The last best contender

FORTY-THREE THOUSAND feet above the Florida Keys, in the privacy of a Gulfstream IV-SP bound for Mexico City, the legend begins to shadowbox. Oscar De La Hoya, you might recall, relinquished his gloves nearly half a decade ago. But on this June afternoon, the 10-time world champ and president of Golden Boy Promotions can't help but throw jabs from his tan leather seat, whipping soft breezes at his protege, a 22-year-old junior middleweight sitting peaceably across from him. He can't help but teach Canelo Alvarez -- the broad-shouldered future of boxing -- a couple of things about the past.

This dizzying 11-city press tour, teeming with thousands of screeching fans at every stop? These nostril-to-nostril onstage staring contests with the unbowed and undefeated Floyd Mayweather Jr.? The ceaseless speculation about Showtime edging the all-time pay-per-view record come Sept. 14? De La Hoya went through this before his own junior middleweight title fight with Mayweather on May 5, 2007. That event, also at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, actually set the PPV record for HBO: a ludicrous 2.5 million buys. "I've been here, done that," says De La Hoya, who was 34 then. "I know what to expect." Conversely, Alvarez, the winsome, freckled pride of Mexico, ranks as both a heavy underdog against Mayweather, 36, and the youngest boxer in a match of this magnitude since Mike Tyson.

So as Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer and Showtime Sports executive VP Stephen Espinoza join Alvarez in listening intently -- yes, their futures are at stake too -- De La Hoya ponders how to pre-empt the Beaten by Mayweather Society's 45th straight induction. In between bites of chicken breast and caramelized onion, De La Hoya starts to quiz Alvarez on which of his old fights he's studied; which matches might have made an impression on a boy growing up in Juanacatl√°n (population 9,000), a dusty burg just outside Guadalajara. Midconversation, Schaefer lays his fork by his cloth napkin and cuts to the chase. "Did you watch the Mayweather fight?" he asks.

"Yes," replies Alvarez, in Spanish. "I've seen it several times." Then the pupil, who was 16 at the time of that 2007 fight, turns his head to address De La Hoya, the hero he'd cheered on television, the icon whose golden boy posters still adorn a peeling white wall in his hometown gym. "Do you want me to tell you the mistakes you made?"

For a moment, there is silence. This question -- delivered with unalloyed confidence and equanimity -- De La Hoya did not expect.

For one thing, that fight produced the lone split decision of Mayweather's 17-year, 44-fight career, the closest thing to a pock on a meticulously erected record. For another, Alvarez, the reigning WBC and WBA champ, tends to overwhelm others with his body, not his brain. Barrel-chested, lantern-jawed and redheaded, he most resembles an Irish actor auditioning for the character of best boxer in Mexico. At various points this year, he's been called a Howdy Doody look-alike (by De La Hoya); Carrot Top (Mayweather); the Notre Dame mascot (a fan in Miami); Chucky (a fan in New York); the Mexican James Dean (Schaefer); the Strawberry Honeycomb cereal kid (an anonymous TV exec); Dennis the Menace (Mayweather again); and Richie Cunningham (De La Hoya again). No small part of Alvarez's burgeoning popularity is his physical novelty -- which, like his taciturn nature, cloaks his intellect.

"Canelo's a shy guy who doesn't speak too much," says Ricardo Maldonado, his previous promoter in Mexico City. "It's not easy to find out what he's thinking."

Now, though, with the fate of this fight -- and really, that of the sport itself -- hanging in the air over the Gulf of Mexico, De La Hoya wants to do exactly that.

AS THE YOUNGEST of eight children, seven of them boys, Saul Alvarez always seemed due some amount of punishment. At home he was the runt; at school, where kids called him freckle-face and whitey and generally treated him like a speed bag, he had even less standing. Saul's eldest sibling, Rigoberto, worked as a pro boxer, and his question would echo after every unanswered taunt: Don't you have hands? But Saul was so meek that even his father's occupation, selling ice pops, proved paralyzing. The first time Santos Alvarez sent his baby boy to hawk paletas at a bus station around the corner in Guadalajara, Saul returned an hour later, his plastic bucket sloshing with melted ice and sugar. He'd been too petrified to walk onto a single bus.

It was in the street, outside a family function in Juanacatlan, that Saul would stumble upon his calling. And to the brothers Alvarez -- all seven of whom went on to box as pros, one time all on the same card -- the episode felt almost dreamlike. There was Saul, a tiny grade-schooler, staring down a neighborhood bully, a Goliath of a kid who'd called him freckle-face for the millionth time. And here was Saul, suddenly swinging away at his opponent's nose, spraying blood pretty much everywhere. The littlest Alvarez, celebrating with his brothers afterward, would never forget how electric it felt to have one of his hands raised.

