NEW YORK -- It's been an up-and-down 2018 for unified middleweight world champion Canelo Alvarez that's ending on the upswing.
The down was when his May rematch of a controversial 2017 draw with Gennady Golovkin was canceled after Alvarez tested positive for a banned substance and he was suspended for six months. Golovkin trashed him, and there was immense backlash by those who considered Alvarez a cheater, but the fight was eventually rescheduled for September.
The up was when he and GGG put on another excellent fight and Alvarez earned a majority decision to win the title in the year's highest-profile bout.
Alvarez suffered a long gash over his left eye, and most figured he would be out of action until returning for his usual May fight date. But Alvarez, his eye healed, wanted to fight again this year; although his HBO contract expired, along came new streaming service DAZN, looking for a franchise fighter. They lavished Alvarez with a record-shattering contract: five years, 11 fights and $365 million.
That deal begins when Alvarez (50-1-2, 34 KOs), the hefty favorite, moves up to super middleweight for one fight to challenge secondary titlist Rocky Fielding (27-1, 15 KOs) on Saturday (DAZN, 8 p.m. ET, main card with undercard stream beginning at 6 p.m. ET) at Madison Square Garden.
This is your ESPN.com Ringside Seat for the fight:
Movin' on up
Alvarez said his foray into the 168-pound division is a one-shot deal in an attempt to win a title in a third division, though Fielding's belt is a second-tier version to the one held by Callum Smith, who owns a first-round knockout of Fielding in a 2015 British super middleweight title fight.
"Right now, the goal, the objective, is to fight for this world title and win and then go back to 160 pounds, where I do best," Alvarez said through an interpreter. "This is a new challenge, to be moving up in weight. We'll see how the weight affects me. He'll be bigger and maybe even stronger than me. This is a risk that I am taking."
Alvarez, 28, has fought north of 160 pounds once before, when he was at the contract maximum of 164 for his shutout of Mexican countryman Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in 2017. The fight with Fielding is an opportunistic one, as Alvarez essentially cherry-picked the fighter perceived to be the easiest target of the super middleweight titleholders, but Fielding was also the only one available to satisfy Alvarez's desire to become one of the few Mexicans to win belts in three weight classes.
"It's very important to be in that list of about 10 Mexicans to become three-division world champions, so very important to enter history," he said. "That's why I'm here taking on this important fight, and it's important that we win this title."
Though Fielding, 31, of England, is a much bigger and taller man, he is a massive underdog. But Alvarez said he is by no means looking past him.
"It's not a secret that I'm a better fighter and that I'm more experienced, but I'm taking a risk by entering into a comfort zone of a champion and his weight," he said. "That's a risk. It makes it interesting. No fight is easy, so I'm preparing for a hard fight. I know that Rocky is used to receiving punches from another weight class, and I know that he's taller. It's not an easy fight, and I'm preparing for the best Rocky Fielding and to make sure that there are no surprises."
Getting into DAZN
It is almost as if there is a seamless transition happening in big-time boxing broadcasting. Stalwart Showtime is still going strong, but HBO, which was Alvarez's longtime broadcast home, made no attempt to re-sign him when his contract expired after the GGG rematch -- and then ended its involvement in boxing last week after 45 years of doing most of boxing's biggest fights.
One week later, DAZN, which debuted in the U.S. in September, will have its true coming-out party with its first Alvarez fight.
"Thank you, HBO. Thanks for all the memories. Thank you for your platform, for the opportunities over the years," Golden Boy CEO Oscar De La Hoya, who made his career on HBO and HBO PPV, said at Thursday's final news conference. "You have been the pioneer, the one who has opened up the doors to all these great world champions and legends, but there's a new kid on the block, and his name is DAZN."
DAZN's courtship of Alvarez was fast and furious, as the streaming service was looking for a franchise fighter, and got him. Alvarez, now the face of the outlet, had never even heard of it shortly before signing. "The DAZN logo, I would see it, but to be sincere, I had no idea what it was, how it was managed, until the offer came to me," Alvarez said. "But to be sincere, I didn't know what it was before."
But he knows very well now, and expects his legion of fans to follow him to the fledgling service.
"I downloaded it. I have it on my phone. I've seen fights on it. I've connected it to my TV, and I have it on my phone right now," he said.
As for having to persuade his fans to buy the app, he didn't think it would be a tough sell, noting that his fights will be part of a $9.99 monthly fee instead of around $75 apiece on pay-per-view.
"Not much [convincing needed], because my fans want to watch me," he said.
