Canelo, at Young

Roberto José Andrade Franco

December 27, 2018

The sound inside the arena that calls itself the world’s greatest—Madison Square Garden—was deafening. People cheered and yelled loudly. Many did so in Spanish and each with a distinct accent from a different part of Mexico. They waved Mexican flags throughout the arena. Others took those flags and tied them around their necks to wear them as capes. Some of those impromptu capes had a Mexican state written across them to show where the fan was from; Michoacán, Oaxaca, Chihuahua, and others. Those that did not wave Mexican flags wore something red, white, and green, matching the colors that lit up the outside of Madison Square Garden. Many wore red headbands and sang along to the Mexican national anthem. A few sang so enthusiastically they looked close to crying. With the national anthem over, the announcer introduced him. El Legendario Campeón Mundial, the Legendary World Champion, he called him. They had never called him that before.

Except for the large monitor above the ring and the light emanating from cell phones recording the introduction, the arena went dark. It felt sudden and natural though it was obviously practiced. Canelo Alvarez—wearing a red, wool poncho with the Mexican flag’s emblem on its front—came out of the dressing room and just as he did, his entrance song played, “Mexico Lindo Y Querido.” Everyone stood. He was the reason they, the beautiful celebrities sitting ringside and the not-as-beautiful sitting everywhere else, were there. And when he finally came out to fight, the latter waved their flags more and yelled and cheered even louder.

Leading up to the mid-December 2018 fight, the nickname—El Legendario Campeón Mundial—aligned with how advertisers and promoters where selling Canelo. It was part of the push to make him a global icon. Thus, he fought in New York City, near Madison Avenue; the place that wanted nothing to do with that Mexican Julio César Chávez. But Canelo was a different type of Mexican. He is the kind whose ambiguous raza makes him more of a tabula rasa where you could advertise a lot more on his white skin. He is José Vasconcelos’ culminated cosmic race if the theory took a capitalist turn.

Unlike El Chapo, whose trial was held in a Brooklyn federal courtroom less than a thirty-minute drive from Madison Square Garden, Canelo will never be a folk hero. He will be more than that. What that is remains unclear, largely by design. Suffice to say, some Mexicans enter the United States through tunnels. Others arrive in private jets. Some of the former wear the easy to identify, fake, brand-name sweaters sold at swap meets. Some of the latter wear the genuine article, pay $900 for it, and fit right in. Until they do not. There may come a point when Canelo finds out that a Mexican is a Mexican is a Mexican. Or just maybe, for once, his new money will buy him old money’s respect. Maybe Canelo is different.

Around Midtown Manhattan, everywhere you looked, among the Christmas-time decorations that immediately made you think of romantic comedies set in New York city, you saw Canelo’s bare and muscled torso. His youthful face and body among the lights that advertised everything from food to clothing to vehicles and anything else you could think. Canelo was there, for all to buy and sell, and perhaps because boxing and society’s demographics have changed, it suddenly did not matter that like Chávez before him, Canelo only communicates in Spanish.  “It hasn’t affected me, thank God,” Canelo explained how his lack of English did not keep him from becoming the world’s highest paid athlete and the face of boxing. “The only thing that I worry about is training and putting on good fights. I think people like that more than talking. You can speak English but if you can’t fight, it doesn’t matter.”

Even in commercials for the fight, Canelo spoke Spanish. It was up to the viewers to read the English subtitles to understand what Canelo was selling. And what Canelo is selling, does not necessarily need vocalization. “More than anything, he has a clean image,” Erik Gomez, president of Golden Boy Promotions, says of Canelo. “The sponsors like that…Because the message is strong: He’s disciplined, a clean person, educated, this is often more important than language.”  To hear Gomez explain it, Canelo sounds like a Mexican that arrived here, already assimilated. Someone easily promoted as the opposite of the Bad Hombre; that archetype of a Mexican dating back to even before 1846, that has become a stand-in for those eternally swayed by propaganda. Canelo has become a symbol of a good, non-threatening Mexican. Ironically, Canelo fights for a living.