Soon Rigoberto would pop the trunk of his car, where red headgear and red gloves awaited Saul like Christmas. Soon Rigoberto would steer him to the local Julian Magdaleno Gym, a "smelly, rugged dump of a gym," as De La Hoya would tenderly describe it. Soon a father-son team of trainers, Chepo and Eddy Reynoso, would note the 11-year-old's raw ambition. Soon the Reynosos would bestow a nickname upon the boy with the burnt hair and big right hand: Canelo. Cinnamon. Chepo, a breezy man liable to salsa at the drop of a hat, had trained Mexican champions like Javier "El Chatito" Jauregui and Oscar "Chololo" Larios. Coming from him, the moniker didn't sound like an epithet; it sounded like an honor.

Dad, who couldn't shake the memory of Saul and his bucket, remained skeptical. "We have to be very careful," Santos kept telling Rigoberto. "I don't want them to hurt him."

But all the hurt went in the other direction. Alvarez's first, second and third amateur fights commenced with a barrage of right hooks and finished with swift knockouts. He insisted on fighting three Saturdays a month, an exhilarating pace, and proceeded to win gold at youth nationals at age 14. Suddenly, Chepo and Eddy found themselves begging rival managers for opponents, any at all, claiming that Alvarez -- who dropped out of school to learn how to snap jabs like a switchblade and read spacing -- wasn't as brutal as he appeared. The trainers fooled no one. At just 15, after months of futile brokering, Alvarez had no choice but to turn pro.

The official record book will attest that in his first 19 professional months, Canelo Alvarez fought no fewer than 13 opponents, all significantly older, knocking out 11. What it won't reveal is that he won 10 more pro fights, all of them knockouts, Chepo says, and all of them undocumented. The bookkeeping at smaller venues in the state of Nayarit, near Jalisco, was so shoddy that the Reynosos figured petitioning for a correction was never worth the trouble.

What sticks out from that time instead is a memory: Chepo, glancing at one of those mystery opponents -- muscled, late 20s, copiously tattooed -- and warning Alvarez: "I'm very worried about this dude. If I see this fight turning dangerous for you, I'll jump into the ring and stop it myself."

Alvarez, an eager body puncher, promptly dropped said dude to the floor.

"Look," the 16-year-old calmly whispered to Chepo. "There is your f-----g worry."

IN A BOXING-CRAZED nation, Alvarez would quickly grow from obscure prospect to mushrooming phenomenon. The kid could pack an arena, and he obliterated a procession of fighters put in front of him. Tutico Zabala, Alvarez's promoter at the time, came to believe that the unbeaten teenager was a "once-in-a-lifetime" boxer. "I had never seen someone like that before," Zabala would later say. "And I don't know anybody who ever has."

But he, like so many new fans, was not applauding Alvarez's resume (larded with lesser men), his frame (Alvarez's trunk-thick neck recalled Tyson more than De La Hoya) or even his unbeaten record (necessary for fame but not sufficient). No, Alvarez's rise was distinguished by the same feature his classmates had tormented him with: pigmentation. In a country colonized and ruled for centuries by Europeans, there remains a pervasive cultural preference for light skin. So while homegrown boxers looked nothing like Alvarez, the celebrity class -- as reflected on television screens and magazine covers -- unmistakably did. And to see this pale fighter in the ring and then hear him speak his street-inflected Spanish produced a striking and sellable dissonance. (The Alvarez family attributes Canelo's appearance to French colonists on his mother's side.)

Mexico's media juggernaut, Televisa, couldn't get enough. The de facto monopoly reportedly owns 70 percent of the country's broadcast TV market, reaches 95 percent of homes and was instrumental in electing the current president, Enrique Pena Nieto, a self-proclaimed Alvarez fan. The company soon sold the boxer as Mexico's native-born De La Hoya. "Televisa started showing Canelo on all their programs: talk shows, morning shows, game shows," says Maldonado, Alvarez's onetime promoter. "Every week they'd call us to set up something different." By the fall of 2009, when Alvarez began dating a Televisa Deportes broadcaster and former Miss Universe contestant named Marisol Gonzalez -- a romance narrated, from cradle to grave, by Televisa's many outlets -- more than one consumer cried Kardashian. ("It was real," swears Maldonado. "He asked me to send her flowers the first time.")

