By Jake Donovan
Even though he’s still less than a year removed from his loss to Floyd Mayweather, former 154 lb. titlist Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez is still at a point in his career where he can call the shots. When it was announced that the Mexican superstar would return to fight three times in 2014 and all on pay-per-view, the bare minimum requirement was that he find opponents notable enough to sell the events.
With three planned appearances on the year, it wasn’t expected for any of Alvarez’ opponents to pose a major threat. Alfredo Angulo fit that mold to a tee – still a notable enough name to convince the sport’s hardcore fan base to pay attention, but flawed enough to where Alvarez would not only win but look spectacular doing so.
Erislandy Lara does not come close to fitting the prototype for the expected level of opposition to face Alvarez over this period. Yet there stands one of the best 154 lb. fighters in the world, preparing for a 12-round battle with one of the sport’s biggest draws this weekend in Las Vegas, Nevada (Saturday, SHO PPV, 9:00PM ET/6:00PM PT).
The move is a major risk not only for Alvarez, but for Golden Boy Promotions, who continues to undergo a major facelift in the wake of key personnel departures in recent weeks. Alvarez is one of the few notable fighters confirmed to be under contract with Golden Boy, which means a loss by boxing’s most famous active redhead could prove crippling to the company.
This fact isn’t lost on the Golden Boy brass, who made this fight only at the request of its fighter.
“Yes, when people say I didn't want this fight for him, obviously it wasn't the first choice,” admits Oscar de la Hoya, president of Golden Boy Promotions. “As a promoter you don't want the most difficult fight out there for him. But this is what Canelo's all about, ultimately it's his decision, and his decision is a very calculated decision.
“He's confident in his abilities, and he wants to fight the very best. That's the bottom line. And me as a promoter and me as an ex-fighter, I look at it in two ways. Here I was as a fighter fighting the very best, just like Canelo's doing, and as a promoter this wasn't my first choice. But you have to go with what the fighter says, with what the fighter feels. And this is what is most admirable of Canelo Alvarez is that he wants to please the fans. He wants to give the fight fans the most difficult fights out there.”
For that, the fans get a fun main event atop this weekend’s pay-per-view show live from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The fight takes place at a catchweight of 155 lb., meaning if Alvarez wins, Lara still retains his alphabet title. If Lara wins, his stock skyrockets, while Alvarez (43-2, 31KOs) will wind up spending his 24th birthday wondering where his career goes from here.
Luckily for fight fans, Alvarez never worries about that stuff while selecting an opponent.
“I pick the most dangerous, the best fights because at the end of the day I fight for the fans and I want to give them the best fights out there,” Alvarez insists. “As far as getting further out in my career and reaching new heights, you know, by fighting the toughest fights, by fighting the best fighters out there, that's how I fulfill myself, taking on the biggest challenges. And time will tell.”
Alvarez shot for the stars with his challenge against Mayweather, the very best fighter in the world and also the leading box-office attraction. Between the popularity among their respective fan bases, Alvarez’ unified title defense versus Mayweather shattered records at the live gate and pay-per-view market, going down as the most lucrative fight in boxing history.
What it didn’t result in for Alvarez was a win and his continuation as an unbeaten fighter. It was a streak he managed to keep alive in his previous fight, a 12-round points win over then-undefeated alphabet titlist Austin Trout. The win gave Alvarez his second title at 154 lb., as well as newfound respect among the boxing industry for surviving and passing such a stiff test.
While there is no belt at stake this weekend, Alvarez can expect similar accolades should he get past Lara (19-1-2, 12KOs), who hasn’t fought since his own win over Trout last December, in a far superior performance. Lara didn’t look quite as good in a 10th round stoppage of Angulo, forced to twice climb off the canvas in order to force the brawler into submission midway through round ten.
Perhaps the sight of Lara looking vulnerable in a fight prompted Alvarez’ team to chase after that name. Perhaps the soon-to-be 24 year old really does want the best challenges out there.
“Canelo's a fighter who continues to improve, who continues to grow. He is a fighter who has tremendous, tremendous abilities inside the ring. We feel that with Austin Trout, Canelo saw things in Austin Trout, we saw things in Austin Trout, and the same here with Erislandy Lara,” de la Hoya notes.
“Yes, (Lara is) very difficult and it's a difficult style. It's a tough test in front of him, but like we saw something with Austin Trout, you always see something with Erislandy Lara, you see things that obviously Canelo can do and take advantage of. But only the fighter can tell you. The fighter can tell you exactly what he saw and what makes him believe that he can beat him.”
For now, Alvarez isn’t tipping his hand as to how he plans to solve the riddle that is his opponent’s difficult style. Lara has one loss on his record, a highly controversial points defeat to Paul Williams that led to the suspension of all three ringside judges who worked the bout that night.
What he relies on, however, is his experiences against fighters from the other side of the plate.
“He's a very good, slick southpaw, a very tricky southpaw, a good one,” Alvarez admits, but with a twist. “But I've never had problems with southpaws, I've been able to adapt. And this won't be the exception. Thank God, I've always been good with southpaws.”
Alvarez wasn’t initially good with the manner in which Lara pursued the fight. The Cuban southpaw repeatedly called out Alvarez over the course of the past couple of years, including in the aftermath of his wide points win over Trout last December, and again in March. This time around, Lara didn’t have a fight of his own, rather crashing the party of Alvarez’ win over Angulo, demanding to know in front of fans and assembled media when he would next get his turn.
As luck would have it, Alvarez chose him next. The news came to the shock of many – including Lara, who insisted public pressure forced this matchup. Naturally, Alvarez disasgrees.
“If I didn't want the fight, the fight wouldn't be happening,” Alvarez bluntly states. “The fight is here because I wanted the fight.”
That said, a little bit of nationalistic pride also kicked in.
“This is very personal.” Alvarez admits. “You guys know me. That's not my character to be promoting and be talking for promotional issues. This is personal. [Lara] offended me. He offended my person. He offended Mexican boxing. So, yes, it's very personal.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox