Holding a major world title is a big responsibility for a professional boxer, especially young fighters like Saul Alvarez who are still learning their craft.
Alvarez, who at 20 became the youngest ever to pick up the WBC’s 154-pound title when he out-pointed Matthew Hatton in March, is set to defend his coveted green belt against Ryan Rhodes on Saturday in his native Guadalajara, Mexico.
If Alvarez defeats Rhodes, an experienced and talented veteran from Britain, he knows the formidable likes of Vanes Martirosyan, Alfredo Angulo, and Paul Williams — the WBC’s Nos. 1-, 2- and 4-rated contenders, respectively — are waiting for their shot at his title.
Add to that pressure his wild popularity — the red-headed boxer-puncher is a bona-fide ticket seller whose bouts are televised live to national audiences (on Televisa in Mexico and on HBO in the U.S.) — and the fact that he’s promoted by Golden Boy Promotions, which invariably invites comparisons to the Los Angeles-based company’s president, Oscar De La Hoya, and you have a situation that would overwhelm most young fighters.
Alvarez seems to be taking it all in stride.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” he told members of the media during a recent open workout in Los Angeles when asked how he felt about being labeled the next “Golden Boy.”
“It’s an honor to be compared to Oscar,” Alvarez said through Golden Boy Promotions matchmaker Eric Gomez. “It’s flattering when you look at how much he accomplished during his boxing career, but I want to make my own name. I want to accomplish more than he did.”
That’s setting the bar pretty darn high. De La Hoya, who won major titles in five divisions, was the face of boxing in the 1990s and the past decade.
Alvarez (36-0-1, 26 knockouts) is talented, as his impressive record suggests. However, it's doubtful he'll be able to equal his promoter and mentor's in-the-ring accomplishments because he's not as physically gifted as the prime De La Hoya.
One thing he has in common De La Hoya is charisma. With the help of loyal Mexican fans, he might be able to match De La Hoya’s ability to score high TV ratings and put butts in the seats.
Alvarez has already proved to be a better draw in Southern California than De La Hoya was at similar points in their careers.
Like Alvarez, De La Hoya also fought for his first major title at age 20. However, De La Hoya’s challenge to WBO junior lightweight beltholder Jimmi Bredahl in 1994 attracted less than 2,000 paying fans to the legendary Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.
Alvarez’s fight with Hatton, which took place at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., drew more than 10,000 paying customers to the arena.Clearly, the freckle-faced young fighter, affectionately nicknamed “Canelo” (the Spanish word for cinnamon) by Mexican fans, has a strong connection to his supporters.
The bond between Alvarez and his fans is very important to him, which is why he spent a month in Big Bear, Calif., in preparation for Saturday’s homecoming.
Rhodes (45-4, 31 KOs) is bigger and more athletic than Hatton. The 34-year-old Sheffield native also possesses a tricky, unorthodox style.
“He’s a very strong fighter,” Alvarez said of his next opponent. “He can take a punch and he’s a little awkward. He switches stances (from orthodox to southpaw) a lot.”
To succeed against Rhodes, Alvarez knew he had to be in better condition than he was for the Hatton fight. He found the perfect place to get that done — veteran trainer Abel Sanchez’s high-altitude training center in the San Bernardino County mountain resort town.
“It was a great experience because my focus was 100 percent on boxing,” said Alvarez, who blamed his under-whelming performance against Hatton on constant training camp distractions back in Mexico. “At home, my family and so many friends are coming by to wish me well when I’m supposed to be training and focusing for my fight. In Big Bear, all I did was train.”
The camp was grueling at first. The high altitude and his chief sparring partner, undefeated middleweight beltholder Gennady Golovkin, were very hard on Alvarez, but that’s exactly what he wanted.
“It took me 10 to 15 days to get used to the thin air up there,” he said. “It was hard to breathe right (early in the camp). Running for 25 minutes felt like running for an hour. Sparring two rounds seemed like sparring six.
“But it made me stronger. I learned new workout methods from Abel Sanchez and I learned a lot from sparring with Golovkin. He put a lot of pressure on me (during sparring sessions) and brought out the best in me.”
The jury is still out on how good Alvarez’s “best” is. Rhodes, a legitimate test for the budding star, will give fans a better idea of his potential.
If Alvarez passes, particularly with flying colors, he can expect already high expectations to skyrocket.
One writer at last week’s media workout asked Alvarez whether he believed he could be ready to challenge Manny Pacquiao in two to three years. He didn’t hesitate to answer.
“That’s the goal, to be the best,” Alvarez said. “Manny Pacquiao is the best right now, so he’s someone I want to fight. It won’t take two to three years. I think I’ll be ready for him in one year.”
Photo by Gene Blevins-Hoganphotos / Golden Boy Promotions.