The most popular fighter in Mexican history may forever be Julio Cesar Chavez (107-6-2), who spent his time slugging everyone and anyone; he was seemingly always in the ring. Alvarez was omnipresent in a different way, as a personality, and his new reputation as coiffed, shiny curiosity eroded his credibility around smelly, rugged dumps of gyms. "I turned around and all this happened suddenly," Alvarez says.

"It was very weird. I didn't see it coming."

Neither did promoters stateside -- the Mexican-born valets in Stephen Espinoza's LA condo knew every phase of Canelo's fame cycle before Golden Boy did. "We were late to that party," admits the Showtime boss. Yet they were early for Americans and ultimately undeterred by any backlash over his cred. When Golden Boy's matchmaker Eric Gomez scouted Alvarez at age 18, he returned with two notable verdicts that made them salivate. First: The teen was precociously judicious in the ring, loath to assume the take-two-hits-to-give-one exchange rate popularized by the Chavez archetype. Second: His boy band-esque following could be re-created northward. De La Hoya, betting on that trajectory, inked Alvarez in January 2010.

English was an obstacle, certainly. But as a Hispanic boxer in a country where the Hispanic population wields $1.1 trillion in purchasing power, according to one study, Alvarez's magnetism would attract ever larger circles of people. Which at least partly explains how, after becoming the youngest junior middleweight champ ever in 2011, he sold out San Antonio's Alamodome this April for a successful title defense against Austin Trout. The win bolstered both his box-office bona fides and his boxing rep: The dismantling of a relatively anonymous yet highly respected opponent by unanimous decision showed he was no mere celebrity creation.

The next month, over a weekend, De La Hoya finalized the Mayweather fight by phone. (Canelo will receive an estimated $12.5 million guaranteed; Floyd, $40 million.) And the month after that, in June, on a 92-degree day in Times Square, Alvarez dressed in Room 5411 of the W Hotel, surveying thousands of fans jammed 15 rows deep on the street below. All waited, sweating in the subtropical humidity, to see the phenom stare down Mayweather.

Moments later, downstairs, a highlight reel flickered to life on a projection screen, and the same cries Chepo and Eddy had heard around Mexico exploded in the center of New York City, shocking even them. The voices left no doubt about the place's partisanship: CA-NEL-O! CA-NEL-O! CA-NEL-O! And peeking out from behind a white curtain -- just as he would do in every city on this press tour -- the man of the hour, clad in Tom Ford, watched that reel too before being ushered into all the noise. Spine ramrod-straight, chest out and chin up, Canelo could not have looked any less like the bullied kid who couldn't bring a bucket onto a bus.

BACK INSIDE THE refrigerated quiet of the Gulfstream cabin, as the jet tears through cumuli in the direction of Mexico City, the dissection of the De La Hoya-Mayweather fight continues apace. "The first mistake, the biggest thing," Alvarez says to De La Hoya, "is that you fought angry. When you got Mayweather in the corner? You tried to kill him. You expended a lot of energy. You weren't in the correct mindset, executing the game plan."

The teacher smiles. The pupil is right. To this day, despite a fertile business relationship, De La Hoya detests the opponent who, during their 2007 press junket, had done everything in his power to torment him: stealing his luggage, swiping his lunch and carrying around a live chicken that wore a teensy gold medal, with the words golden girl splashed across the cage. De La Hoya has to admit that his frustration, multiplied by Mayweather's elusiveness in the ring, had worn him out by the middle rounds. He has to admit that wanting something so badly -- obsessing over it for nights on end -- fueled his undoing.

And that, Alvarez tells De La Hoya, led to the next error. De La Hoya needed to attack but "with a good, steady pressure," Alvarez says. In breaking down tape of Mayweather on his own, Alvarez had observed a natural welterweight who prefers to conserve stamina while countering whiffed power shots, saving offense for later in the fight. Mayweather, he argues, is someone who doesn't want to fend off ceaseless jabbing and especially doesn't want an opponent to come forward with what Canelo calls "the key" -- straight jabs, right down the middle, right at his face.

Alvarez came to this realization, he says, when he privately started experimenting with Mayweather's signature defensive stratagem, the shoulder roll, once they agreed to the terms of the fight in May. Not because Alvarez wanted to adopt the posture himself, he tells De La Hoya, but because he wanted to see what Mayweather saw with his back up against the ropes, spinning away from contact and deflecting damage with shoulders and arms. At this explication, the teacher's eyebrows arch.

