Saul “Canelo” Alvarez looked shyly at the small assembled table of boxing journalists and greeted them all with a nod.
It was late 2010 and those reporters were being told that he was the next big thing.
They were all in town to cover a big Golden Boy show and it was that company’s opportunity to rave about how the red-headed Mexican was the spearhead for all of their future plans.
Of course, boxing people had been exposed to Alvarez before then. He’d already had 36 fights but make no mistake, this was an unveiling of sorts. He was only 20-years-old but this wasn’t just Mexico’s next big hope, this would be the man to carry the sport once Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao had completed their business, we were told.
Everyone loved the line that Alvarez “Looked Irish, acted American and fought Mexican.”
Certainly, turning professional at 15 with a face full of freckles, snowdrop skin and a short ginger crop of hair made him stand out but developmental victories over Carlos Baldomir and Lovemore Ndou allowed him to pick up rounds and experience while making cautionary inroads into the US marketplace.
There was a buzz, for sure, but no one knew if it was a legitimate one or if we were being force-fed a new product.
He had potential but we’d not seen him tested. He could fight, but we’d not seen him really in one. His exciting style and ferocious pace had allowed his significant Hispanic following to blossom.
Then, in his best promoter speak, Oscar De La Hoya laid out his hopes.
“We feel Canelo can be the next great Mexican hero following Julio Cesar Chavez and the greats,” said the Golden Boy. “He has the popularity now in Mexico, his last fight there did close to an 18 rating which – doing the maths and everything – is only about 65 million eyeballs that were watching him fight. And I was at his last fight, in Veracruz, and this kid has a rockstar following.”
Oscar, perhaps giving into promoter-speak, said it was the first time he realised no one cared about him any longer as they gathered around the young prodigy, with a huge crowd attending just the weigh in, let alone the fight.
As Canelo left the scales, mobs of girls followed and Oscar remembered being trampled and thinking, “Wow, this kid. He’s the next guy.”
Oscar said Alvarez was going to arrive with “A big bang” in the USA and Alvarez was certainly on a charm offensive with the media that day.
I asked him what winning the WBC’s ridiculous Silver title against Baldomir had meant to him.
“I’m not sure what it signifies, but it’s mine,” he smiled.
It had actually earned him the No. 1 spot at 154lbs with Mexican organisation but even then Canelo knew he wasn’t ready for the very best.
“I’m in the learning phase right now,” he admitted. “I still feel I have a lot more to learn but I’m a few steps away from the bigger fights.”
He was looking ahead to being the guy to bring the curtain down on Manny Pacquiao’s career and said: “He is the top gun right now. To be the best you’ve got to beat the best, so in a year, not only would I want to fight him but I could beat him.”
Veteran promoter Don Chargin was on hand to sing Alvarez’s praises, too.
“The improvement in each fight has been very noticeable,” he said, comparing his drawing power to Mando Ramos. “I like his development. That hook to the liver, that famous Mexican shot, and as he goes on he’s going to be getting to be more and more of a bodypuncher.”
Then Oscar went again. “At 19-20 years of age, he’s doing things that I would never have dreamed of doing; things that Julio Cesar Chavez would never have dreamed of doing.”
De La Hoya spoke of Canelo’s feints and ring generalship and was deliberate on how Canelo was a mix of himself and Chavez.
“It motivates me not just to try to be like them but to surpass them and make my own name,” Saul explained.
Oscar said the main advice he gave Canelo was to not do what he did, not to party, chase women… “It knocked four years off my career,” he sighed.
But trainer Eddy Reynoso, who still holds the reins, didn’t foresee those obstacles.
“He’s always been very disciplined,” Reynoso explained. “He’s a very disciplined fighter and a very disciplined kid. I think when the bigger fights come, he will be even more focused on the challenges.”
This was all eerily prophetic. Some tainted meat nearly got in the way of everything but Canelo’s path has gone almost as predicted.
The next time I saw him after that intimate media gathering was when he beat a 40-year-old Shane Mosley on the Mayweather-Miguel Cotto undercard and he was too big, strong, ambitious and fresh for the former great, who hadn’t listened to the hype. “I didn’t expect him to be that fast or that good,” conceded Mosley.
“He’s up there with the top guys [I’ve faced]. Mayweather, Cotto, all those guys I fought. He’s up there with them.”
That was a sad one-sided loss, but it gave Alvarez 12 vital, educational rounds as his schooling continued.
“He [Mosley] made me learn a lot in the ring,” said Canelo. “I got cut [from an early headclash] and had to overcome that. Next time you will see a better and more experienced Canelo. I’m ready for the best fighters. All of them.”
Two fights later, I was next ringside for Canelo and it was against Mayweather, when Las Vegas buzzed and then came to a standstill for The One, which was one of the great promotions of all time.
The event delivered and so did Floyd, who had never been better, even at 36.
Some, myself included, didn’t think Alvarez won a round but CJ Ross handed in one of the worst scorecards in the sport’s history, calling it a draw so Mayweather won via a majority decision.
It was a defeat for Alvarez, sure, but it was a lesson, too and even Mayweather conceded Alvarez was the man to pick up from wherever he decided to leave off.
“I’ve only got 24 months left [before retirement], and this is the man,” said Floyd. “He will carry the torch.”
Alvarez had kicked himself, said he’d been frustrated by Mayweather’s class and elusiveness and then said how bitter it was to taste defeat for the first time.
“I didn’t want to lose but it happens and it hurts,” he lamented.
Well, 15 fights on and he’s not tasted it again. He was pushed to the wire twice by Gennady Golovkin and Erislandy Lara gave him fits but he’s fought just about every style and confronted almost every type of character.
You could argue that he hasn’t hit the heights that Mayweather or Pacquiao did but against Billy Joe Saunders he’s aiming for victory number 56 and it’s fair to say the Mexicans had spotted a special talent and so had De La Hoya. Eleven years has come and gone – so has Oscar’s presence by his side – since Canelo was unveiled so publicly to the world’s media and this week the 30-year-old has said that he might have as many as seven more years left in boxing because he still enjoys it.
This weekend Canelo should set the indoor attendance record with Billy Joe Saunders, who didn’t set the turnstiles alight at his hometown football ground when he boxed for his second world title against Shefat Isufi – even before the pandemic.
That shows how many of the 70,000 will be cheering the antagonistic Brit on.
Saunders is a slick southpaw with plenty of good moves. He talks a good fight, too.
But Canelo has come a long way since that shy unveiling 11 years ago and there have been bumps but he’s certainly transitioned from the next big thing to the biggest thing in boxing.