Saul “Canelo” Alvarez has inadvertently talked his way into the problem of great expectations. After defeating an outsized Amir Khan, he invited Gennady Golovkin into the ring for his post-fight interview and said, “Hay que dejarnos de mamadas…hay que pelear por honor y por gloria nada más…No le tengo miedo a nadie.” This essentially translates to, “Let’s cut the bullshit…one must fight for honor and glory. I fear no one.” When asked if that meant that he would fight Golovkin by the end of the year, Canelo answered, “Como lo dije la pelea pasada, ahorita mismo me vuelvo a poner los guantes.” (“Like I said in the previous fight, right this moment, I’ll put on the gloves again”). And while these statements satisfied his promoter Oscar De La Hoya and inspired the pro-Canelo crowd who desperately want to believe in his greatness, as of today, Canelo’s words remain empty threats.
Canelo’s post-fight statement was either just something said after the sensational, albeit predictable, knockout of Khan emotionally blinded him into saying something he did not mean. Or, Canelo was sincere but De La Hoya is unwilling to risk another loss for boxing’s number-one attraction. Instead, De La Hoya is postponing the bout long enough for Golovkin to lose in a shocking upset or hoping his skills erode just enough for Canelo to win against a boxer on the wrong side of age thirty-five.
The problem with Canelo is not just about who he is (or is not) fighting. Sure, if Canelo was facing Golovkin on September 17 instead of Liam Smith, much of the criticism would subside. But the crux of Canelo’s problem is one rooted in the history of Mexican boxing, Oscar De La Hoya, Julio Cesar Chávez, and why measuring up to a nation’s hero is impossible. And unfortunately for Canelo, people’s perception of who he is, is closer to Oscar De La Hoya than to Julio Cesar Chávez.
Julio Cesar Chávez is arguably the greatest figure in the history of Mexican boxing. His legacy is as clear as his nickname—El Gran Campeón Mexicano—the Great Mexican Champion. Chávez is held in such high regard that even his sons have “earned” a few suspect victories and a built-in fan base, largely founded from their father’s legacy. Mexican culture has cemented Chávez’s status, even beyond boxing, through one way it gives immortality; the corrido, a Mexican ballad in which the protagonist’s heroic accomplishments are retold in about the same time as a three-minute round. In fact, multiple corridos of Julio Cesar Chávez exist, each extolling his greatness and speaking to the national pride he inspired with his victories against the likes of Hector Camacho and Meldrick Taylor.
With Chávez’s iconic status, it is unfair to expect any Mexican boxer to live up to the comparison of El Gran Campeón Mexicano. And yet the comparisons, even if not explicit, occur with Mexican boxers who flash potential greatness burdened with the unfair expectations of living up to Chávez’s legacy. The latest boxer charged with becoming the next Mexican boxing icon is Canelo who, through no fault of his own, cannot possibly live up to Chávez’s status. This is not a slight against Canelo, but rather to point out that no one can equal Chávez, let alone, surpass his great career. Not because it is impossible to better Chávez, though it seems difficult, but because those who have made him a boxing demigod are not rational enough to allow anyone to approach his status. In short, Chávez has become a symbol for everything that a “real Mexican boxer” should be—a label that Oscar De La Hoya never attained despite beating Chávez twice. There are various reasons De La Hoya did not inherit this label but the most important is his loss to Felix Trinidad.
Despite his hall of fame career, the shadow of the Trinidad loss looms over De La Hoya’s legacy. The controversial loss was proof that his cautious fight plan was contrary to how a “real Mexican boxer” should fight. The loss showed De La Hoya as the anti-Chávez in terms of style—more boxer than a fighter in protecting his lead over the last half of the fight instead of attacking. More celebrity than workman with his short-lived music career. More tentative than macho in his unwillingness to attack until the end. And of course, more American than Mexican despite his trunks giving equal representation to each flag of his dual heritage. And now, as Canelo’s promoter—if we believe Canelo is sincere in wanting to fight Golovkin as soon as possible—De La Hoya is again overly cautious over who and when he allows Canelo to fight. Now, while it may have been strategically smart to not engage Trinidad in the last half of their fight after thoroughly dominating the first half and it is probably a smart business decision to maximize Canelo’s earnings before making a fight in which he will be an underdog, both strategies invite more criticism than respect.
Canelo has about a year before his star fades, not as far as drawing power but in terms of legitimacy among those who are already questioning his willingness to fight Golovkin. The fact is, Canelo’s loss to Mayweather earned him more respect than his spectacular knockout wins over low-risk opponents such as James Kirkland, Amir Khan, and presumably, Liam Smith. And when Canelo beats Liam Smith, as expected, Max Kellerman will again ask him about fighting Golovkin and Canelo will again evoke the rhetoric of this being his era and how he fears no one and is even willing to fight him at once, echoing everything that a “real Mexican boxer” should say. Canelo will end his in-ring interview by yelling, “Viva Mexico!” and the crowd will scream their approval while De La Hoya stands in the background, unable to contain his grin. At that moment, there will be a belief the fight is on the verge of happening and that Canelo is ready to aim for the unattainable goal of being the Great Mexican Champion.