Canelo Álvarez and the mystical man behind his quest for immortality

Published in ESPN.com


EDDY REYNOSO IS carrying Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez on his shoulders. It’s Cinco de Mayo weekend, one of the most important days in boxing. And the two, Reynoso as trainer, Álvarez as his boxer, are celebrating another win surrounded by the largest indoor crowd to ever watch a boxing match in the United States. Just seconds before, inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, with 73,126 people in attendance, Billy Joe Saunders, or his corner — whichever version of the story you believe — said they’d had enough.

It wasn’t illogical to think Saunders would be Álvarez’s most formidable opponent in years. He was an undefeated world champion, a slick southpaw from England who’d frustrated opponents confident they could hurt him. But, perhaps most importantly, Saunders is a natural antagonist. His personality often crosses the line between confidence and arrogance, someone who relished fighting in a stadium with enough people to rival the population of a mid-sized Texas town, of which only about a dozen wanted to see him win.

“You’ve never been in the ring with someone like me,” Saunders warned Canelo before the fight. Once the fight started, and the crowd yelled so loud it made your ears ring and your chest pound, Álvarez handled him with relative ease. For good measure, he broke the right side of Saunders’s face.

“I felt it when I hit him,” Álvarez says now, in Spanish, of the right uppercut that damaged Saunders. When you punch people for a living, you can feel and hear when your fists have cracked bones. “I saw all this caved in,” Álvarez says, pointing at his cheekbone, slowly dragging his finger under his right eye. He explains how he broke Saunders — with the casualness of someone talking about the weather.

“I saw this other part raised,” Álvarez continues, pointing beside his eye by his temple. “That’s why I started urging the crowd to get loud. I knew once the round was over, he wasn’t going to fight anymore. He’d be risking his life.”

To put it as plainly as possible, Álvarez put a beating on Saunders that made him, or his corner, or all of them, say he didn’t want anymore. Instead of fighting, he’d rather go home.

That’s why once the fight ended after the 8th round, Reynoso carried Álvarez around the ring on his shoulders in victory. Not far from a waving Mexican flag and a disfigured Saunders, who minutes later would sit inside a lonesome ambulance with a pulsing pain from a right orbital bone broken in three separate places, Reynoso screamed with excitement. Álvarez, sitting atop of his shoulders, sitting atop of the world, pounded his chest and flexed his muscles.

At that moment, just like they recognize it now, Reynoso and Álvarez know that no one in the world can beat them. Not anyone at 160 or 168 or 175 pounds. Not Saunders.

Not Caleb Plant, who they fight on Saturday for four-belt unification. (Showtime PPV, 9 p.m. ET, with prelims at 6 p.m. ET)

Álvarez and Reynoso have gotten to the point where they are reaching for history — to become an undisputed champion, and with that, to do what no one else from Mexico has done before. The Plant fight and beyond isn’t about a payday or win for the boxer and trainer team. They are fighting for Álvarez to ascend as the greatest Mexican boxer that ever lived.


ÁLVAREZ IS LISTENING to Reynoso. He’s sitting on the ring apron in their boxing gym in San Diego. It’s a small gym in an industrial warehouse area, which, from the outside, doesn’t have a single sign that the world’s best boxer trains there. In fact, with closed vertical blinds, black poster boards taped on the dark tinted windows, and a door that’s locked as soon as Álvarez enters, they don’t want you to know.

That’s where Álvarez sits. He passively listens as Reynoso, about 20 feet away, struggles to cut a promo for a Spanish language television station that just interviewed him.

El seis de noviembre, no se pierdan la pelea…,” Reynoso says, staring into the camera before it sounds like his mouth stopped working.

No se pierdan la pelea este seis de noviembre…” His words trip again despite the rearrangement. He tries again, then fails one more time.

While attempting to tell viewers to tune in on Nov. 6, his words just don’t come out right. The producer tries to guide him. With an escalating frustration in his voice, Reynoso says he has it.

After another stumble, Álvarez, who has stared at his phone this entire time, smiling and giggling at what he calls, “memes y mama—s” — memes and bull——-g stands up and yells. “No que muy fácil?” He reminds them how everyone makes fun of him when he struggles to do the same. How everyone thinks it’s so easy, but it’s not. Everyone laughs, even Reynoso, who has a subdued personality. The kind that tells a writer they’re wasting his time if he thinks they’re asking dumb questions.

