After a quiet Labor Day weekend, RingTV.com contributor Mark E. Ortega got in touch with legendary analyst Larry Merchant on Tuesday afternoon via phone. Merchant gave his thoughts on the highly anticipated fight next Saturday between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Saul Alvarez, along with his thoughts on Chinese amateur star-turned-pro Zou Shiming and his impact on the sport.
RingTV: Obviously, there’s a pretty big fight coming up between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Saul Alvarez. I’m curious, if Canelo were able to pull off the victory, where would you rank that among the biggest wins in Mexican boxing history?
Larry Merchant: It would certainly be a major earthquake for many fans, and for Mexican fans it would be a huge event because prizefighting is so important to them. They, in fact, discovered and anointed Canelo to be their next superstar, so it would be a very big deal.
RTV: The last fight for Mayweather earlier this year against Robert Guerrero, as an event, seemed a bit underwhelming. Do you feel as though this fight with Canelo, along with the big undercard fight between Lucas Matthysse and Danny Garcia, came together at all as a response to that fight not doing as well as they would have liked?
LM: I think that, certainly, Mayweather likes to think of himself as “Money,” and he’s created a very high expectation, to say nothing of his contract, in terms of pay-per-view numbers. So, I do think that was a factor to try and make a huge event that might even exceed higher expectations.
RTV: As we know, the Oscar De La Hoya fight in 2007 with Mayweather did the biggest pay-per-view buy numbers of any fight in boxing history. Being that this fight was an HBO production, being close to that fight, do you see any of the elements in this fight next weekend that suggests it could outdo that fight?
LM: It has some of the elements. We have to keep in mind that De La Hoya was a phenomenon as an attraction. I don’t think that Canelo is that kind of phenomenon yet, but I think Mayweather has risen to that status. That Canelo drew 40,000 paid attendance for a fight with Austin Trout suggests the possibility that this could approach, or maybe even surpass those numbers.
RTV: Floyd has an extensive history of fighting Mexican opponents around these big holidays. At his media day last week, I asked him if he expected the most hostile crowd he’s ever encountered and whether or not Canelo is the most popular Mexican he’s faced. He suggested that Juan Manuel Marquez was bigger than Canelo is now, as well as having the better pedigree. I disagree about Marquez being bigger than Canelo, but am curious as to what you think?
LM: I do think Canelo is bigger than Marquez was at that time. Marquez, I remember as not being in the great featherweight era of Barrera, Morales, and Pacquiao, he was outside of that. This kid, for whatever reason: youth, look, style, was adopted by Mexican fans. From every report we get, he does very big TV numbers. We had that crowd in San Antonio earlier this year. Marquez has never done anything like that as an A-side, so I would say Canelo is much bigger at this stage.
Now, did it change when Marquez knocked out Pacquiao? I think it did, because Pacquiao beat Morales and Barrera. But this kind of phenomenon, for which there is some type of chemical or charismatic connection between the performer and fans, is unusual. I think Marquez has won greater respect, but this is a visceral connection with Canelo.
RTV: To go off what you just said, about a “chemical and charismatic connection,” is what you see with Canelo similar to what occurred with De La Hoya? And do you see perhaps the possibility of Canelo’s appeal translating stateside?
LM: That’s the question. De La Hoya was an American kid who won gold, spoke English, was handsome, and was followed from the moment he turned pro. That’s a rare thing. I think that Canelo has the potential Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. had to be his country’s standard. Oscar was a big star in America but he didn’t win over a majority of the Mexican fans, if you recall. He’s not exactly like Oscar or like Chavez, but in terms of the very high octane celebrity athletes, a victory for him would be explosive.
RTV: The thing that jumps out to me about this fight is that Canelo is only 23 years old. Do you feel as though he is being pushed into this a little too quickly, or that the timing was right? Does a loss really hurt him that much, given his youth?
LM: I think sometimes talent creates its own momentum and own calendar. He just beat the best guy in his division. So I don’t see how there could be any question or doubts on whether this was the right moment for him. He started as a pro at 15 and he’s going to make a huge payday. He’s young enough to overcome anything, win or lose.
I don’t have to recite the historical occasions where guys who became as big as you can get lost fights along the way or early in their careers, and so on. Whether he maintains his ambition and desire after making this kind of money is an important question. What if he wins this fight then starts to lose? There are all kinds of potential scenarios we can’t foresee.
People ask me all the time what happens to Floyd if he loses. A) it depends on how, if he were to lose, and b) what happens in the rematch, assuming there is a rematch. He might come out bigger after losing and then winning a rematch. What happened to Pacquiao after losing to Morales?
