Canelo Alvarez Mexico’s newest boxing star: Fame as quick as his fists

From a small town in Jalisco to a key match at the Staples Center on Saturday, 20-year-old phenom Saul Alvarez, undefeated through 34 pro fights, has come a long way. ‘Before, I had nothing,’ he says. ‘So I still have that hunger.’
COLUMN ONE
September 16, 2010|By Kevin Baxter

Reporting from Guadalajara, Mexico — It wasn’t all that long ago that he had to wait for a hot, jam-packed bus to get from his mother’s home in tiny Juanacatlan to his gym in Guadalajara, about 15 miles away.

“It used to take me an hour,” Saul Alvarez says.

On this September afternoon, he’s making the trip — 20 minutes by car — relaxing in the brown leather passenger seat of his black Cadillac Escalade, fiddling with the CD player and singing off-key over the air conditioning.

Driver Erick Arreola slaloms the SUV through the late-afternoon traffic, pointing out two billboards on which a sultry Marisol Gonzalez, a former Miss Mexico, models a clothing line.

“That’s his girlfriend,” he says, nodding to Alvarez.

The bus, clearly, is a thing of the past. In the last year, Alvarez — Mexico’s latest boxing sensation — has acquired a stable of cars, two horses and a glamorous girlfriend. He owes it all to his fast fists, which have kept him undefeated through 34 pro fights.

His next test comes Saturday when he meets former WBC welterweight champion Carlos Baldomir of Argentina at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. A victory probably will set Alvarez up for a title shot of his own next year.

All this and he’s just two months past his 20th birthday. Which explains why he takes none of it for granted.

“Before, I had nothing,” Alvarez says. “So I still have that hunger. All this came very fast.”

A hunger and a purpose. Alvarez’s success provides hope and inspiration to a nation that needs distractions from a drug war that has left thousands dead and millions more living in fear. His fights draw TV ratings nearly equal to those of the national soccer team, according to Mexican network Televisa, making him one of the country’s most-watched athletes.

“If the people like watching me, see me as an example of someone succeeding, as a young guy who has the will to win, then I’m happy,” Alvarez says. “Then people will see you don’t have to choose other options.”

Alvarez grew up the youngest of seven brothers in Juanacatlan, a town in central Jalisco state, surrounded by verdant pastures and hills. On summer days he would swim or fish in the Rio Grande de Santiago, now polluted with chemicals dumped by factories upstream.

“It used to be really pretty here,” he says with a sigh.

His parents separated when he was 15, splitting up their children. Alvarez lived with his mother Ana Maria in a concrete-block house on a hot, dusty street. Today his mother lives with him in a fifth-floor apartment in Guadalajara’s trendy Colonia Providencia neighborhood.

With a shock of rust-colored hair, prominent freckles and skin so pale it’s nearly translucent, Alvarez looks about as Mexican as green beer. While that would eventually earn him the nickname “Canelo,” Spanish for cinnamon, as a boy all it got him was a lot of grief from the neighborhood kids.

“Because of that I learned to use my fists,” says Alvarez, a solid puncher who has won 25 of his fights by knockout. “I would fight them if they said anything. I found out I had a natural talent for it and I could defend myself.”

At the age of 11, he followed his brother Rigoberto into a boxing gym. Eventually all the Alvarez boys would become boxers. But none was as good as Saul.

“He surprised me when he put on the gloves for the first time, the great natural talent that he had,” says Rigoberto who this month will fight Japan’s Nobuhiro Ishida in a light-middleweight bout. “He couldn’t become a businessman.… He was born to be a boxer.”

Ana Maria remembers her youngest, the only one with her red hair and light complexion, as a restless and mischievous boy.

Alvarez often spent Sundays working in his father Santos’ ice cream shop. But by the time he turned 12, he was more interested in fighting than in selling ice cream. At 15, he dropped out of school to turn pro.

“One day he came to me and said, ‘Your work is too hard.’ He said he wanted to box,” remembers the elder Alvarez, who feared his small, skinny son would get hurt. “He told me, ‘It’s going to turn out OK. I’m going to be good.’ ”

Saul was right. Less than five years after his pro debut and a decade after tangling with neighborhood bullies, Alvarez has become a celebrity in Mexico. One day he’s being teased because he looks like Howdy Doody, the next he’s being praised because he fights like Muhammad Ali.