Fielding's real first name is Michael, but he has been known as "Rocky" since he was a child, and he lived up to the underdog moniker when he traveled to Germany in July for his most-recent fight -- scoring a major upset by knocking out Tyron Zeuge in the fifth round to take his belt. Beating Alvarez would make that upset look like small potatoes.
"My first fight was in a gym with 500 people and no promoter, and here I am," he said. "This is the sort of fight you dream of. I'm focused on defending my title. We know what Canelo brings. We know what we are up against. We've trained hard. I've covered all the bases. [Trainer] Jamie Moore and I have some great tactics we've been working on. I'm ready to get in there."
When Fielding was offered the fight with Alvarez out of the blue, he immediately accepted.
"I remember [Golden Boy president] Eric Gomez phoning me up saying, 'Would Rocky Fielding like to fight Canelo Alvarez?'" Matchroom Boxing's Eddie Hearn, Fielding's promoter, said. "After I dropped the phone, I picked it back up and phoned Rocky Fielding. Not once did he ask about the money, the date. It was a yes because this is what it's all about. This is everything to Rocky Fielding. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, to come here, to box in Madison Square Garden and to defend his world title against Canelo Alvarez. I believe he will give Canelo Alvarez everything he has."
Fielding seems to be handling the intense spotlight well. He comes into this fight relaxed but focused, aiming to prove the doubters wrong.
"People are talking a lot about the size difference, and I have to make that a factor on Saturday night because I need to use every advantage that I've got. It's my weight division. I've been at super middleweight for a long time," he said. "The bookmakers are going to lose money. I was the underdog in Germany against a young and unbeaten fighter in his fourth defense and blasted him away in five rounds to take home the title. I perform better when I'm the underdog and everyone is against me. I thrive on that.
"I have prepared myself to be at my best on the night, and if I need to bite down on the gum shield and fight it out, I know I can do that. When people come to KO me, that's when I catch them off-guard and get the KO myself."
Madison Square Garden is perhaps the most famous arena in the world, and it has hosted a who's who of boxing greats for nearly a century. Of recent superstars, only Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather have not boxed there.
Alvarez wanted to fight in New York and wanted to fight at the Garden -- a venue made famous by fighters like his idol Muhammad Ali -- and got his wish.
"It fills me with pride to be able to fight at Madison Square Garden," Alvarez said. "I've been wanting to fight there for years. To be in such a place where important people such as Muhammad Ali have fought is another landmark in my career. It is an honor to be at an arena like that.
"I would like it to be the first of many fights there. To fight in New York is another landmark in my career and is another important story in my career. I would like to fight there, and instead of being the first or the last, I want it to be the first of many more."
Golden Boy president Eric Gomez helped facilitate the fight with MSG officials.
"He's very excited," Gomez said. "He's going to be walking in the footsteps of many great fighters, including Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, many others, [including Golden Boy CEO] Oscar De La Hoya, obviously."
Fielding, who three years ago watched a Knicks game from the nosebleed seats at the Garden and dreamed of one day fighting there, will also fulfill a dream in the biggest fight of his career.
"Where I've come from and my background and where I started professional in the sport, to fight at Madison Square Garden against the biggest name in boxing is unbelievable," he said. "I'm not letting it get to me. I'm enjoying this, but I'm fully focused. I'm enjoying it. This is what we're in boxing for, for these nights."
Plans are already in the works for Alvarez's next fight, on May 4 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, where Alvarez has fought four of his previous five fights. But who will he fight?
Many want to see a third fight with Golovkin (38-1-1, 34 KOs), a broadcast free agent who has been talking to ESPN, DAZN and Premier Boxing Champions (the latter of which has deals with Showtime and Fox). DAZN has made no secret that it's ready to pay handsomely to lure GGG to its platform with the intention of putting on the third fight against Alvarez.
"I don't know. I have no idea what [Golovkin is] doing or what he will do in his career, but I'm 100 percent focused on Rocky Fielding," Alvarez said. "We have had two good fights, so why not a third fight? But I'm focused right now on my fight, and there have been no talks, no nothing. He has been on his side, and I have been on my side. But I'm here, and I have this challenge before me."
Many believe that if there is a third Canelo-GGG fight, it wouldn't be until at least September. Newly crowned middleweight titleholder Daniel Jacobs (35-2, 29 KOs), also a promotional and broadcast free agent, would be the next-biggest fight -- one Jacobs is campaigning for.
"All of these fighters want to fight me," Alvarez said. "We're here to make the best fights for the people. I'm here to fight anyone and everyone. I always characterize myself as someone who fights with the best fighters, to make the best fights for the people. If that's a fight in the future and we must make it, then we'll do it."
Rafael's prediction: Alvarez KO6