Canelo Alvarez and the mostly tragic history of Mexican boxers at Madison Square Garden

Originally published on Yahoo Sports.

On Saturday, when Saul “Canelo” Alvarez fights Rocky Fielding for the WBA regular super middleweight world title in Madison Square Garden, he’ll be the first Mexican boxer to headline there in over 35 years.

“It fills me with a lot of pride,” Alvarez said of fighting in the famed arena, “because I know great fighters have fought there, like Muhammad Ali … to mention more fighters would be unnecessary. But to be the main event there … it fills me with pride.”

Once considered the epicenter of the sport, some of the greatest boxers have fought in “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” But also, the site has hosted important fights that resulted in more than just simple wins and losses. They’ve added to the folklore of Mexican boxing and within those fights are mysteries and unanswered questions along with moments of hope, lost opportunity, tragedy and revenge.

“I want to tell you all a story,” Alvarez’s co-trainer, Chepo Reynoso, said during an October press conference announcing this Saturday’s fight. “The date was June 24, 1968 … Mexico was paralyzed on that date.”

On that night, Manuel “Pulgarcito” Ramos faced Joe Frazier for the NYSAC world heavyweight title. “Pulgarcito” — Spanish for “Little Thumb” — was the ironic nickname for the 6-foot-3, 208-pound Ramos. He was the rare Mexican heavyweight and a clear underdog when he faced Frazier.

Ramos was not the first Mexican to fight in Madison Square Garden. That was Alberto “Baby” Arizmendi, who earned his nickname after beginning his boxing career at age 13. During the 1930s in what was the third version of the Garden, Arizmendi won only one of his three fights there. Ramos fought in the arena’s fourth incarnation and planned to knock out Frazier.

“Frazier was rocked,” the television announcer yelled after Ramos connected with a right hook in the first round that made his opponent tremble. The crowd, including the 500 Mexicans who wore sombreros with “Pulgarcito” stitched on the brim, roared as Frazier retreated into the ropes. For a few seconds it appeared Ramos would fulfill his pre-fight promise.

“It looked like our hopes would come true,” Reynoso recalled 50 years after the fight.

But not long after Frazier looked hurt, he threw one of his trademark left hooks that stopped Ramos’ momentum. He regained control of the fight. The following round, Frazier knocked Ramos down twice. After the second knockdown, the referee stopped the fight and with it, Mexico’s hopes of claiming a heavyweight title.

Years later, Ramos told a Mexican journalist that when he hurt Frazier, he felt a sudden scare. And because of it, he couldn’t finish Frazier despite his trainer yelling for him to keep attacking. This was the same trainer who received a mysterious phone call before the fight. “It will not be good for your fighter if he wins,” the voice said. “We have one bullet for you and two for him.”

Ramos would go on to fight in the Midtown Manhattan arena twice more, and again, he’d lose both fights. But 12 years after Ramos fought Frazier, Mexico enjoyed a different result. On that night, in 1982, Salvador Sánchez fought for the first and only time at Madison Square Garden.

At just 23 years old, Sánchez was already drawing comparisons to other great featherweights. He, along with Julio César Chavez and Ricardo López — both of whom fought in Madison Square Garden twice but never as headliners — is considered one of the greatest Mexican boxers.

Unlike the cliché for what the Mexican boxer has become, Sánchez was not a brawler. He had incredible discipline, which, inside the ring, led to superb conditioning. Outside the ring, Sánchez’s discipline translated to saving and investing the money he earned from fighting. It seemed his only expensive habit was buying cars, of which he owned nine, including a Porsche 928S.

With his finances in order and a young family — a 21-year-old wife and two kids, 3 and 15 months old — Sánchez planned to retire at the end on 1983. “I’ve always wanted to be doctor,” he told The New York Times, “I’m only 23 and I have all the time in the world.”

Like all Mexican boxers before and since Sánchez, the opportunity to fight in Madison Square Garden was a career milestone. With Sánchez becoming the first Mexican to headline there, it further validated his greatness.

The fight was a hard-fought battle against Azumah Nelson. It wasn’t until the 15th round that Sánchez defeated Nelson by technical knockout when the referee stopped the fight. But it was what happened after the fight that turned Sánchez into a tragic figure in Mexico’s boxing history.

