By Mark Whicker
LAS VEGAS – Nothing sells tickets and pay-per-view TV buys like a baby-faced warrior.
The problem is the damage that all those wars can do to that face.
Saul “Canelo” Alvarez has a chance to become the main event of the entire boxing business, with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao moving inevitably toward the final bell.
Admirably, he seems to know that the trip to the mountaintop is worth nothing if you don’t pack your credibility with you.
That is why Canelo keeps seeking difficult fights, instead of picking the New Mexico States of the sport. That is why Canelo is playing with fire Saturday night at the MGM Grand, when he encounters Erislandy Lara, the clever southpaw from Cuba.
Canelo’s mentor is Oscar De La Hoya, the sole force in charge of Golden Boy Promotions now that Richard Schaefer is gone. Before Canelo, De La Hoya was probably the last Rudolph Valentino of boxing, a guy who brought men and women to ringside who would never have gone there before.
You did not have to be a boxing fan to be an Oscar fan, or a Oscar critic. As De La Hoya moved up the ranks, he was knocked for taking on Rafael Ruelas, Julio Cesar Chavez and Pernell Whitaker when each former champion had little left but his name. But De La Hoya eventually fought everyone there was to fight within a reasonable weight, and carried boxing in the process.
Canelo is not Oscar. He still has to become that type of across-the-board phenomenon north of the border. He also faces the Cold War between (and among) boxing promoters, although that might begin to thaw with Schaefer out of the picture.
But just as De La Hoya didn’t have to fight Ike Quartey and somehow dodged that danger, Canelo is showing the audacity of hope – or maybe the hope of audacity --- by scheduling Lara.
“I think Canelo has bitten off a lot more than he can chew,” said Ronnie Shields, the veteran trainer who now directs Lara.
“I was very surprised when Canelo took this fight. It’s something Lara wanted, and it took a lot of goading on Lara’s part. Finally it worked.”
After Canelo took apart Alfredo Angulo in March, Lara invaded the post-fight press conference and demanded a showdown. Challenging the fighter, instead of the Golden Boy executives, was shrewd.
When Canelo met with his people, he said, “That guy has been calling me out. I want him.”
Eric Gomez, the matchmaker at Golden Boy, played devil’s advocate. Except he wasn’t playing.
“I said, look, I have no doubt you can win, but are you sure? The styles are difficult,” Gomez said. “He said, no, trust me. I want him. This is the same routine we went through with Austin Trout. It’s like déjà vu.
“That’s what this guy does. I really don’t think any boxer has fought four guys like in a row – Austin Trout, Floyd Mayweather, Alfredo Angelo and now Lara – like Canelo has.”
By fighting Trout, another lefthander, Canelo was risking his 2013 super-payday with Mayweather. Canelo beat Trout, but then so did Lara, and Trout has told anyone who asks that Lara will beat Canelo Saturday.
Lara has had more problems with the three scorekeepers who sit outside the ring than with anybody inside it. Hardly anyone could believe Paul Williams defeated Lara, and the judges who made that call were suspended by the New Jersey commission. Lara also didn’t get much of a break when it was ruled that Vanes Martirosyan fought him to a draw.
“He’s just a complete fighter, as good a fighter as I’ve ever worked with,” Shields said. “When he fought Trout he took the game plan right into the ring with him, perfectly. He was already at that level when I started working with him (six fights ago). I just wanted to bring out some of that aggressiveness that you don’t get taught in the amateur ranks. He’s done everything else himself.”
The Cuban will try to frustrate Canelo early with his head movement and a right jab that rarely misses. At some point Canelo will have to muscle his way inside and use combinations, particularly against Lara’s two inviting rib cages. The quicker Canelo does that, the easier he’ll have it. If he delays and gets behind, he will fall into Lara’s technical trap.
Angulo put Lara on the deck twice but Lara came back and inflicted an eye injury that stopped the fight.
“We know Canelo can punch with either hand,” Shields said. “He’s a tough guy. But we work on accuracy every day in the gym and I think this is going to be a big defensive challenge for Canelo.”
Implicit in all this is the suspicion that Canelo bears the burden of youth. Can he handle Lara’s trick bag? What’s forgotten is that Canelo, even though he does not turn 24 until July 18, is 43-1-1 as a professional. Not many of those 43 are candidates for Canastota, obviously, but Canelo is no rookie.
He just seemed that way against Mayweather, in a near-shutout loss last September.
“His people probably thought Floyd was going to come out and fight him,” Gomez said. “They had it wrong. Maybe they could have done a little more preparation-wise.
“But I don’t think he lost anything from that fight. He didn’t lose any popularity. This fight will be sold out. I think that fight helped him immensely. If you go 12 rounds with Mayweather you’re bound to learn a lot. There are good losses in this sport and I think that was one of them. He’s been a different guy since then, in terms of his commitment and his training.”
What it should have taught him, Gomez said, is urgency.
“Pace is really important in this fight,” Gomez said. “Canelo has to pick it up from the beginning. He can’t ease into it and see what Lara’s going to do. He has to disrupt Lara’s rhythm and keep him off-balance. I think he learned that in the Mayweather fight.”
Anybody with Canelo’s pocketbook power has a chance to get back into the Mayweather rotation if he keeps winning. The reborn Miguel Cotto is out there, too.
Other fighters on Saturday’s card have intersections to cross. Abner Mares hasn’t fought since he was ambushed in the first round by Jhonny Gonzalez last fall. Now trained by Virgil Hunter and presumably more cognizant of defense, Mares meets Jonathan Oquendo tonight.
Juan Manuel Lopez, coming off a career-saving knockout of Daniel Ponce de Leon, takes on Francisco Vargas. Lopez hopes a victory puts him in line to meet Orlando Salido, who defeated him twice.
The Golden Boy cards have generally featured better lead-ins than anyone else’s, and by the time Canelo and Lara step into the MGM Grand Garden Arena, the noise will be championship-caliber.
Maybe LeBron James should have hung around Vegas for 48 more hours to see Canelo walk down another rocky path. It could have been the best Decision he’s made in a while.
Mark Whicker has been a sports columnist in Southern California for 27 years.