Fifteen seconds after the fight began, the crowd chanted in unison. “ME-XI-CO! ME-XI-CO!” Always cautious, Canelo had not even thrown a single punch against his much taller opponent, the Liverpudlian Rocky Fielding. Once Canelo made certain of what he already knew—that Fielding could not hurt him—he became uncharacteristically aggressive. When he did, Canelo attacked Fielding’s body. A mere hundred seconds into the fight and Canelo landed a body punch that floored Fielding. He fell to his knee and at that moment it was clear that Fielding would not live up to the lies that promoters tried hard to sell as truth.

“Rocky,” as a name, has cultural currency. Outside of “Ali,” that name is likely the most recognizable one in boxing. It was with Ali’s recognition and what he symbolized that he became the model for Rocky’s nemesis, Apollo Creed. The loud, bombastic, and skilled Creed was the opposite of the humble and limited-in-skill but hardworking Rocky. Creed was Ali, perhaps even parts of Jack Johnson. Rocky was a fictionalized version of a fantasy. And because even the wealthy who have inherited millions believe they are self-made, Rocky embodied two of the United States’ foundational myths. Those who think their exceptionalism comes from pulling themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps see a part of themselves in Rocky. Thus, when you see the name, “Rocky,” you cannot help but to think of the underdog. The Great White Hope. It is subconscious. It is why promoters claimed Fielding, whose birth name is Michael, was a dangerous opponent and why, rather than the customary use of last names, “Canelo vs. Rocky” became the tag everyone saw.

As the second round began, Canelo continued attacking Fielding’s body. As he did, Fielding’s right elbow dropped closer to his body and his survival instinct took over. He stopped fighting intelligently. He abandoned the one tangible advantage he had—height and arm reach—and fought Canelo like they were both of similar stature. With about fifty seconds left in the round, the crowd chanted Canelo’s name who had become the first Mexican boxer to fight in Madison Square Garden as the main attraction in over thirty-five years.

Before Canelo, Salvador Sánchez was the last Mexican to headline in the mecca of boxing. Three weeks after his July 1982 fight, Sánchez crashed his Porsche at 3:30 in the morning. He died, aged twenty-three, and immediately crossed into the folklore of Mexican boxing.  But not even the already-great Sánchez sold out Madison Square Garden. He fought on a Wednesday which says all you need to know about how many people watched, attended, and the fight’s importance outside of the boxing world. As the headliner, Canelo was the first Mexican boxer to fight in front of a sold-out crowd in an arena rich with boxing history. “I am proud to fight in Madison Square Garden,” Canelo explained in the weeks before the fight, “a lot of great boxers have fought…That I’ll be the main attraction there, for me, it’s a point of pride.”

Twenty-thousand-one-hundred-and-twelve; that is how many people came to see Canelo fight. When a boxer can draw that many people—in New York, during the Christmas season, a week after another important fight in Madison Square Garden, albeit in one of the arena’s smaller theaters—most of them are not there to see competition. They want to see domination, which was what Canelo gave them against Fielding. And with less than thirty seconds left in the second round, another one of Canelo’s body shots dropped Fielding to his knee. Since that was what they paid to see, the crowd roared.

Boxing can only appeal to a broader audience once sold as something else. The moral ambiguity that is the essence of boxing’s existence must be removed. To sell it as what it is, violence, even if athletic, limits its appeal. The truth adds layers of complexity that makes selling the simple much more difficult. Boxing must become something that is more artful than savage, more life affirming than debilitating, and something—just like those shoes, that burger, or that car you see advertised everywhere from Madison Square Garden to Times Square—that you need to experience to feel entirely alive. All involved in boxing must sell it this way, dressed-up, masked, and perfumed, or else you notice the stench of brutality that permeates throughout the sport.

