As Saul "Canelo" Alvarez removed his gold boxing gloves after a recent sparring session in Big Bear, Calif., he rubbed his red hair, wiped the sweat from his freckled face and smiled when asked about his nickname, which is Spanish for cinnamon.
"I like it," he said through a translator. "I had to get used to it though."
Alvarez's red mane, prominent freckles and pale skin have often drawn comparisons to classic marionette Howdy Doody. He can laugh about it now as he looks at the dozens of cameras pointed at him during an open training session, but when he was growing up as the youngest of seven brothers in Juanacatlan, a town in central Jalisco, Mexico, it forced him to become the fighter he is today.
"I was made fun of at a young age," he said. "I would fight a lot in the streets and it has a lot to do with the way I am today. It helped my development as a fighter but what can I say? I look like this for a reason. I was born this way. It was God-given. I can't question that and it's helped me in my career. I love the name now."
Alvarez's style in the ring is almost as unique as his looks and has helped catapult him to a 37-0-1 record with 27 knockouts, the WBC super welterweight championship and rock star-like status in Mexico.
His last fight against Ryan Rhodes in Guadalajara, Mexico, three months ago was viewed by almost 40 million people in Mexico, according to Ricardo Perez Teuffer, Televisa's vice president of sports and special events, who said Canelo's fight was actually viewed by more people than the Mexican national soccer team's Gold Cup semifinal against Honduras.
"His following is tremendous," said Oscar De La Hoya, who signed Alvarez to a contract with Golden Boy Promotions two years ago. "The sky's the limit for him. He'll be headlining Vegas soon. We'll be taking him to El Paso and San Antonio. We want him to be a global star."
When Alvarez first stepped into a boxing gym 10 years ago, he had no dreams of world domination. He was just an 11-year-old kid who wanted to be like his older brother, Rigoberto, his elder by 12 years.
All seven Alvarez brothers are fighters by nature and would eventually become boxers by trade. Growing up in a concrete block house in Juanacatlan after their parents divorced, there were few other options. All seven brothers would actually make history by fighting on the same card three years ago in Jalisco, coming out of it with a 4-3 record. While boxing runs in the Alvarez blood, there is something about Saul that not only separates him from his brothers but from other Mexican fighters who have come before him.
"He's a genius," said Jose Reynoso, Alvarez's manager and trainer. "He's truly a genius in the ring. He's different than everyone else. For example, in school you'd always have a kid who learned faster and knew more than everyone else, he's that student. He's special."
Alvarez soon dropped out of school and stopped working at his father's ice cream shop after he began training with his brothers and devoted himself fully to boxing.
"When I first stepped into the boxing gym, I loved it," Alvarez said. "I knew it was what I was going to do. When I was 15 years old I left school and became a professional boxer. I'll be honest, I didn't like school but I loved boxing. I couldn't pay attention in school but I was a student in the gym."
What separates Alvarez from other Mexican fighters is a defensive, yet aggressive style, in which he doesn't have to get hit three times to land one punch like many of his hard-headed counterparts. De La Hoya laughs off comparisons between him and Alvarez because he believes Alvarez is further ahead of him at this stage in his career.
"I think his boxing IQ has surpassed anything I had at his age," De La Hoya said.
"Canelo will avoid three hits and give three hits," said Eddie Reynoso, Alvarez's trainer. "All the Mexican fighters have a big heart, and he has a big one, too, but Canelo is more technically sound. He doesn't make many mistakes."
It wasn't long ago that Alvarez would take a packed bus to the gym instead of a black Cadillac Escalade and shadow box with his mother, Ana Maria, from whom he gets his red hair and freckles, instead of sparring partners bigger than him. Those days aren't lost on him, even as he takes a spin in one of his luxury cars or rides one of the horses in his stable.
"I always look behind me to see where I've come from and I keep doing it every day to remind myself where I've come from and where I've been," Alvarez said. "I never forgot that."
Reynoso said he is still amazed at how quickly Alvarez picks up on his instructions or learns an opponent's tendencies after watching him on film a couple times. He rarely has to repeat instructions for Alvarez, who is a sponge in the ring.
"When I first saw him at 13 years old he was a bull," Reynoso said. "He was throwing very powerful punches, but when you taught him how to move and avoid punches, he would pick it up quickly. He's so special. He does things so easily that takes other people years to learn. It's like when you're watching Messi play soccer. He makes it look so easy. That's what makes Messi, Messi and it's also what makes Canelo, Canelo."
While Alvarez went through a sparring session in Big Bear in preparation for his Sept. 17 fight against Alfonso Gomez at Staples Center, De La Hoya stood in the corner of the ring, marveling at his young protégé.
"He's progressing at a rapid pace," he said, his eyes transfixed on Alvarez. "His jab is so much better now. Look at him. Pow! Pow! Pow! It's incredible."
De La Hoya is hoping to get Alvarez's English progressing at an equally rapid pace. While he understands some questions in English and can say a few phrases in between giggles, Alvarez is nowhere near where De La Hoya wants him to be. With three of his last five fights in California and Nevada, De La Hoya is trying to make Alvarez a cross-over star in the States, which is hard to do when a translator is required for every English interview.
"He can speak English but he's just shy," De La Hoya said with a smile as he looked at Alvarez. "Remember [Julio Cesar] Chavez when they would ask him something in English? He could speak it but wouldn't. [Alvarez] can speak it but he's just shy. He just has to get more confidence. Hopefully he'll master it soon enough."
As incredible as Alvarez has been in the ring and as much as his star has grown out of the ring, there is still a growing feeling amongst many inside boxing that he's being protected by De La Hoya and Richard Schaefer, CEO of Golden Boy Promotions.
While Alfredo Angulo, Miguel Cotto and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. would appear to offer a bigger name draw and a bigger challenge to Alvarez, he is being matched up against fighters who are past their prime (Carlos Baldomir), over-the-hill (Lovemore Ndou) or, in Gomez's case, a former reality television fighter who is probably in over his head.
"Let me be very honest, I prepare for whoever my promoter wants me to fight. I can fight anyone," Alvarez said. "I can fight the devil if you want me to. I'm ready for whomever. There's no rush, I'll just fight whoever my promoter wants me to fight."
De La Hoya is Alvarez's promoter and understands where Alvarez is coming from. He was in his shoes not too long ago. He wants to see him fight the best in the world and become the global icon he is projecting him to be, but he also understands Alvarez just turned 21 and has plenty of time to reach those lofty goals.
"Every person we throw in front him he beats easy, so yes, we're going to have to put him in with one of those legitimate fighters that people are talking about, the champions, soon," De La Hoya said. "It will happen but it's hard to say when but he's blowing everybody away. We'll take that next step soon."
Alvarez has more than shown his ability to dominate in the fights he has had, regardless of the pedigree of his opponent. In his last fight at Staples Center, which was headlined by "Sugar" Shane Mosely and Sergio Mora last year, the crowd was chanting Canelo's name in recognition of his knockout win over Baldomir earlier in the card.
There's no question in Alvarez's mind he can have the same kind of success against other fighters and headline cards. It's a mindset that De La Hoya wants him to have and was a reason he and Schaefer are having Alvarez headline a separate card Saturday at Staples Center instead of fighting on the undercard of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Victor Ortiz in Las Vegas.
"I think I should be headlining my own cards," Alvarez said. "I want to be great. I want everybody to remember me. When they think of boxing I want them to think of Canelo and when they write the history of boxing I want them to write Canelo in big, bold letters."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.