At last, Reynoso gets through the promo. Álvarez shows his phone to Munir Somoya, the strength and conditioning coach, and they both laugh. It’s a relaxed atmosphere before anyone gets in the ring. So much so that when Álvarez, still sitting on the ring apron, receives a phone call from a friend, he immediately puts them on speaker so all can help decipher what the fast-talking voice is saying. “No se te entiende ni madres,” Álvarez laughs while saying he understands nothing. “Habla despacito.” Talk slowly.

If you don’t see how they interact, you might think Álvarez and Reynoso are quiet, often giving simple answers to the questions they’re asked — at least in English. If you don’t speak Spanish, you might not understand that there’s always something lost in translation. You might not know the relationship between Álvarez and Reynoso is many things. Somewhere in the middle of a Venn diagram, Reynoso is trainer, manager, older brother and sometimes more.

“I’ve known him since he was a boy,” Reynoso, who turns 45 on the day of the fight, says, in Spanish, of Álvarez, 31. He has a tattoo of Álvarez’s face and frame on the outer part of his left forearm. He got it about 10 months ago after they defeated Englishman Callum Smith, a boxer they completely dominated even though he was an undefeated world champion, tall, had a long reach, was a good technical boxer and moved well. Immediately after that fight, in the locker room, Álvarez told Reynoso that he’d never fail him. And that, to prove it, he was willing to die in the ring.

The relationship between Álvarez and Reynoso is special, in part, because, ever since Álvarez’s older brother, Rigoberto, first brought him to his gym in Guadalajara, Mexico, the trainer has helped mature the young boy to a world champion. Today, Álvarez is more than that; he’s more than just a superstar in boxing. He’s one of the world’s most marketable male athletes. The clear example is that boxing isn’t dead in the United States — as the common trope argues — it’s just become a Latino, largely Mexican, sport. For his part, Álvarez says Reynoso is the best trainer in the world and that there’s no team better than his.

“We’ve always been together,” Reynoso says. Regardless of the relationship label, he says his job is to protect Álvarez. To make sure, inside the ring, he’s well prepared. To make sure, outside the ring, he’s doing things right.

“I worried a lot about him,” Reynoso says of Álvarez, using the past tense as if he’s talking about the 13-year-old he helped raise. The boy who had six older brothers who also boxed and a sister who helped him along his boxing path. Álvarez was the youngest and had a genius for fighting. He imagined winning world titles but couldn’t possibly visualize he’d become this big. “I still worry,” Reynoso adds, suddenly speaking in the present. Boxing is a tumultuous ocean where the most treacherous sharks wear suits and tuxedos.

“Lots of negatives, lots of greed,” Álvarez says when asked about the dark side of the boxing business. “But it’s part of the deal. It comes with the territory, and you just have to know how to navigate it.”

When that’s the world you live in, you can’t ever put your guard down. Those you keep the closest are the ones you trust with your life.

And so, around Álvarez and Reynoso is a team that’s been together for years. It’s their small world that’s only gotten tighter as Álvarez’s star has gotten larger. Reynoso, who demands hard work, says they’re all friends. Canelo, who demands loyalty, says they’re all family. They all understand they’re here now, to help Álvarez become the first Mexican, and Latino, undisputed world champion. Those who can’t help, are let go. Sparring partners who don’t push Álvarez enough are sent home with broken ribs and crooked noses.

“That was Eddy’s idea,” Álvarez says of fighting to win all four major title belts, becoming just the sixth male boxer to ever do it. “It occurred to him last year.”

The Plant fight is important for Álvarez, but if you talk to them enough, you get the sense it might be more critical for Reynoso. Besides his other shifting titles, he’s a boxing historian. The one whose life has revolved around boxing since the bug first bit him. Reynoso was just eight years old when his father — Don Chepo — took him to boxing gyms around Guadalajara, in the western Mexican state of Jalisco.

