. (Though there is no exact definition of what that is, it is one of those things we know when we see it. Álvarez is not it.) This shouldn’t be a criticism of Álvarez, whose style makes him an under-appreciated defensive fighter, but it is, since he doesn’t perfectly fit the “Mexican fighter” mold.
A counterpuncher relies on their opponent to make mistakes. But when they face a quick, defensively-oriented boxer—like Mayweather—a counterpuncher appears lost, almost as if they are following their opponent, begging to get punched then too slow to respond with one of their own. Álvarez, like most counterpunchers, won’t engage in an all-out brawls on his own; it’s just not who he is as a fighter. His measured style played right into Mayweather’s hands and as he and his corner men appeared inept, the doubts and questions over Álvarez became that much louder.
It did not help that almost 80% of Mexican households with a television tuned into Televisa to watch Álvarez get humiliated in the worse way possible. It appeared as if he didn’t even fight back: too slow to catch him and the wrong style to give Mayweather problems.
These are the doubts revolving around Álvarez since he fought Mayweather, a fight which he says, made him a better boxer by learning to fix his mistakes. Whether fixing these errors is enough to earn him a victory on Saturday, is a different matter as Mayweather and Golovkin are completely different boxers.
Gennady Golovkin is among the most feared boxers of the past decade. Golovkin can humiliate Álvarez, even though he is likely years past his prime when, as HBO Sports executive vice president and boxing head Peter Nelson said, “Just being able to go over six rounds with Gennady Golovkin became a badge of honor.” Golovkin has the highest knockout percentage in the history of middleweight title holders. He has knocked out 23 of the last 24 opponents he’s faced, with the only exception coming in his last fight against Danny Jacobs, a fight in which Golovkin claims to have intentionally looked vulnerable since Álvarez would not have fought him otherwise. And now that Golovkin has the fight he’s been wanting for years, he warns, “There are no survivors in my fights.”
Álvarez and Golovkin are opposites of each other. The former has had every advantage while Golovkin slowly built a reputation, fighting for years in Germany as a relative unknown before debuting in the United States in 2012. Golovkin, eight years Álvarez’s senior, is likely past his prime, even hinting at possible retirement. And though he has a promotional deal with Jordan Brand, Golovkin lacks Álvarez’s name recognition among casual boxing fans. Still, hardcore boxing fans laud Golovkin while that same group will always view Álvarez with a suspicion arising from the assumption that what is popular lacks substance. At the center of the differences between Álvarez and Golovkin, is an issue of style—boxing’s Mexican style, which Álvarez has rejected while Golovkin has fully embraced.
The Mexican style revolves around aggression. Punching output—specifically body punches—takes precedent over any defensive consideration. It is Mexican machismo applied and practiced inside the boxing ring that’s built on one simple belief: “I am tougher than you.” This maxim of violence results in a boxer willing to take a punch or two to land one, confident their durability it is enough kill their opponent’s confidence.
Ironically, Álvarez, the Mexican boxer, has all but rejected the Mexican style, even stating no such thing exists. This claim is akin to blasphemy for the many Mexican and Mexican-American boxing fans who see the style as a representative of the boxing-obsessed heritage. Conversely, Golovkin has embraced Mexican style, claiming he is the sort of fighter hailing from United States’s southern neighbor.
“This is more than a fight. It’s a real Mexican fight.” Golovkin recently stated. “I love fighting Mexican style. I love Mexican food and eat it every day. I love the Mexican tradition. I am surrounded by it. I have many Mexican friends. I have Mexican blood.”
In any other realm, Golovkin’s statement would be offensive. That he would say that he is an honorary Mexican because he likes the food and has Mexican friends is as ridiculous as someone claiming they can’t be racist because they have black friends. And yet, this is boxing, where Mexican style is a compliment, not an implication that a group of people are inherently violent and aggressive in a way that makes them good at fighting.
Rather than overt aggression, Álvarez’s best chance at beating Golovkin—a fight he too claims he’s wanted for years—comes from relying on his intelligence and patience. Blindly engaging Golovkin, which is what an idealMexican style boxer would do, is reckless which is not who is Álvarez inside the ring. Against a boxer like Floyd Mayweather, this technique was worthless but against an attacking Golovkin, Álvarez will have greater success. Whether that success will equate to victory depends on how much of a Mexican style boxer Golovkin really is. One thing to attack inferior opponents; quite another to abandon all pretense of defense against a counterpuncher like Álvarez.
