Michael Rosenthal

‘Canelo’ is passing his tests and picking up fans

Shane Mosley was exchanging punches with Sergio Mora in the main event at Staples Center in Los Angeles when some in the crowd noticed Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, who had just knocked out Carlos Baldomir, emerge from his dressing room and walk toward his ringside seat.

The chanting began softly … “Canelo … Canelo … Canelo … and then more of the fans caught on to what was happening … “CANELO! … CANELO! … CANELO!”

The 20-year-old Mexican, who fights Lovemore N’Dou on Saturday in Veracruz on HBO Latino, has a long way to go to true stardom but obviously the fast-rising red head is able to connect with boxing fans in an unusual way.

That’s why those at Golden Boy Promotions, his promoter, are so excited about his future. Now all they have to do is guide him through all the possible pitfalls to the pinnacle of the sport, which is no easy task.

“Not at all,” said Eric Gomez, Golden Boy matchmaker. “That’s why we’re crossing all our Ts and dotting all our Is. We’re making sure no stone is unturned when it comes to Canelo.”

Gomez and Co. had heard about the unusual looking kid from Jalisco before he agreed to fight on a Golden Boy card in October of 2008. They liked what they saw, a raw, but spirited fighter with the red hair and freckles and considerable charm.

Alvarez also was about to receive a head start in terms of name and face recognition. Televisa, a free television network in Mexico, would begin to showcase his fights a few months later. And immediately the fans were intrigued by his looks and enamored with his aggressive style, even if he was crude at that point.

Today, Alvarez reportedly does tremendous ratings when he fights, numbers that are said to rival club soccer in the soccer-crazy country. And while he isn’t mobbed on the streets as Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. once was, he draws crowds wherever he goes.

Richard Schaefer, CEO of Golden Boy, gives much of the credit to the fact Televisa has backed Alvarez.

“That shows the power of [free] network TV,” Schaefer said. “I wasn’t living here in the U.S. at the time but when boxing was on network TV, on ABC or whatever, that was a time of big stars. People who fought on free TV became household names, not just in sports but in the general public.

“That’s what’s happening with Canelo in Mexico. That’s why he has become so popular.”

Schaefer believes Alavarez can also be tremendously popular in the U.S. in time, particularly because of the large and growing number of Mexican-Americans here.

The chanting at Staples Center was stark evidence that word of the red-headed kid has made its way north of the border, where Alvarez will likely engage in the biggest and most-lucrative fights of his career.

Of course, he must continue to evolve to realize whatever potential he has. And, yes, he must continue to win.

That’s why Gomez said Golden Boy and Alvarez’s Mexican handlers devote a great deal of time and effort to guide his career properly. That includes Oscar De La Hoya, president of Golden Boy.

“Oscar has taken charge of Canelo,” Gomez said. “Oscar is very hands on with him. He wants to make sure everything is done perfectly … from the opponents to game plans to the sites of the fights to the dates … everything. He collaborates with myself and Richard and Canelo’s team on all decisions.

“Oscar has done this with very few fighters at Golden Boy. He thinks Canelo will be an elite guy, one of the top fighters.”

Team Alvarez is taking it slowly with Alvarez, who is as eager as any young prospect to test his skill against the best fighters.

The fact is that Alvarez is still a work in progress. He became a professional boxer a few months after turning 15, in 2005, with no amateur experience. Thus, he has had to learn his craft on the job, which isn’t easy.

Alvarez (34-0-1, 26 knockotus) drew early in his career against another young fighter and has had some close calls. That included a scary moment in his fight against Jose Miguel Cotto on the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Mosley card on May 1, his first fight on a major pay-per-view card.

Cotto, a blown-up lightweight, rocked Alvarez in the first round but he survived and went on to stop the brother of Miguel Cotto in the ninth round.

The Golden Boy people probably lost a few years off their lives during the first round but they were pleased to see their prospect overcome adversity on the biggest stage in the sport.

Alvarez followed that with an easy sixth-round KO of overmatched Luciano Cuello before he took on Baldomir, who was several years removed from his peak but deemed by far the biggest test of his career. If nothing else, the Argentine was extremely tough.

The result was sensational. Alvarez broke down the veteran as if he were the more-experienced fighter before knocking him out with a series of blistering shots that brought Baldomir down and the Staples Center crowd to its feet.

It was the kind of knockout people don’t forget.

“Canelo is improving every time out,” Gomez said. “He’s a kid, remember. He’s only 20. He grows as a fighter every time he fights. I see different things each time. His defense, his footwork, his power, his balance. All of it is getting better every time out. We’re not in a hurry, though. We want to take significant steps up but with the right opponents. We want guys who have been there, guys like Baldomir and N’Dou, tough, tested guys he can learn from. We don’t want guys now who he’ll punch and they’ll just go down. We want him to get rounds. That’s important for a young kid like him.

“… All he has to do now is keep working on his craft, his technique, to get experience.”

N’Dou, who like Baldomir is 39 and past his prime, doesn’t have much of a chance of beating Alvarez but he could provide an interesting test because of his experience. Gomez said his performance on Saturday will determine his next opponent, who probably will be a small step up from N’Dou.

Make no mistake, though. Big-name opponents in their primes are on the horizon if Alvarez continues to win, particularly if he wins as spectacularly as he did against Baldomir.

Schaefer said HBO already has expressed interest in featuring Alvarez three times next year. HBO television analyst Larry Merchant threw out Alvarez’s name as a possible opponent for Manny Pacquiao in the not-so-distant-future after the Juan Manuel Marquez-Michael Katsidis broadcast last Saturday.

Again, word is spreading. And those closest to Alvarez couldn’t be more thrilled. De La Hoya was asked during an open workout for the Amir Khan-Marcos Maidana fight on Dec. 11 to name the fighters he believes will drive the sport after Mayweather and Pacquiao retire.

He smiled and said without hesitation, “Canelo. He’s going to be huge. Wait and see.”

That’s exactly what we’ll do. Wait and see.

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