He never left those gyms that all smell of stale sweat. It’s the kind of stench that, at best, cleaning supplies can only temporarily mask. Reynoso is the one who — about 15 years ago when hardly anyone knew Álvarez’s name, when if you knew him, you more than likely called him Saúl — came up with what became their mantra: No Boxing, No Life.

Reynoso is the one who understands better than all that any claim Álvarez may have at being Mexico’s greatest boxer rests on him becoming an undisputed champion. “He’d be categorized as the best in Mexican boxing history, no matter what others say,” Reynoso says.

“To be the best, you need to have the wins, and Saúl will have that,” Reynoso continues. “No Mexican will have accomplished what Saúl has done.”


IF SOCCER REMAINS Mexico’s most popular sport, boxing, especially among the working class, is the county’s Freudian id. Where boxers, even those who don’t become world champions, can still become national heroes. Those who win titles become folk heroes, living forever in songs, movies and telenovelas.

There’s no analog in the United States for what boxing means in Mexican culture. Perhaps the closest example comes from over a century ago when baseball symbolized democracy and morality. With that, the expanding American empire introduced its national game everywhere it spread, including Mexico. Back then, as America told it, playing and watching baseball — instead of fighting — was a way of becoming civilized.

Boxing is almost of existential importance within Mexican culture, whether in Mexico or the United States with Mexican Americans. Because if what Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes said is true, claiming the country’s history is one of crushing defeat compared to America’s grandeur, then boxing remained one of the few places where victories have been plentiful.

Those victories on the nights when, surrounded by family and friends, boxers like Julio César Chávez affirmed that though others couldn’t see them, it never meant Mexican people were invisible. A Mexican national hero on both sides of the border, called El Gran Campeón Mexicano, and largely considered the country’s greatest boxer, Chávez never spoke English. Every time he won and spoke Spanish, it became clear that even if others couldn’t understand him, what he had to say was no less important.

It’s why on the late January night in 1994 when the great Chávez lost to the now departed American Frankie Randall — his first defeat after 91 fights — Reynoso felt like boxing, the sport he loved, had broken his heart. Decades later, his voice still gets low as he talks about that loss and how it hurt.

Whenever Álvarez fights, it sounds like an entire stadium in the United States is singing the Mexican national anthem. Fans — from the ones sitting in the nosebleed sections to the Mexican and Mexican Americans with enough money to sit as close to the ring as possible — will then chant Álvarez’s name. And even if, for some, distance has strained that connection, they’ll also chant the name of their spiritual home. “ME-XI-CO! ME-XI-CO!”

Countless people gather across two countries, in homes, restaurants, bars or any place with a television to watch him fight.

When he holds media workouts in fancy resort hotels, the guests may not know who Álvarez is, but those who clean the rooms, make the food, cut the grass and park the cars, often do.

Even if metaphorically, there’s dignity in taking a beating today then returning tomorrow to likely get punched in the face again. That even if you lose, there’s something heroic in not backing down. It’s part of that basic philosophy of the Mexican working class. Even if the task is Sisyphean, it must get done because there’s no way around it.

Imagine if this is you and you find someone on the other side. Someone inflicting that damage and not taking it. Someone that comes from where you do, speaks the way you do, laughs at the same memes y mama—s that you do. Little wonder why someone like Chávez, or Álvarez — who used to sell popsicles on the streets, then disobeyed his father when he stopped going to school in the 8th grade so he could work and fight — get treated like they have the power to make their people feel a little less alienated. It’s why the two most important boxing days in the United States are held on weekends that commemorate important dates in Mexican history.

“I feel that fanaticism,” Álvarez says of the fans of Mexican heritage across two countries. Because of that zealotry, whenever Álvarez fights, he seemingly becomes the center of Mexican culture. Grandmothers will light candles, asking God to protect him. Against Saunders, in Mexico, over half the people who had their television on, watched Álvarez. “Whatever day I fight,” Álvarez explains, “that’s for all Mexicans and for all of Mexico.”


REYNOSO USES A gray towel to wipe the sweat from Álvarez’s face. It’s in between rounds of shadow boxing, where Álvarez moves effortlessly across the ring. It looks like he’s gliding. He then mimics punching to the body, a shot to the liver. That’s the cruelest punch in all of boxing and a cornerstone in the Mexican style of fighting.

