Persistence pays off for Lara

Erislandy Lara is nothing if not persistent. It's one of the reasons that despite long odds -- massive odds, really -- he has risen to become one the best fighters in boxing, even if he's not exactly a household name.

But he could inch closer toward that end if he can score a victory against Mexican superstar and former unified junior middleweight titleholder Saul "Canelo" Alvarez when they meet in a scheduled 12-round fight on Saturday night (Showtime PPV, 9 ET) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Lara's 154-pound title will not be at stake because Alvarez refused to fight for it, instead insisting on a 155-pound maximum weight for the nontitle bout.

But Lara has wanted this fight for quite some time. He was not about to let it get away from him over one pound or a belt, so he accepted Alvarez's terms and will earn a career-high $1 million for doing so.

After Alvarez knocked out Alfredo Angulo in March -- an opponent Lara had stopped in June 2013 only to watch him get the fight with Alvarez next -- Lara arrived at Alvarez's postfight news conference in the MGM Grand media center. He demanded that Alvarez (43-1-1, 31 KOs) fight him, and even though Alvarez dismissed him at the time, he had become so annoyed with Lara's persistent attacks on him via social media that he eventually decided to take the fight and settle things in the ring.

"Originally, I thought he would never take the fight because I confronted him in person and he said, 'No, this is not how you make fights,'" Lara, 31, said through translator and manager Luis DeCubas Jr. "Then after the fans saw that he was ducking me on Twitter, he had no choice but to be a man and take the challenge."

Lara's persistence had paid off, and it wasn't the first time.

A star amateur in Cuba who won a 2005 world amateur championship, Lara risked his life to defect. Although he now lives comfortably in Houston with his wife and two sons, 6 and 3, with a daughter due to be delivered on Monday, he went through a lot to get to this point.

During the 2007 Pan American Games in Brazil, Lara attempted to defect with teammate and two-time Olympic gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux, but they were caught. He and Rigondeaux were sent back to Cuba and kicked off the national team. The prospect of a 2008 Olympic gold medal was gone, and unless Lara figured out a way to escape, his life was at a dead end.

But, again, he was persistent. In 2008, he made a second attempt to defect, and this time, he was successful. (Rigondeaux eventually defected in 2009 and is now the junior featherweight world champion.) Leaving behind his family, including two other sons now 7 and 8, he survived a harrowing journey -- 125 miles on a crowded 30-foot speedboat in the dead of night from Cuba to Cancun, Mexico, during which those facilitating the escape threatened to throw him overboard if he didn't agree to pay them $200,000. That was a far cry from the $15,000 they had initially demanded, because they realized he was a famous Cuban boxer.

Eventually, Lara made it to Mexico and, with the help of an associate of Arena Box promoter Ahmet Oner, negotiated the price down to $40,000. After it was paid during a clandestine meeting at a Cancun hotel, Lara was transported to Mexico City and then was on a flight to Germany, where he found freedom, a new life and a career.

Lara turned pro in Oner's native Turkey on July 4, 2008 -- almost six years to the day before he will fight on Alvarez on boxing's biggest stage. He fought again two months later in Germany and then made his way to the United States, where he has fought since.

"When I arrived to the United States from Cuba, times were tough," said Lara, who has adopted the nickname "The American Dream." "I've built what I have from nothing. I take pride in the opportunities that this country has given me. And I'm not about to let this one go by."

A southpaw with a very difficult style, Lara (19-1-2, 12 KOs) worked his way up the rankings but had his share of heartaches, including a July 2011 fight against Paul Williams, one of boxing's best at the time.

Lara dominated only to see Williams awarded a majority decision that was so controversial, New Jersey officials later suspended all three officials for turning in such poor scorecards. As upset as Lara was about the decision, he was lifted by the public support for him in the face of such an atrocious result.

There was more disappointment with a 2012 technical draw against Vanes Martirosyan. Most thought that Lara had clearly won the elimination fight meant to produce a mandatory challenger for Alvarez when he held a title.

In his next fight, Lara faced Angulo for a vacant interim title, and although he was knocked down twice, he didn't give up. There's that persistence again. He got off the deck and stopped Angulo in the 10th round of a thrilling fight.

Lara followed with a one-sided decision against former titlist Austin Trout, who had lost his belt to Alvarez in his previous fight, and Lara was later elevated to a full titleholder. All along, Lara had been trying to lure Alvarez into the ring, believing deeply that he could win the fight and make himself a star.

"He's definitely not a regular guy," DeCubas said. "I've been around boxing my whole life, 27 years. My dad [Luis DeCubas Sr.] had Roberto Duran, worked with a lot of great fighters. And this guy, Lara, is special. He stands out. He knows he's special. He has a presence.

"Saturday night all the persistence, all the hard work, all the risks he took, everything he had to earn the hard way -- he finally gets the opportunity to be on top. This guy doesn't give up.

DeCubas said Lara talks to him about his struggle in Cuba and how he never quit. "And he knows he has no other choice but to win Saturday because if he doesn't win, nobody is going to want to fight him and the purses will go down," DeCubas said.

"Saturday night is why he has run all the miles, made that weight, sparred the rounds, fought those fights. It's all to get this one opportunity at the big time. His mentality is do-or-die. Canelo doesn't realize what he has gotten into. Lara proved he's willing to die just by how he got here from Cuba, going through shark-infested waters not knowing if he was going to live. He has got determination. He has got persistence."

Lara sure does, and it has set him apart from so many others in the fight game.

"On Saturday, I will trudge through the doors that my boxing skills have opened up for me, and the world will know who I am," he said. "I feel very special to be here right now. I don't feel any pressure because I am ready to fight. Right now Canelo is my enemy, and this is war now.

"I'm fighting for my family, to put food on the table for them. No one can take that away from me."