“It was about time that the biggest star in boxing headed to Madison Square Garden,” Oscar De La Hoya said during the fight’s announcement. “Nearly every great fighter has fought at this historic arena. Canelo is establishing a historic legacy, and I’m excited that fans in New York will be able to see this great talent in such a famed place for boxing.”  Besides facing “Rocky,” as soon as managers and promoters made the fight, they portrayed it as Canelo’s march toward greatness. He would move up a weight-class—to one-hundred-sixty-eight pounds—and challenge a world champion. It did not matter that Fielding was a secondary champion and that his title belt was little more than a second-place trophy. The people who watch Canelo or rather, the type of people you want to watch him fight, do not care enough to make that distinction.

When a boxer reaches Canelo’s level of fame, they transcend the “prizefighter” label. They slowly become a household name. He becomes someone who demands your attention and when he has it, you tell yourself that moment is special. That you will be able to say something like, “I was there the night he headlined in a sold-out Madison Square Garden. I was there, and I felt chills when it sounded like the entire arena sang the Mexican national anthem. I was there.” And then when it ends, and because this is boxing, you cannot help to wonder if it played you as a mark.

Being around, close, and constantly thinking about boxing—a requirement if you wish to write something like this—changes how you interact with the sport. Sometimes you wonder if watching people fight for a living, takes a certain humanity from you. It is not a loss of empathy; that would be simple. It is something else, something you cannot name. It is you watching despite knowing the inevitable. Watching, despite seeing boxers getting used in different ways. Watching, despite seeing the unfair matchups. Watching, because you understand why those facing such disadvantages cannot afford to pass on the opportunity.

You watch even though you can see who will end their lives damaged by the sport. You watch while understanding that those who fight and can earn a comfortable living, are rare. Ever fewer are those who gain glory. You question if the justification that boxing is a positive outlet for many, is little more than an excuse that someone made long ago—someone there to exploit. You see it all and you continue to watch, telling yourself that that choice does not mean you have made peace with the bullshit. It only means you have made peace with boxing’s many contradictions.

You tell yourself that you watch, what is essentially two half-naked men beating the life out of each other, because more than any other endeavor, boxing resembles the conflict and contradictions that come with living. You will never have irrefutable answers to the questions that matter most. So you watch, cheer, and even love some of those who fight, as if tacitly noting that though you understand what is happening, their struggle is worth your entertainment. You are a writer covering the Sisyphus beat. You write about it, despite knowing how it ends, because you think it will help deal with some unresolved issues that stem from your own God complex. And you watch because those with a vested interest in who he is, say Canelo is great. Such claims are rarely clear in the present so the best you can answer only makes things more convoluted. “Well, they may be not-wrong,” you think.

The bell rings. The third round begins and just as he does before every over round, Canelo—the good, devout Mexican Catholic—crosses himself. He met the Pope last year. After this fight, who knows who else he will meet. Undoubtedly, he will get introduced as one of the greats, just like the electronic advertisement that wraps around a building on the corner of 7th Avenue and West 33rd Street says he is. It is a short video advertisement for Hennessy that begins with a close-up of Canelo’s face. “A Legendary Champion,” written across his mouth. He does not even have to move his lips for all to hear what they want to say. The message is clear, and Canelo does not even have to betray that stoicism that feels like an inherent part of Mexican identity.

With about forty seconds left in the third round, Canelo landed a right hand to Fielding’s head. Again, the Brit fell to one knee. He looked at his corner. He stared with a befuddled look on his deep-set, brown eyes. He stood up again and gave a slight smile of embarrassment. Canelo attacked, and again, Fielding fell to a knee. Fielding always fell to one knee, like he was bending it to submit. And even while in that position, the much taller Fielding’s head reached Canelo’s jaw. While he knelt, Fielding looked up at Canelo. He looked so bewildered that he suddenly looked innocent. You felt sorry for Fielding. You thought of the mother of his young children, who sat ringside and at times yelled, “Come on Michael!” Other times she grimaced and looked away. The break of his career, the potentially life-altering money he received from it, and their plans of celebrating as a family in Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom—all of it, suddenly felt different. Rocky had become a pawn to further Canelo’s brand. Rocky would not shock the world as he had claimed.  There would be no feel-good movie ending. Instead, he would be part of Canelo’s highlight reel of victims.