In what was exposed, Alvarez continues, he detected an opportunity. "I don't care; I'll go to the body, I'll go to the shoulder, I'll go to his arms," he says. And now De La Hoya, excitedly nodding and grinning wide, is unable to refrain from interrupting with counsel of his own.

De La Hoya offers thoughts on conditioning. On maximizing power at the match's negotiated weight of 152 pounds, a compromise with the naturally lighter Mayweather. On punching high and low. On measuring distance to simultaneously dodge Mayweather's short uppercuts and jabs. Soon enough, both men are leaning forward in their chairs, shadowboxing together, whipping out their best shoulder-roll imitations and contrasting technique.

To be sure, every soul in the industry is anticipating Sept. 14 from the edge of his seat as well. Alvarez knows that the fight will be nothing short of judgment day, his once-in-a-lifetime shot to establish credibility in America, chase Chavez in Mexico and answer any lingering doubts about his legitimacy in the ring. For De La Hoya and Golden Boy, the fight will be something close to their most valuable stock's initial public offering, wherein the American market can choose to buy into Canelo Inc., or cripple it. For Showtime, the upstart challenging HBO for pay-per-view supremacy, a good fight will trigger an Alvarez rematch, maybe even a trilogy.

And for boxing? Given that precisely zero other international superstars are in their 20s -- Manny Pacquiao, who was flattened by Juan Manuel Marquez in December, is almost 35 -- the wilting sport needs Canelo to meet this moment as badly as anyone. "At a time when Pacquiao just got knocked out," one sports TV exec says, "this is the biggest fight you can possibly make."

WEEKS AFTER THE jet has completed its journey to Mexico City -- where a task force of 1,050 cops alternately protected and snapped photos of the boxers -- a black Escalade rolls up to the door of another member of the Beaten by Mayweather Society. Alvarez has rented out the gym in the garage of Shane Mosley's two-story chalet in Big Bear, Calif., the ski town where De La Hoya always trained, until fight night. As soon as he arrives today, Alvarez makes a beeline for the iPod booming Kanye West, replacing it with his iPhone 5's customary beat-the-crap-out-of-things playlist: the Greatest Hits of the 1960s.

The Sugar Shane Chalet doubles as an escape, if only from Alvarez's own celebrity. At home in Guadalajara, he is shadowed not just by cameras but by a unit of gun-toting, tan-vested guards at all times. Local police often pull his car over simply to shake his hand. Here, some 7,000 feet above sea level, Alvarez's daily 7 a.m. runs in the San Bernardino Mountains and 4 p.m. workouts are free from armed security and unwelcome spectators. He can walk around sporting neon-green Under Armour workout clothes, unkempt hair and a Williamsburg-ready wispy mustache, just sprouted in celebration of his 23rd birthday and the tour's end.

As "Runaround Sue," by Dion, reverberates, sending Chepo into one of several extemporaneous salsas, Alvarez's two similarly statured (and named) sparring partners, KeAndrae Leatherwood, 24, and Keandre Gibson, 23, slip on their gloves. The two will switch to the shoulder roll on occasion, but Alvarez has summoned them primarily to test his timing with quickness, movement and counterpunching for three four-minute rounds.

Thus, the most retro training montage in boxing history unfolds. Mosley, who has lost decisions to both Mayweather and Alvarez, watches as this young old soul does everything he'd detailed to De La Hoya on the jet: shoot straight jabs, apply steady pressure and bomb shoulders and livers. Leatherwood's head guard is nearly spun around to "Rock Around the Clock." Gibson takes thudding hooks to his body to "It's in His Kiss."

By the final bell, this junior middleweight sock-hop has mostly reiterated what the CompuBox statistics declare. No active fighter connects on more of his punches than Alvarez (42 percent), not even Mayweather (41 percent). When you subtract their opponents' contact rate from those percentages, thereby accounting for defense, Alvarez's plus-18 stands second only to Mayweather's plus-24.

But Alvarez isn't thinking about the numbers as judgment day draws close. "I'm the kind of person who visualizes things before doing them," he says, almost shrugging now. In his mind, he likes to set aside his intricately curated library of strategies and mistakes. He tries to ensure that he doesn't focus on one opponent so much that it hurts, the way De La Hoya did. Instead, the thing he tells himself when he shuts his eyes -- allowing him to sleep well, even if nobody else can -- always ends up being so simple.

There is your raised hand, Canelo Alvarez thinks. There is your f-----g worry.

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