RTV: That’s an interesting point. I’ve personally felt like these documentary-style reality documentaries like 24/7 and All Access have grown a little stale, if not fallen into a routine when it comes to Floyd. I think him losing would make him much more compelling, as well as making the follow-up versions of All Access must-see TV. How do you feel about Floyd and do you think Showtime would prefer something like that to happen?
LM: I do think how people deal with getting knocked down or adversity can be compelling. It changes the storyline. I don’t know if that is what Showtime is thinking. I do think that we all get a certain fatigue from watching these programs. Mayweather has been a master at turning his career into his own reality show and sometimes, you need a change in plot.
RTV: A lot of people in the industry like to make a big deal out of foreign fighters learning English in order to earn that coveted crossover appeal. For Canelo, is that at all a requirement in your eyes for him to reach even bigger heights in the States?
LM: I don’t know at this point how helpful it would be. Usually, these guys achieve boxing as one language with a lot of dialects. At this point in his career, catering to the biggest market isn’t going to be a bad thing. But I don’t think it is a priority.
RTV: How impressed were you by Canelo’s performance against Trout earlier this year and the manner in which he won that fight?
LM: He outboxed and outpunched a pretty good fighter who had comprehensively beaten [Miguel] Cotto. He had a difficult style, Trout. There were many skeptics because he was one of those unusual athletes whose popularity shot ahead of his achievements. He wanted the fight. Almost nobody close to him wanted to take credit for making that fight because everybody understood it was a fight he could lose, but he pulled it off. He did so with intelligence and with grit. He proved that he is an A-level fighter.
RTV: Okay, to shift focus from that fight, will you be doing the Manny Pacquiao-Brandon Rios fight in Macau in November the way you have the previous two trips over there? How have you enjoyed that experience?
LM: I will be doing the international broadcast for that fight, which is different than the ones I’ve been doing for Top Rank. I enjoy doing fights and Macau is a fascinating development in the globalization of boxing. So I enjoy the scene and watching all that unfold. We’ve had some good competitive fights with their own narratives and certainly, Pacquiao and Rios is a fight all fight fans are looking forward to. Macau is one of the more interesting stops on what I like to call boxing’s traveling circus.
RTV: Zou Shiming has his many detractors because he’s a guy with not a ton of talent that is making a bunch of money fighting modest opposition. I see him as somebody who is creating opportunities for other fighters who otherwise wouldn’t be getting them and think he is good for boxing. I’m curious what you think about Shiming and his effect on the sport?
LM: It’s a variation of the Canelo phenomenon. He’s so popular and making so much more money than his professional résumé should suggest, so he’s put under the microscope the way an average amateur turning pro doesn’t get. That’s understandable. Whether or not he turns into a top or elite pro, look at what he’s doing now. He’s providing opportunities for fighters we might not have otherwise seen, like [Juan Francisco] Estrada, who twice has performed very well. If he can “make it rain” and make a lot for himself and create exposure for others, I have no problem with it. Whether he turns out to be a top or elite pro, he fights with an interesting and active style.
RTV: You mentioned Estrada, who is a flyweight that otherwise wouldn’t be getting the exposure if it weren’t for Shiming and the boxing boom surrounding him in China. You sound impressed by what you’ve seen of him, what are your thoughts of him?
LM: There’s no doubt about it, I didn’t know much about Estrada before this year. I look at him as a kid who will eventually be fighting at a higher weight and he’s a good boxer-puncher and I’m curious to see how his career progresses and unfolds. I was certainly impressed by the Russian featherweight who fought on the last card, [Evgeny] Gradovich. He looks like a guy who could be a serious crowd-pleasing featherweight and they were good crowd-pleasing fights and the game can’t get enough of those.
RTV: I know you didn’t call the heavyweight fight between Andy Ruiz and Joe Hanks, but am curious if you saw it. What did you think of Ruiz and his chances as a heavyweight prospect?
LM: I don’t know that he’s a top ten heavyweight yet. I think he’s obviously got something going for him, he’s got good hands. He’s a big kid, and I think he still has to take off some weight in case he gets into a long hard fight. We don’t know about his stamina or his chin, but he’s a good prospect. We’ll watch how they move and maneuver him. He doesn’t impress me as much as [Chris] Arreola earlier in his career, but maybe he’s got something that will translate into a top fighter.
RTV: Always a pleasure talking with you, Larry, and I appreciate your time.
LM: Thanks very much.
Photos by Esther Lin-Showtime (first 4); Chris Farina-Top Rank