Cruel because if you get knocked unconscious, you might not feel a thing. Sometimes, boxers awake from a punch and must get told their fight is over. But get hit hard enough with a body shot, and you feel the excruciating pain that makes you want to quit. It makes you wonder if a major organ’s been ruptured. A handful of honest seconds that feel like minutes which make you think you might be dying.

Se lo metes,” Reynoso tells Álvarez as he watches him practice those punches. Put it in him.

In this case, him is Caleb Plant. He’s the boxer from Tennessee who holds the last belt — IBF super-middleweight (168 pounds) title — needed to complete the undisputed puzzle that Álvarez and Reynoso have been solving since early in the pandemic.

Álvarez and Reynoso have zero doubt that they’ll do it. It’s more than the usual boxing bravado. It’s something deeper. It’s that Mexican fatalism that convinces us there’s no stopping whatever’s meant to pass. It’s not Plant that’s keeping Álvarez, Reynoso and the rest of their team, from their post-fight, in-ring celebratory photo. It’s that Nov. 6 has yet to come. But once it comes, and they beat Plant, they’ll take that photo, have it framed, then hang it along with the many others inside their San Diego gym.

On those walls, you can see the arc of Álvarez’s career. A fight poster against California-native Josesito López ​​when Álvarez was just 22 and baby-faced. Back then, in 2012, during Mexican Independence Day weekend, some influential voices wondered if Álvarez’s popularity came because he was good or because he, often portrayed as some sort of fighting heartthrob, was perfectly marketed. So loud were those questions that, on that same Las Vegas night, Julio César Chávez, Jr. — the son of the Mexican national hero with the golden name — fought less than two miles down the road.

Though they fought different opponents, that night, Álvarez and Chávez Jr. were fighting to see who’d become the next great Mexican boxer. They eventually met in the ring. Álvarez won easily. That fight poster also hangs in the gym where, from the outside, the only sign of what’s happening inside is when Álvarez hits the heavy bags, and it sounds like a gunshot. There’s also a framed photograph of that fight. It’s Álvarez punching Chávez Jr.’s body. That punch made Chávez Jr. shrink in pain. It may not have been the blow that hurt most, but instead, Álvarez beating him out of his birthright. That was the last time any person said “next great Mexican boxer” and Chávez Jr. in the same sentence.

“The people have gotten on board,” Álvarez says of the Mexican and Mexican American fans that had once questioned how good he was. “For as much as they didn’t want to, they’ve started admiring what I do and have become fans.”

He also knows there will always be a few who question some part of his career. But this side of his lone loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr., where he fought one of the best boxers of his generation at just 23 in 2013, this side of his two hard-fought battles against Gennadiy Golovkin in 2017 and 2018 — a draw and a close win respectively — Álvarez has become the world’s best boxer. The few that still have doubts will likely never be convinced. Even if — or when, if you’re as convinced as Álvarez and Reynoso — he becomes undisputed, and there’s no one in the division left to beat.

“At the end of the day, to be the best, you don’t need people to love you,” Reynoso says, a defiant tone in his voice. As he talks, he stands close to those fight posters and photos inside their gym that are monuments to Álvarez’s accomplishments. And because the two are interconnected, those same posters and photos are a testament to Reynoso’s achievements, too.

They’re tangible proof that their tree of sacrifices has given fruit. “When we started, there was no one there,” Reynoso remembers. Even today, the months away from family, months away from home, is easier to stomach because they, together, are doing what they love.

They understand the responsibility that comes with becoming the best Mexican boxer. The symbolism of fighting in the very places that were once part of Mexico, places with a history of anti-Mexican violence. So, they might all laugh and play around for a bit, but once the actual work begins there’s no room for bulls——g.

Once that bell rings, after Reynoso has wiped the sweat from Álvarez’s face and given him water and it’s time to work again, it’s a complete focus.

Back to shadowboxing, Álvarez punches at an opponent that only he can see. Beads of sweat fly from his arms, staining the canvas. There’s a seriousness that’s invaded Álvarez’s face. Like some part of that respectful person who shakes hands with everyone as he enters the gym has left. Like he’s forgotten how, not long before then, he told me he’s always been a quiet person. How he plays golf every day because it breaks the training camp loneliness and monotony while helping him stay calm inside the ring.