A few weeks after, on the morning hours of Aug. 12, Mexico and the boxing world awoke to news that Sánchez had died in a car crash. At 3:30 a.m., while traveling from Querétaro back to his training camp in San José Iturbide, Sánchez lost control of his Porsche and drove into a truck. Why he left training camp remains a source of speculation. Some say he left after receiving a phone call that left him uneasy. Others say he was evading boredom by going to a movie, or to visit friends. Another explanation says he left to check on the repairs for one of his cars. And yet another story says Sánchez was traveling to meet his mistress. Whatever the reason, Sánchez left training camp and never returned.

A quarter-century passed between Sánchez’s fight in Madison Square Garden and the first time Antonio Margarito fought there in 2007. But it was Margarito’s second fight at MSG, facing Miguel Cotto, that’s best remembered.

By the time he faced Cotto in their 2011 rematch, Margarito was no longer one of the most feared and avoided boxers. His damaged eye matched his diminished reputation that came after officials caught his trainer trying to use plaster of Paris in Margarito’s hand wraps for his bout with Shane Mosley in 2009. The boxer claimed innocence, essentially blaming his trainer. He served his suspension and after a tune-up fight, faced Manny Pacquiao who proceeded to break the right side of Margarito’s face.

While all of this happened, Cotto claimed during their first fight in July 2008, there was something different about Margarito’s hand wraps.

“Margarito took a lot of things from me,” Cotto explained about his struggles after suffering his first career loss to Margarito. “Trust, confidence and other things that made me the boxer I was.” When their rematch happened, Cotto believed Margarito had cheated in their first fight. He sought payback.

Like their first fight, Cotto dominated Margarito during the early rounds. Cotto — who fought 10 times in Madison Square Garden, half of them on the day before New York City’s National Puerto Rican Day Parade — was the crowd favorite. They cheered every punch he landed on his Mexican opponent. By the third round, Margarito’s eye, the damaged one that Cotto promised to target, began to bleed and swell. By the start of the seventh round, Margarito’s eye looked completely closed.

Two rounds later, while his cornermen pressed the cold enswell against Margarito’s right eye, they pleaded with the doctors to let them continue.

“That was the best round!” they repeatedly screamed as the doctors huddled and talked to themselves. “One more!” Margarito and his corner begged before the referee called off the fight.

Margarito, with his one functional eye, let out a low groan of disappointment. A stoic Cotto walked to about 10 feet from Margarito, the man who had taken so much from him, and stared. He savored his revenge. When asked how he felt about Margarito, Cotto responded, “He means nothing to me.”

Alvarez will add to the short but eventful history of Mexicans fighting in Madison Square Garden. But more than likely, his fight against Fielding won’t provide the same drama as previous fights.

“It’s not a secret that I’m a better fighter and that I’m more experienced,” Alvarez responded when asked about Fielding. “But I’m taking a risk by entering into a comfort zone of a champion and his weight.”

Unlike his countrymen who fought in the Mecca of boxing before him, Alvarez is in a unique and privileged position. Alvarez is fighting an opponent picked by his trainer whom he’ll almost certainly beat, in Madison Square Garden for a title belt that’s more symbolic than representative of Fielding’s dominance among super middleweights. It marks the first bout of Alvarez’s 11-fight deal with DAZN that’s made him the highest-paid athlete in the world. Simply put, this is a fight to extend Alvarez’s popularity and brand while also giving him the opportunity to end his tumultuous year on high note.

From the lows of being suspended over a failed drug test and his May rematch against Gennady Golovkin getting canceled. To the highs of defeating Golovkin, signing a record contract and being recognized as Mexico’s top athlete — an honor that, remarkably, a boxer had never won — 2018 has been an eventful one for Alvarez.

“I learned a lot in my personal and professional life,” Alvarez said about what 2018 taught him. “I learned to be tenacious and train hard and [have] a strong mentality, it can take you from one extreme to the other, and I’m happy with all that I’ve achieved … what I’ve done has made me the man and the athlete that I am today.”

Alvarez will enter 2019 as, arguably, the most powerful and popular boxer in the world. And for all the great boxers Mexico has produced, including the few who fought in Madison Square Garden, Alvarez — in terms of power and appeal — is distinguishing himself from the rest.