Canelo Alvarez cuts through the noise in a throwback to boxing’s greats

Canelo Alvarez celebrates defeating Billy Joe Saunders

When Canelo Alvarez stepped onto the scales in Arlington, Texas, soaking in the tension that stirs before every big fight, it was no coincidence that he donned a pair of silk pyjamas. Ever since Marvin Hagler shunned the efforts to lure him from retirement in the late ‘80s, the chip on his shoulder appeased by the luxury draped over it, no item of clothing has so accurately conveyed boxing’s rags-to-riches tales. They might appear as a statement of wealth, but what they symbolise is a world conquered, a victory over the poverty that moulds most great fighters. Coveted, then cursed, they also represent the end; the point at which the fire is finally satisfied and nothing is left to prove. After the hardest-fought career, it is the submission to well-earned comfort. 

But for Alvarez, at the peak of his powers, his division all but exhausted after another brutal victory, the silk pyjamas are a show of defiance. From the youngest of eight siblings on the impoverished outskirts of Guadalajara, he has become boxing’s transcendent star. In September, he will face Caleb Plant for the title of undisputed champion in what will surely be another coronation. Alvarez is currently operating in a class of his own, the pool of legitimate opponents almost dried up, wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, and yet his ferocity has not faded at all.

The build-up to his bout against Billy Joe Saunders was spent in utter nonchalance, ambivalent to the Briton’s antics, an assassin dressed in silk. But the vicious uppercut he landed in the eighth round, fracturing Saunders’ eye socket, was loaded with a lifetime’s ammunition of spite and suffering. And as Saunders stumbled backwards, the pain exploding through his body, Alvarez raised his arms and beat his chest with almost murderous intent. For all his success, no amount of paper or fabric has softened the edges. He does not need to fight anymore, it’s a form of pleasure.

In a boxing era of over-exaggerated trash talk, obstructive politics and headline-grabbing celebrity crossovers, Alvarez is a throwback to the great fighters of old. Perhaps, as the sport so often spills into artificial theatrics, that quality has never been so valuable. He cuts through the noise by speaking in punches, his stardom a credit to his skill rather than a manufactured ego, and lives true to his motto of “No Boxing, No Life”. The sport’s most lucrative star could hardly be a greater contrast to the man from whom he inherited that crown. Alvarez’s sole professional defeat came against Floyd Mayweather Jr in 2013, but made sure that loss would not define him.

It is hardly to claim Alvarez is the perfect figurehead. In 2018, he was suspended for six months after failing two out of competition drugs tests for trace amounts of clenbuterol, a prescription-only asthma drug well known for its performance-enhancing qualities – Alvarez blamed the results on contaminated meat.

He has benefitted from dubious judging scorecards on more than one occasion, too, most memorably against Gennadiy Golovkin and Erislandy Lara. Alvarez mirrors what’s great and ugly about boxing all at once. He is at the same time extraordinary and flawed, a gleaming example with well-disguised caveats. But he has never proclaimed to be anything else. He is a fighter in what can often be a rotten business. It is not to excuse him, but very few reach the pinnacle without dirt as well as blood on their knuckles. 

When Alvarez first fought Golovkin, the Kazakh hailed it as a “history” fight “like [Ray] Leonard versus Hagler”. On that bitter, breathtaking night in 1987, Hagler was left rich but heartbroken after the judges awarded Leonard a controversial split decision and refused to fight again, exiling himself to Italy. Regardless of his fortune, Leonard fought on, the addiction and desire to the ring never subsiding until fate forced it from his hands. Alvarez bears echoes to those legends of old, his will to compete obscuring the satisfaction of the rewards. He has long been in a position where he never has to fight again but cannot bring himself to stop. If history tells us anything, in spite of all the silk, it’s that many of Alvarez’s greatest nights are still yet to come. 

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