Note: This story appears in the October 2012 issue of THE RING magazine, which is available now on newsstands. It includes a special package on the dueling promotions on Saturday night in Las Vegas.
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez have been circling each other like wary predators tied together by national pride, a common language and maybe even the same neighborhood for at least a few days. With plans for competing cards in Las Vegas, only a couple of miles would separate them on Sept. 15 – Chavez vs. Sergio Martinez at Thomas & Mack Center and Canelo vs. Josesito Lopez at the MGM Grand.
It’s one way to celebrate the Sept. 16th anniversary of Mexican Independence. Fans would be free to buy one or the other in perhaps the biggest vote since Mexico’s presidential election on a night when promoters would look as if they had declared independence from good business sense. A better way, the money-making way, would be a fight between them.
But what sounds so simple just isn’t anymore. Ties that bind have spawned complications, all of which have Chavez and Canelo seemingly trapped in a rivalry without an immediate resolution. That road work between Thomas & Mack and the MGM Grand might be the closest they get to sharing a ring in the foreseeable future.
How they reached this dilemma is crisscrossed by the toxic feud between their respective promoters. In Chavez’s corner, there is Top Rank. In Canelo’s corner, there is Golden Boy. Between them, there is bitter argument, an exasperated public and a standoff that starts with Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., the other fight the world has yet to see.
The escalating exchange of insults is well-documented. The scale is a lot less subjective. The 26-year-old Chavez is growing rapidly into a fighter with a middleweight title, yet is as big as a light heavyweight at opening bell. That leverage might be his best chance against the agile, athletic Martinez and it helps explain why Canelo, a junior-middleweight, won’t fight Chavez any time soon.
Yet, the tantalizing prospect is still there, in part because Canelo, 22, appears to have a body built to take on more pounds and mostly because of biographies – so-called back stories – that point to, if not demand, a dramatic conclusion.
Chavez has the lineage, the name of his legendary dad. It’s a heavy crown, worn like an unwanted hand-me-down early in early in Chavez’s career. He fought because that was the family trade. Despite his years of growing up around the ring, however, he lacked any significant amateur experience. As he nears 30, he might just be discovering some innate instinct.
In the couple of years since trainer Freddie Roach moved into his corner, Chavez Jr. has begun to fight as though he inherited more than just a name. Junior might have some of his dad’s toughness, too.
“I believe that at this stage of my career, I am putting it all together,” Chavez said in June before he bullied, pushed and pounded former Irish Olympian Andy Lee around an El Paso ring for a seventh-round TKO with a collection of body shots straight out of his dad’s arsenal. “I now have the experience to deal with everything that might happen in the ring.’’
On the flip side, there’s Canelo, who wears a crown of red hair that some believe is his inheritance from Los Patricios, soldiers of Irish descent who fought for Mexico during the Mexican-American War. Canelo fought kids who mocked his looks and then fought because his brothers fought. He’s been fighting long enough to know it’s as much a part of him as the red hair that is a Pied Piper’s beacon in Mexico.
Canelo isn’t shy or patient about whom he wants to fight and where he thinks he stands among his rivals. He talks about an immediate bout with Floyd Mayweather Jr., although his promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, is reluctant to match him against Erislandy Lara. About Chavez Jr., Canelo is quick to echo criticism that Chavez has heard and begun to counter.
“Yes, I do consider myself better than him,’’ Canelo said. “The people have seen that. The people have told me. I’ve worked. Thanks to my hard work, I’ve been able to achieve what I’ve achieved. And him? Just because of his father’s name.’’
The rivalry has shown some other signs of momentum that will one day push to an opening bell. In November, Chavez tweeted a photo of him mocking Canelo for a reported assault of flyweight Archie Solis in a dispute over a girlfriend. Chavez wears a red wig while throwing a punch at somebody much smaller.
For now, however, the question about who is better, Canelo or Chavez Jr., is merely an argument. Like Mexico’s presidential election in July 1, it’s politics. Put them on a ballot instead of in the ring, and who would win?
Longtime Mexican boxing journalist and historian Hesiquio Balderas, of Oaxaca, says he believes Canelo would win the popularity contest.
“In my humble opinion, it is a close call,’’ Balderas says. “I would have to say that even when Julio is fighting better opposition and improving as a fighter, perhaps Canelo is more popular and would get the vote. It all depends on who you ask on the street. I’ve been asked hundreds of times about who would win a fight between Julio and Saul.
“After I give my opinion, most of the people that asked – and I mean 70 percent of them – would say that Alvarez wins. I have to be honest with you, most of those people do not know much about boxing.’’
But popularity is a fickle beast. If Chavez Jr. overcomes Martinez, a former soccer player from Argentina, and proves to be a worthy successor to his father’s seat at the top of Mexico’s pyramid of legends, could he supplant Canelo mania? According to Notifight.com, television ratings in Mexico have been as high as 60 million viewers for his bouts. According to Nielsen, Chavez has averaged more than 1.6 million viewers for his four fights on HBO – Sebastian Zbik, Peter Manfredo, Marco Antonio Rubio and Lee.
“In Mexico, people are starting to believe in Julio Jr.,’’ says Balderas, who first saw Canelo when he was a grade-school kid running around his mom’s store in Guadalajara. “The fight against Martinez is a must for Mexico. The general public is demanding the fight and he has finally agreed to meet Sergio. Argentina and Mexico have a long sports rivalry, especially in soccer, which is the premier sport in both countries. So there is a special element to the fight, even more special for the pride of the fans. Mexicans don´t want to lose to Argentinians and vice-versa.’’
Unlike many, Balderas says plans for the dueling cards on Sept. 15 might be a good guidepost in what he sees as unstoppable momentum for an eventual Canelo-Chavez fight.
“From my viewpoint, Sept. 15 is a great idea,’’ the Mexican journalist said. “It can measure the popularity of both fighters in the USA. It will be the battle of the ratings. Most importantly, if the Mexicans come out victorious, perhaps they can finally fight each other if Golden Boy and Top Rank are willing to work together.’’
On the current scale of ifs, none is bigger than a Golden Boy-Top Rank alliance. It’s right there between world peace and a cure for cancer. Unlike Pacquiao and Mayweather, however, neither Canelo nor Chavez talks about reasons not to fight. It’s beginning to sound as if more and more of their fellow Mexicans demand that they do. Perhaps, there’s a lesson in that. Perhaps, Canelo and Chavez can make the same demand of Golden Boy and Top Rank. Quit the feud and make the fight, or they’ll a find promoter who will.