After the fourth knockdown in three rounds, the referee immediately waved off the fight. Canelo hugged his opponent then climbed the corner ropes where he, again, crossed himself and waved his gloves to the crowd. The crowd cheered. Some of them sang along as Vicente Fernandez’s “Mexico Lindo y Querido” played loudly on every speaker in Madison Square Garden.

Everywhere you see Canelo, no less than half-a-dozen people follow. Two of them are his co-trainers, one is a publicist, another is his translator. He usually has at least one of his older brothers with him, and there’s a couple other people always with Canelo. You do not know all their names, but you see them in the background so often that you know their faces. They are likely most of the few people who Canelo can trust. They surround him like it is their job to protect boxing’s most valuable jewel. There are, after all, hundreds of millions of dollars invested in who Canelo is and how he gets portrayed.

In the corner, right after the fight, that group, along with cameramen and people in expensive suits, surrounded Canelo. He smiled and shook hands with them. The referee raised Canelo’s hands as the Mexican became a three-division champion. Ignore the asterisk. Four of Canelo’s cornermen raised the boxer’s title belts above their heads. A fifth member of Canelo’s team waved a large Mexican flag. “What I want to do is make history with my career and life,” Canelo said in the post-fight, in-ring interview. “I want to leave the name of Mexico and Canelo held high.”

Young, potentially great boxers in their prime think they can live forever. They believe it so thoroughly that they even make you consider that impossibility. Had he come out and explicitly said it—that he will live forever—at that moment, in Madison Square Garden, after having destroyed Rocky’s fantasies, we would have considered it for longer than had anyone else made that claim. At that moment, it would not have been an outright delusion of grandeur or hubris. Rather, most would have understood that it was the ego that comes from all of this.

Canelo, who first earned money from fighting at age fifteen, is boxing’s version of a child star. But rather than fade, his shine has only increased. He fights for a living and based on what he earns, he is great. It seems unavoidable that an ego would come from this. It is an ego that is visceral because there is a beauty about him that is primal. Both are born from knowing if we lived in a state of nature—far, far away from the bright lights of Midtown Manhattan—he could force others into giving him anything he wants. To be there, among the nasty and brutish, and watch him fight may even be close to a religious experience during such a short life. Watching him, as seemingly anything he desires he will get. That he refers to himself in third person only adds authority to the immortality he seeks. This type of power and ego makes you think no one can beat you. This type of power and ego, combined with youth, makes you think you will never die.

Canelo, today, is at his apex. For those who, today, dislike Canelo there is likely nothing he can do tomorrow, that will change their opinion. Canelo is here, today, and because of it, this is also the apex of Mexican boxing. Canelo is, for now, that moment before the reversal of fortune. He is El Chapo, the dollar after he surpassed his first million and before he was first caught. Canelo is Salvador Sánchez a few minutes before the crash when he still dreamed of quitting boxing to become a doctor. He is Julio César Chávez a few days before Frankie Randall and years before a suicide attempt. Canelo is De La Hoya a few moments before someone first told him he was not Mexican enough, and long before those months in rehab stints that force a self-reflection upon you—or at least, they should.

Canelo can be anything, so long as it is good, because that is how he is sold and because he is not passive in any of this, it is how he sells himself. Seemingly, the farthest thing from his mind is that he, like every past champion who also thought themselves immortal, will eventually be beaten and worse, forgotten. They will be the last ones to know boxing is a goddamned tragedy. That eventually, they will realize the high of being young and called great, is impossible to replace. And that the everyday mundane life that follows that feeling, for them, may be worse than death. But maybe Canelo is different. If you squint hard enough, use your hand to shade the bright lights from your eyes, you may even see that Canelo will live forever in the spring years of his life.

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