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Canelo Alvarez just what boxing needs

Canelo Alvarez promoter Oscar De La Hoya was very open during the lead-up to Saturday's showdown against James Kirkland about exactly what his superstar fighter was lacking.

"Most importantly it's that signature win," said De La Hoya, founder of Golden Boy Promotions.

Alvarez (45-1-1, 32 KOs), the 24-year-old heartthrob and keeper of the throne as Mexico's most popular fighter, might have provided his portfolio with exactly what "The Golden Boy" asked for thanks to his explosive third-round knockout of Kirkland in front of 31,588 rabid fans at Houston's Minute Maid Park this past Saturday.

"This was one of the best knockouts of my career. ... I fight for the fans, and I'll fight anyone, anywhere, anytime."
Canelo Alvarez

For the sake of clarity, the all-or-nothing Kirkland (32-2, 28 KOs) wasn't exactly a signature or career-defining opponent. In fact, Alvarez's résumé already features names widely regarded as more difficult.

But it was the demonstrative manner in which Alvarez disposed of Kirkland that reinstated one key truth: Canelo is the most valuable single entity in boxing's short-term transition away from the Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao era.

"This was one of the best knockouts of my career," Alvarez said after the fight. "He came out with a little bit of a different style than I was expecting, but I was able to adjust and get the knockout. I knew he was a strong fighter, but he surprised me with his aggressiveness in the first and second round. I fight for the fans, and I'll fight anyone, anywhere, anytime."

Throughout the past decade-plus, boxing has been mostly viewed by casual fans through the filter of two parallel narratives: Mayweather's clinical yet unsatisfying string of pay-per-view victories and the annoying soap opera surrounding his avoidance of Pacquiao.

Both realities kept the general sports fan mildly interested yet bored enough to hold back from spending their money and time on the sport outside of boxing's two most important weekends: Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 16.)

In the past year, Alvarez has spoken of his desire to wrest those two dates from Mayweather and return them to Mexico after he was unable to do so in his passive and disappointing loss to Floyd in their September 2013 bout.

Canelo might finally have figured out that the only tried and true way to do just that was with his performance against Kirkland, which couldn't have come at a more opportune time.

Just seven days after millions (and counting) made the pilgrimage to boxing's altar of the great superfight for the exorbitant sum of $99.99, the groans from Mayweather-Pacquiao's inevitable letdown were deafening. One could imagine The Who's "We Won't Get Fooled Again" playing in the minds of casual fans as the soundtrack to their own personal vitriol.

Yet Canelo-Kirkland delivered in the only way possible to cure the hangover of Mayweather-Pacquiao for anyone still willing to give boxing a chance: with enough raw, violent energy to summon the incomparable euphoria that is at the core of what makes prizefighting great.

Alvarez's victory was as one-sided as it was exciting. But it served just fine as the kind of signature win De La Hoya alluded to because of what it said about who the red-haired and freckled matinee idol really is.

Despite Canelo's firm hold as the face of Mexican boxing -- aided by the recent cartoonish descent of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. -- there was still a palpable degree of doubt from even the most ardent of Mexican fans. Sure, Alvarez showed plenty of polish and charisma through 46 pro fights, but could he really dig in and fight?

Alvarez flaunted enough machismo in the face of Kirkland's maniacal pressure to remove the labels of soft and protected hurled on him by critics believing he was more pretty boy than warrior. This was the fight in which true Mexican fans could call Canelo their own not just because they had to but because they wanted to.

His transformation Saturday was reminiscent of the one De La Hoya himself went through in the late 1990s.

Like Canelo, De La Hoya often received the benefit of the doubt on the scorecards in high-profile bouts before eventually proving he could fight just as well as he could sell tickets and look pretty. But the two fighters are most alike in their uncompromising willingness to take on the biggest challenges available.

Alvarez proved that against Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara, going against the advice of De La Hoya by seeking out the pair of difficult southpaws whose styles are designed to make you look bad and steal the excitement from the fight. Outside of the large purse he pocketed, he did the same thing against Mayweather by taking the fight at age 22.

Agreeing to face Kirkland was just as much of a high-risk, low-reward proposition. A victory could be discounted by the fact that Kirkland is raw, hadn't fought in 17 months and entered the bout without indispensable trainer Ann Wolfe. Yet Kirkland serves as the division's ultimate measuring stick in the sense that his wild-card style exposes rather quickly just how sturdy your backbone is.

For Alvarez's part, he never buckled or showed the slightest amount of fear against Kirkland, and he dismantled him with an impressive mix of hard, accurate shots. And for all the talk of guys like Vasyl Lomachenko and Felix Verdejo having next from a long-term standpoint in the post-Mayweather-Pacquiao era, Canelo reminded us that he's ready to have right now.

Modern-day boxing has often benefited from groups of hungry fighters congregating in the same weight class to help the sport make the transition from era to era.

The likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler put on a series of epic megafights in the 1980s that eased the handoff from the heavyweight decadence of the previous decade. After boxing was once again dominated by heavyweights in the 1990s, the group of De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, Shane Mosley, Pernell Whitaker and Fernando Vargas headlined the transition into the new millennium.

The same can be said about where things are headed today as Mayweather and Pacquiao -- boxing's twin pillars who kept big-money fights afloat over the past 10 years -- are about to give way to a resurgence in the middleweight division.

Alvarez is likely headed to a fall showdown with lineal champ and Puerto Rican icon Miguel Cotto. With all the stars aligned properly in boxing's confusing political landscape, the winner could conceivably be on a collision course to face unbeaten titlist and knockout sensation Gennady Golovkin. Lingering on the perimeter are contenders such as marketable and exciting Canadian David Lemieux.

But at the forefront of this movement is Canelo, who is nine years younger than Golovkin yet has already headlined three PPVs thanks to the backing of the single most important fan base to the day-to-day health of the sport.

Alvarez will likely spend the next 18 months trying to prove whether he truly is an elite fighter or is just a very good one with a large fan base. But his willingness to face the very best offsets any remaining doubt, with Canelo the rare modern superstar not afraid to learn the valuable lessons that come from defeat.

It wasn't that long ago that Alvarez's old-school nature -- which refreshingly mirrors that of the beloved Golovkin -- would have been more expected than celebrated. But in this day and age it's exactly what boxing needs for the new era.