In his place, is the boxer who before each fight tells his family — including his wife and four children — he loves them because he knows either him or his opponent may, in the literal sense, be fighting for their lives. He tells them that if something were to happen to him inside that ring, that at least it happened while doing something he loves.

Álvarez, inside that ring, where he’s his truest self, has stopped singing and laughing, dancing and joking. The muscles around his jaw become tense. The veins from the sides of his muscular neck are suddenly awake.

LE VOY A DAR LA P—-A DE SU VIDA!” Álvarez breaks his silence, yelling what’s heard throughout the entire gym and even outside. He says he’s going to give him the beating of his life.

Again, him is Caleb Plant.

Soon after Álvarez makes his proclamation, Reynoso, with a gray towel hanging over his shoulder, standing outside the corner of the ring, looks at how Álvarez practices his brutal trade. “Move your waist,” he tells him. “Protect yourself with your arms,” he adds before showing him.

Así, así” — like this, like this — Reynoso, with his fists near his ears, says as he bends his waist side to side and back to front. Álvarez nods then follows instructions.

Bien m’ijo,” Reynoso says.

Good, my son.


REYNOSO IS HOLDING back Álvarez. The press conference between Plant and Álvarez, about six weeks before their fight, just got physical. Not in the way that boxers sometimes fake beef to help sell their fight. Physical in a Plant might have landed the first shot but now he’s bleeding from under his eye after Álvarez landed three sort of way.

Before they were face to face, Plant had called Álvarez a drug cheat after the Mexican boxer tested positive for trace amounts of clenbuterol in 2018. Álvarez said it was the result of eating contaminated Mexican beef. The same state athletic commission that suspended him for six months, later said a hair follicle test didn’t detect any banned substance. That gave Álvarez’s tainted beef theory some credence. Plant, who isn’t alone in his skepticism, didn’t buy it.

Once in front of him, Plant — who says the Mexican boxer has never been in the ring with someone like him — called Álvarez a motherf—er. That’s when their face-off turned violent.

Because it’s what sometimes happens when you speak in a tongue that isn’t your own, Álvarez took the insult as literal. Parts of Mexican culture are full of machismo and in those spaces — boxing being one — every macho has a mother that can’t be disrespected.

“YOU’RE THE MOTHERF—ER!” Álvarez responded after pushing Plant away. Often, because it’s useful in moments like these, cursing is the first thing you want to learn in a new language. They then threw hands and were separated.

Even before that all happened, through no real fault of his own, Plant represented the nemesis in the historical tension between the United States and Mexico. Plant didn’t need to say a single word for Álvarez’s camp to naturally see him as their adversary. But once he started talking, he became more than that. He offended some part of Álvarez and Reynoso’s Mexican sensibilities.

“Why talk?” Álvarez asks rhetorically. “At the end, we’re going to find out inside the ring. There, words are useless. I don’t see a need to talk. The things I say, I say them because I feel them in my heart.”

Álvarez and Reynoso say Plant talks too much. They say they’ll have little problem beating him. They know his strengths — he’s an undefeated world champion, tall, has a long reach, is a good technical boxer, and moves well — and they also know his weaknesses. They’ve studied his fights. They know which rounds he’s most dangerous, throwing more punches, applying more pressure. They also know when he tires. But more important than any of that, they know Plant isn’t Álvarez.

“Saúl will beat him any way he wants,” Reynoso says of Plant. “Why? Because he’s at his peak. He’s beaten better boxers than Plant. He has more experience. He’s young. He’s strong. And more than anything else, he stays in the gym.”

Hard work and discipline. That’s Álvarez’s greatest strength, according to Reynoso, who’ll sometimes rant about boxers pretending to work hard by posting things on social media. He says Álvarez has that because it’s what he learned as a young boxer. Without putting it into words, Reynoso is saying Álvarez is that way because that’s how he taught him.

Asked about Plant’s chances of winning, Álvarez says, “Right now, I don’t see anyone who can beat me.”


WATCH ENOUGH BOXING and you’ll almost inevitably hear the young stars talk about how they want to retire before their bodies begin to fail them. How they want to make their money and get out. How their career will be unlike the stereotypical boxer that ends up broke, physically and economically. Fighting, only because that’s the best way they know how to make money.