“Now he’s training to become a world champion,” Santos Alvarez says. “If that happens, he’ll make millions. That’s better than selling ice cream.”

Saul Alvarez has few interests outside boxing but he feels passionate about horseback riding, something he rarely gets to enjoy these days. With a couple of friends in town recently, he couldn’t resist a trip to the small farm on the edge of Juanacatlan where he keeps his two horses, Dandy and Bon-bon, one given to him by singer Vicente Fernandez and the other a gift from the mayor of nearby Tepic, where Alvarez sometimes trains.

Horseback riding isn’t the safest thing to do a couple of weeks before a major fight, especially the way Alvarez does it, whistling and slapping Dandy, the larger of the two horses, to get him to gallop, buck, skip and dance to Mexican ranchera music. The serenity of the moment is quickly shattered, though, when a girl streaking past on the back of a motorcycle calls out to the boxer.

“Canelo!,” she yells. Alvarez is one of the most-recognized athletes in Mexico, and almost everyone addresses him by his nickname.

When Alvarez and Arreola, his training partner and a fledgling fighter, go for an early morning workout in Guadalajara’s Colomos park, the shout-outs follow them on their 25-minute run over hilly, crowded trails.

“Canelo!,” women coo as they dash by.

“Champion!” some of the men call.

Later, when Alvarez returns to his apartment, two men delivering a sofa drop it in the street to run over to take a picture.

It happens everywhere. When the Escalade stops at a traffic light in Juanacatlan, two young boys — one wearing a dirty and tattered “Canelo” T-shirt — rush over for autographs. A dinner with friends in an otherwise empty sushi restaurant is interrupted when two squealing girls come in off the street to greet him.

Each time Alvarez is asked for a picture he strikes the classic boxer pose, wrapping one arm around the person’s shoulder and cocking the fist on the other. He even does it when someone asks for a photo of him with his horse.

“It’s very difficult for him to go anywhere,” says his trainer Eddy Reynoso. “Sometimes that bothers him.”

But Alvarez says otherwise: “… it doesn’t bother me. I get motivated by the fact people are following me, that they want a photo or say ‘vamos’ or ‘Canelo.’ ”

Alvarez was little-known outside his country until he beat Puerto Rico’s Jose Miguel Cotto in May in Las Vegas. It was just his third fight outside Mexico but his ferocity in the ring quickly won him fans.

He is often compared to Oscar de la Hoya, the East L.A fighter whose success and matinee-idol looks drew crowds wherever he went.

“I was in shock when I went to go see him in Guadalajara,” says De la Hoya, whose company has been promoting Alvarez since January. “It reminded me of when I was fighting. So many women and girls, from the grandma and the mother, were there to watch him fight and to see him in a press conference weigh-in. And that’s when I said to myself, ‘You know what? We have something special here.’

“He can fight but at the same time he has that crossover appeal. Women adore him.”

De la Hoya won the first of his 10 world titles a month after his 21st birthday. If Alvarez defeats Baldomir on Saturday, he could find himself fighting for a championship early next year, six months ahead of that schedule.

Just don’t expect to hear Alvarez bragging about it though. Because while there’s no doubt he’s confident, he prefers to let his actions speak for themselves.

In a recent conference call with reporters, the trash-talking Baldomir promised a knockout and repeatedly tried to draw his opponent into a war of words. But Alvarez deftly sidestepped the verbal jabs, praising his opponent and promising to do his best.

“It’s an honor speaking with you,” is how Alvarez invariably begins and ends most interviews. After concluding one with a radio talk-show host from the living room of his tidy two-bedroom apartment, Alvarez hands a cellphone back to his publicist, leans back on a sofa the color of a baseball glove and opens up in a way he didn’t with the radio or TV people.

“My goal in boxing is to be the best,” he says, the bus rides and the bullies now just distant memories. “I want to be like a Muhammad Ali, like a Julio Cesar Chavez. So when people talk about boxing, they have to remember Canelo.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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