Published on ESPN.com
On Saturday, for the first time in a decade, Canelo Alvarez will fight outside Mexico or the United States’ southwest. The last time he fought in the east coast, it was in 2008 in Miami. Canelo looked different. That was 3 weight divisions ago. His hair-helped by his brown trunks and shoes that complimented the color atop his head-appeared redder than it does now. Three years into his career, the baby-faced, 18-year-old Canelo had yet to even sign with Golden Boy Promotions. When that contract came, about 2 years from that night in Miami, Oscar De La Hoya envisioned something great.
“We believe Saul is going to be a star,” De La Hoya explained, still calling him by his birth name and not by what’s placed him among the few athletes referred to by a single name. “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.”
This Saturday, when Canelo fights Rocky Fielding at Madison Square Garden, he returns to the east coast as boxing’s superstar. And for the first time in its long history, a Mexican fighter is one of boxing’s most marketable fighters. Add his record-breaking DAZN contract and Canelo may well be the most powerful too.
To appreciate what this means, we must look back at the best fighter in Mexico’s history: “El Gran Campeón Mexicano” Julio Cesar Chavez.
Even today, Chavez draws a crowd. Picture and autograph seekers rush towards him, more often than crowds do to even most active boxers. Most of those who race toward Chavez speak Spanish. Inside the boxing world Chavez is a living legend. A giant. Outside of it-at least, on this side of the U.S.-Mexico border-Chavez can get lost among the crowd. This was true then, during his fighting career, and now.
“Chavez seems willing to die out there and there aren’t too many guys left like that,” Larry Merchant told KO Magazine. “He’s just so goddamned tough.” But Chavez’s toughness was never in question. Rather, it was his inability to take the respect he earned from that toughness and turn it into a popular appeal among crowds in the U.S.
Since Chavez’s fighting days, the era of great Mexican boxers that followed him, have increasingly communicated in English. Even if they relied on translators to help, boxers like Juan Manuel Márquez, Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales all spoke English. More recently, other Latino boxers have done the same, specifically Miguel Cotto — who fought at Madison Square Garden 10 times, half on the eve of New York City’s National Puerto Rican Day Parade.
Canelo can speak English but, for whatever reason, chooses to communicate in Spanish. Unlike boxers before him, especially Chavez, this decision hasn’t hampered Canelo’s marketability.
“What worries me is fighting and training and I think people like that more than talking,” Canelo said about his communicating almost exclusively in Spanish.
Eric Gomez, president of Golden Boy Promotions, agrees with Canelo while also stating their fighter continues to work on his English.
“He’s the only fighter right now who directly has sponsors,” Gomez says of Canelo. “His style of fighting, the way he is, the fact that he’s clean, all that is better than the language… He’s disciplined, clean, educated and that’s more important than language.”
Canelo does, in fact, have important sponsorships. And part of that reason is the changing demographics of both the U.S. and boxing’s fan base.
In the early 1980s, when Chavez began boxing, according to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics accounted for a little over 6 percent of the U.S. population. Most of that Hispanic population lived along the U.S.-Mexico border-the southwest that was once the northern parts of Mexico. By 2016, that number increased to almost 18 percent. A study from the U.S. Census, released earlier this year, projects that number will increase to over 21 percent by 2030.
With this change comes the rising purchasing power from U.S. Hispanics, now over $1.6 trillion per year, according to Nielsen data and analytics. And while not every Hispanic speaks Spanish, the increase of Spanish-language radio and television reflect this change. According to Forbes, the first full-time Spanish language radio station launched in 1945 and today, there are now over 500 radio stations that broadcast exclusively in that language. And considering the strong boxing history and tradition across Latin America and that a 2017 Washington Post-UMass Lowell poll stated that 61 percent of U.S. Hispanics consider themselves boxing fans, compared to just 17 percent of whites, the sport has also felt these changes.
Everything — from the major sponsors to how managers and promoters sell their boxers, from most names you see fighting on cards, to the language you hear in the upper decks of the venues hosting them — has changed with the increase of Hispanics in the U.S. Not least of these changes is when the sport’s most important fights occur: during Mexican holidays. Incidentally, Chavez helped popularize fights held on the weekends of Cinco de Mayo and September 16 (Mexico’s independence day), two traditional boxing dates.
When Chavez fought, speaking English was all but required if you wanted to appeal to a wider audience. That too has changed. Of course, it’s difficult to gauge how much more popular Canelo would be if he communicated in English. Or, if he tried to sell his fights and not keep up his Mexican stoicism-again, reminiscent of Chavez-where he says he’d rather let his fist do his talking. Still, Canelo is the only active boxer that sells on pay-per-view, or sold, since he left that platform for DAZN’s subscription-based model. Incidentally, on a DAZN commercial featuring their newest, high-paid fighter, Canelo only speaks Spanish. English subtitles translate his few words.
Golden Boy Promotions have helped Canelo become both the champion and star De La Hoya hoped he’d become. They’ve promoted and matched him well. They’ve even protected Canelo. The latter is no slight against him. Canelo wasn’t the first nor will he be the last boxer helped by the perks of becoming the face of boxing. Other boxers have had those same advantages and have failed because of either lack of discipline or talent.
Canelo is Mexico’s most commercially successful boxer, and it’s not even close. Still in the prime of this career, he’s also entering the realm of being discussed among Mexico’s all-time top 10 boxers. It’s easy to confuse mass popularity with lack of skill, but as his star has risen, Canelo has steadily improved. He’s certainly a different fighter now than he was the last time he fought in the east coast.
For every major fight held at Madison Square Garden, there are thousands of others in small, half-empty venues. Ballrooms and casinos in the U.S., palenques and ferias in Mexico, each filled with boxers hoping to win and earn more the next time they fight. This was Canelo, a decade ago and around this same time of year. Back before he made his fulltime home in San Diego, back when the hype — which with each subsequent fight since, has become reality — had not crossed north of the Mexican border.
That night, with a minute left in the first round, in front of what appeared like only a few dozen people, Canelo landed an overhand right that knocked his opponent, Raul Pinzon, into the ropes. With arms that no longer attacked but instead protected, Pinzon covered his face. Baby-faced Canelo, with only one promotional patch on his trunks, pounced. Seven straight punches, right and left hands alternating, landed on Pinzon, causing him to fall.
Before the fight, a cocky Pinzon said he wanted to play the villain to Canelo. He wanted to expose him, take Canelo’s undefeated record and his regional title belt. But as the referee’s count reached 8 and Pinzon stood up from the canvas, he looked humble.
Not even half-a-minute later, young Canelo, who has always seemed quiet and who, before the fight said, “donde se habla es arriba del ring” [the talking occurs inside the ring] floored his opponent again. Referee Pat Russell waved his hands and kneeled by Pinzon.
The fight over, there was no one chanting Canelo’s name. No mob of cameras in his face to match the mob of people wanting to stand near him. Just Canelo with his trainers — who have remained loyal to each other — hugging and smiling. As they did, Pinzon used a towel to cover his face.
When Pinzon’s face reappeared for the camera, he looked like he was crying. The referee raised Canelo’s hand. Canelo looked focused and confident, even more than he had in the days before the fight, when he vocalized his deepest ambitions. “Not only do I want to become a world champion,” Canelo told the Miami Herald, “but I want to be a boxing idol.”
On Saturday, Canelo returns to the east coast. He’s fighting in “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” a good sign that tell us he’s evolving into the apex of Mexican boxing.