Like any country’s historical timeline, Mexico’s is one of trying to fix the fuck-ups created by the solutions meant to fix earlier fuck-ups. Few events symbolize this better than what began on September 16, 1810, when after almost three centuries since the Spanish arrived, Miguel Hidalgo, a priest, called for independence. Hidalgo was a criollo within the Spanish casta systemthat stratified the population. With it being a colony, criollos were light-skinned Spaniards born in Mexico. Criollos were above other castas—Indians, mestizos, and Africans, along with different variations that mixed into one another—but not at the top. That spot was reserved for the gachupines, or “native Spaniards who had exploited and oppressed Mexicans for 10 generations.” The gachupines controlled the most important positions across Mexico—positions that Hidalgo and his fellow criollos wanted the opportunity to obtain.
At dawn, Hidalgo rang the church bells to signal a call to mass. There, in his Grito de Dolores—a war cry from the Dolores village, near Guanajuato—Hidalgo called for independence, telling the Indian and mestizo population to rise against the gachupines. “My children, a new dispensation comes to us today,” cried an impassioned Hidalgo, “Will you free yourselves? Will you recover the lands stolen 300 years ago from your forefathers by the hated Spaniards? We must act at once.” Hidalgo and his largely Indian and mestizo army rose in arms and fighting with mostly sticks, stones, and machetes, demanded freedom—what that meant to each one of their castas varied.
By late October, Hidalgo and his army were at the outskirts of Mexico City, ready to attack the seat of Spanish power. There, lay the city that used to be Tenochtitlan. The city that fell to Cortés and the Spanish in 1521, destroyed and whose ruins covered by what became Mexico City. Hidalgo and his army of Hijos de la Chingada, who carried with them a banner of the Virgin de Guadalupe, were on the verge of exorcising the Spanish aprovechados—at least symbolically. In theory, they were a few battles away from claiming a certain level of victory and since every other combined casta outnumbered the gachupines, maybe even force the Spanish into recognizing their independence. But Hidalgo’s attack never came and instead, he ordered a retreat.
With momentum lost, Hidalgo and his dwindling number of followers found themselves on the defensive. By early 1811, Spanish troops captured Hidalgo in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. Brought back to Mexico City, the gachupines first tried Hidalgo under the Inquisition, then excommunicated him, and finally, executed him along with fellow conspirators. Their bodies drawn and quartered, with their heads cut off and displayed to dissuade against future rebellion. But Hidalgo, though dead months into the quest for independence, inspired others.
Eventually, after more than a decade of fighting, in 1821, Spain recognized Mexico’s independence. But little changed, at least, not enough to stave off a revolution a century later that in part, hoped to address the large class divide. And like the fight for independence before it, that revolution became nothing more than ideals inspiring high expectations, followed by betrayals that amounted to new bosses replacing the old ones.
The night before Álvarez and Golovkin fight, the Mexican government will pay homage to Hidalgo. As is customary, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto will hold his country’s flag while reciting the names and places pivotal to independence. For that moment, his lack of credibility will be secondary. But not forgotten. No one will forget a secret unit within Televisa which gave him favorable coverage while orchestrating smear campaigns against his opposition, affected his winning the presidency. Or that the people’s perception of him as a made-up president, created by Televisa, gets enhanced by his marriage to Angelica Rivera who besides facing her own allegations of corruption while first lady, is a former beauty queen and leading actress who starred in novelas for, of course, Televisa.
But most importantly, no one will forget that of the millions celebrating, there will be 43 missing students who are not. These students—all studying to be teachers—stand out above so many others, including young women, who disappear, partly because instead of properly investigating, Peña Nieto and his administration have attempted to “whitewash events, evade responsibility and sabotage an effort at finding the truth.” With the stonewalling, the very real possibility exists that just like the exact number of victims of the Tlatelolco Massacre, we will never know what happened to the 43 students, beyond knowing their disappearance came after policemen stopped their bus.
Nos Faltan 43 but Peña Nieto will still end the festivities by unironically saying, “Long live national independence!” followed by three “Viva Mexico’s.” Reenacting Hidalgo’s call to mass, Peña Nieto will toll the bells before enthusiastically waving the Mexican flag while tens of thousands—maybe more—watch in person and millions more watching across Mexico and even the United States.
