By Corey Erdman
NEW YORK, NY—Walking up Seventh Avenue in Manhattan on Saturday night, Madison Square Garden glowed a bright red, green and yellow, blending in perfectly with the city’s garland and holly-dripped Holiday paradise in the Garment District. Yet, it was evident to anyone with mild perceptive abilities that the arena was not adorned to spread yuletide cheer, but to celebrate Mexico’s finest boxer, Canelo Alvarez.
It’s difficult to carve out space in the overall public consciousness of New York. There’s too much to do, too much to see, too much space for any one entity or event to truly “take over” the city. But in the mile radius surrounding the World’s Most Famous Arena at least, it was unmistakable that Canelo was in town. Temporarily, Yankees fitted caps and Knicks jackets gave way to headbands and ponchos with Canelo’s insignia as the fashion du jour. Every empty inch of billboard and signage space was scooped up advertising the middleweight champion and his new home, premium streaming service DAZN.
As the images of Canelo loomed down over the city, you wondered if the man in the photo realized the gravity of what he’d accomplished, going from a poor kid selling popsicles and ice cream to a global star. It’s no small feat to perform at Madison Square Garden, let alone sell it out. Concerts at MSG are reserved for the top notch live event ticket sellers in the world—pop megastars like Drake and Taylor Swift, or iconic legacy acts such as Billy Joel, Elton John and the Eagles. Flashes in the pan don’t get MSG dates, and if they do, it’s in the neighboring Hulu Theatre, not the big arena. To get the big room, you have to be an institution, a brand.
Boxing has always offered the opportunity for immortality. One can make a strong argument that the most important sports figures ever are all boxers, and if you extend the discussion to levels of infamy and sheer earnings, boxers find themselves atop those lists as well. As the years went on and boxing drifted from page A1 of the sports section and the lead block on SportsCenter, fewer fighters saw their status grow beyond “boxing famous.”
Seeing the outpouring of support for Canelo in New York City, it became evident that in addition to being the richest boxer since Floyd Mayweather, he is also the most beloved since Manny Pacquiao.
Inside the Garden, there were merchandise stands every 200 feet. Though the fight card was considered stacked in terms of fighters recognizable to fight fans, just one fighter had any merchandise available—Canelo. In other words, for even the other world champions on the bill, it wasn’t even financially feasible to print merchandise with the hopes of selling it. There was only one fighter whose shirts and hats anyone was interested in buying.
Amongst the legions of fans in the seats were ones of the famous variety. And not the kind one often sees placed ringside to simply promote the given network’s upcoming drama, the kind that couldn’t ride the subway without being hounded. Legitimately famous people, including Bruce Willis, Nick Jonas, Gina Rodriguez, and three of the biggest Latin music stars of today, J Balvin, Bad Bunny and Prince Royce.
On this night, it became evident Canelo fights are now a cultural event. Like those who had headlined the Garden before him, everyone in attendance wanted to hear the hits, and Canelo played nothing but in his three-round trouncing of super middleweight titleholder Rocky Fielding. There weren’t any groans of disappointment a crowd sometimes lets out if they feel the fight is farcical or a fighter hasn’t fought hard enough for their liking. Just pure elation, like a crowd hearing their favorite songs they’d heard a million times before, a celebration in familiarity.
It should have been a clue that Fielding’s most useful marketing tool leading up to this fight was his first name. There wasn’t much in his highlight reel that jumped off the screen to the layman—even his title-winning stoppage of Tyron Zeuge didn’t look too menacing on film. That wasn’t lost on hardcore boxing fans, and probably didn’t slip past casual fans either, yet they didn’t care. There wasn’t any animosity towards Fielding amongst Canelo supporters, and in fact, as the underdog walked to the ring, fans sang “Sweet Caroline,” his entrance song, in unison.
“When I was marketing this fight, I didn’t say that this was the toughest fight for Canelo, and I didn’t say that it was the easiest. I said that this was an opportunity to make history,” said promoter Oscar De La Hoya.
The history made, of course, was Canelo headlining the Garden for the first time, but also becoming the latest Mexican fighter to capture a world title in a third weight class. But the biggest story outside of the people who had tickets to the live event was that it was Canelo’s debut on his new streaming home.
One of the concerns expressed by the boxing audience was that with $365 million already guaranteed to Canelo and the checks printed, that it would be easy for entities involved to be complacent. DAZN gets their star and Golden Boy gets their money. The DAZN party line has been that “pay per view is dead,” but one thing PPV forced promoters to do was promote, because a big fight with only a handful of buys is a financial disaster. However, no fight in recent memory has had more penetration in terms of mainstream marketing than this one. The aforementioned billboards, the Michael Buffer commercial that aired on every channel under the sun, the street teams and media pushes in Canada and the United States—the event was unavoidable.
Though one can’t predict the future, boxing’s past tells us that two things are true. The sport is at its healthiest when it has a mainstream star and when the most number of fights are made easily available. In Canelo and DAZN, it would seem we have both.