That’s no criticism against young boxers. Boxing is a painful, horrible business that can drown you, and, if they can, they should think of a way to get out as soon as possible.

Álvarez, however, says he loves fighting. Even when he isn’t preparing for a fight, he’s still training in the gym. Though he says he fights for the Mexican people, wherever they might live, he says he’s reached a point where he no longer feels any pressure. That there’s no adrenaline to match knocking out an opponent. Or even better, making them quit.

Nada, nada, nada,” he says. Nothing. “It’s something different,” Álvarez tries to explain the surge of electricity he feels when seeing another opponent — who has been training for months to hurt him just the same — can no longer fight.

Imagine that. To not just dominate the best of the best within this cut-throat sport but make them, the hardest of men, no longer want to fight. Imagine the beating that someone who trains to ignore pain, must take before their instinct for self-preservation takes over. If their pride would let them, they’d admit what their body’s already confessed. An admission that could wreck their identity. If the body could put into words what it’s saying, it’d be something like, I was convinced there was no one in the world who could beat me, but then I fought you.

It’s a bit unnerving when Álvarez sometimes practices his violent gift while listening to Mexican ballads and love songs. How, from this idyllic coast he perfects his methods to break the will of men. Instead of trying to intimidate opponents, Álvarez is the opposite. He’s disturbingly calm.

There’s something unsettling about a man who doesn’t need to fight, at least for economic reasons, but does it because he loves it. Álvarez almost shuns the boxing gods, ignoring the sport’s most real proverb saying it’s hard for a boxer to wake up and train when they sleep in silk sheets. Álvarez does more than that. On the days before he fights, he wears little else besides silk pajamas. “It’s more comfortable for me,” he says, as a way of explanation.

That’s just the kind of thing you do when you’re convinced no one can beat you. When you plan to fight another seven years, including again in Mexico — something he hasn’t done in a decade — against the toughest competition, and then just leave. Maybe to play golf. Maybe to tend to his businesses. Both would seemingly help him fulfill that competitive drive that’s brought him here. Maybe to ride his horses. Maybe something else. Anything that would be the opposite of a life spent fighting. Álvarez can do whatever he wants, but for now, he fights. And when he does, he says Reynoso worries too much.

Reynoso worries because, as the trainer, the loss that’s hurt him the most wasn’t against Mayweather. It was when Óscar Larios, well past his prime, lost to Jorge Linares, who was barely entering his. “That’s the one that’s stung the most,” Reynoso says of the 2007 fight that left Larios with a bleeding brain.

As the historian, he knows a boxer, today, may beat every man walking the earth, but tomorrow, they’ll never beat time. That’s the one thing Reynoso will never be able to protect Álvarez from. He knows it better than anyone else.

Ánimo cab–n, póngase listo,” Reynoso will tell Álvarez each time before the bell rings and the fights that count start. Before he fights Plant, Reynoso will tell him the same thing. And like always, Álvarez’s response will be a confident nod.

At this point, Álvarez and Reynoso are fighting for titles, yes, but also for pride, country, respect and all the things that come with that. Days after Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead, an early November holiday where those of Mexican heritage remember the lives of those who have died — Álvarez and Reynoso are fighting for a sense of immortality. So that after Álvarez has stopped fighting, he’ll be remembered as the greatest boxer from Mexico, surpassing even Julio César Chávez, as blasphemous as that sounds. That maybe, one day, they’ll be songs and movies and telenovelas made about Álvarez. And since their accomplishments are as intertwined as their lives, if that happens, Reynoso will get remembered as the one who helped him live forever, even if not physically.

Right now, when a sense of inevitability surrounds him, maybe the only tension that remains in Álvarez’s career is if he can get out before it’s too late. He’s been fighting for money since he was 15, and Reynoso has been with him every step of the way. If Álvarez can get out and stay away, Reynoso can stop worrying, maybe move on to fret about someone else. If he can get out and never come back, Álvarez will be the only one who has reached this height — hearing his name and that of his country chanted while carried on shoulders — who then didn’t risk his life trying to feel it again.

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