The next day, boxing will also pay homage to Mexican independence, not because of its history but due ti economic reasons. For the last several decades, boxing in the United States remains relevant on the backs of its Latino audience. With Mexicans and Mexican-Americans making up a substantial part of this fanbase, September 16th weekend is one of boxing’s two major boxing weekends. Álvarez, who has become the face of these two weekends, will enter the ring as an underdog with enough cheers to drown out the boos.
Despite his many critics, Álvarez is popular and skillful. In the United States, where he is much more admired among Mexican-Americans than he is in Mexico, there is a relatability to Álvarez. Like most of us, Álvarez left home and the people closest to him in order to make a living. And even if subconsciously, we can relate to the criticisms made against him: That he—and we, as Mexican-Americans—are somehow less Mexican because we live in the United States, caught between two cultures of which we are not fully a part of, is part of the outsider’s experience. Questions of identity grow even louder when back in what used to be home as they assume we’ve changed. Álvarez is the first Mexican boxing superstar who is perceived as having left Mexico, if not physically, then symbolically. This criticism blinds many into thinking he is but a television creation.
Even if Álvarez wins, which I expect he will, critics will remain. Enrique Peña Nieto won’t be among these critics as he will likely, again, host Álvarez as an honored guest of the presidency. But so far as his critics are concerned, they will—with reason—claim Álvarez and/or his promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, avoided Golovkin for years and in letting him age, increased their likelihood of winning. And though it may have been a sound strategy, it also undermined Álvarez’s credibility and claims to fear no one.
Among those who criticize him are Mexican boxers like Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., important Mexican boxing commentators, and the aforementioned Juan Manuel Márquez and Nacho Beristáin—important, even if controversial, names in recent Mexican boxing. Among their criticisms is that Álvarez is arrogant and lacks humility, that he avoided Golovkin for years, that judges have awarded him a few suspect decisions, and that he has let Oscar De La Hoya dictate his career.
Beyond that, fans—who I can only assume feel offended that Álvarez is an affront to the idea of Mexican masculinity—have booed him throughout many of his fights and promotional stops, even throwing beer and trash at him. On one occasion, while sitting ringside for his brother’s fight in Mexico, a few fans heckled Álvarez for not fighting Golovkin. Álvarez sat quietly as they yelled, “YOU ARE AFRAID OF GOLOVKIN, YOU ARE A COWARD!”
Álvarez not only hears the criticisms, but understands they will persist. “They will always criticize me,” he explained, “even after beating Golovkin. They will always criticize me, that is for sure.”
In a country with a history of class hierarchy—one that remains very much intact—Álvarez is not the son of a legend, nor is he under the tutelage of a renowned boxing trainer. He is not the relative of a former president, and he is not from Mexico City or any of its boroughs. Álvarez and everyone around him are outsiders.
Like many other places across the world, Mexico is two countries: there is Mexico City and the rest of the country. Inside these two countries are those who have and the rest who lack. And among those who lack are those who mind their class and those who do not. And sometimes, within the ranks of those who do not, some have ambitions so great that a single country can’t contain them. Even fewer of these have the capabilities to accomplish them—Álvarez, an outsider in each scenario, is one of the few.
And despite his history of leaving chaos in places he’s been, the possibility—however slight—exists that there’s more to Álvarez’s problems. He has not minded his place within a hierarchy cemented over centuries and in doing so, Álvarez has gone from a loveable, local underdog to a despised fat cat who subtly flaunts his success. He may well be the sport’s most marketable boxer, and yet, who and what he ultimately is remains a mystery: The next great Mexican boxer? A perfectly marketed mediocre talent? A pawn? An aprovechado? A hero, or even an antihero, who finally stood up to the notoriously corrupt WBC? Or is Álvarez someone, who in fighting his way out a life destined to be a paletero, we should all should aspire to be?
One thing is clear, if Álvarez loses a lopsided decision to a past-his-prime Golovkin, it will confirm what many Mexicans and an increasing number of Mexican-Americans believe: that he was always a complete fabrication—the greatest novela Televisa ever produced, exported to the United States and reproduced by Oscar De La Hoya, who, knowing the market better than most, understood this country was more willing to buy into a fair and freckled skinned, red-headed Mexican than one with real talent but whose shade of brown skin made him less marketable. Someone so obviously a Hijo de la Chingada that they can’t be marketed as more. Someone who never could choose a nickname like “El Español” without being laughed at and so instead, had to rely on the often-used, “El Indio.”
Originally published on Deadspin.com