If you place a large map of Mexico on your wall and then try to put your finger exactly on its center, your index will land very close to the town of Dolores. That is where 207 years ago, in the early hours of September 16, 1810, a firebrand of a priest by the name of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, standing on the steps that led into his humble church, called to arms the small populace of the town and incited them to rebel against the Spanish Crown to make their country their own. It says lots about the character of Mexicans that they chose El Dieciseis de Septiembre to become their national holiday; unlike many other nations who’d rather commemorate the culmination of a long, hard struggle, Mexicans instead throw a yearly bash to celebrate the night they cried for war.
Appropriately enough, an offshoot of the happenings of 1810 in Dolores–which, by the way, means “pains” in Spanish—is that Mexican Independence weekend has become the date on which the whole of boxing fandom also unites in a single cry for war. The war we demand is not of the old-fashioned muskets-and-bayonets sort, but instead a fistic war, waged inside a boxing ring by two world-class athletes in what often ends up becoming the biggest fight of the year. This war is not fought for independence or political ends, but for pride, and glory, and for truckloads of money, money gleefully handed over for the privilege of watching two modern-day gladiators do what they do best.
While it’s unfortunate that for past few years boxing’s power brokers have provided much more flash than substance on Mexican Independence weekend, this year, thankfully, that won’t be the case. Mere hours away from the biggest fight of 2017, the boxing world braces itself for a high-stakes clash between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin, who will wage war for the middleweight championship of the world in the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Like its recent predecessors, Canelo vs Golovkin will yield a rich bounty to its participants, but the twist is that it will do so for all the right reasons. This weekend’s main event is that rarest of gems: a significant battle fought at the pinnacle of the sport by two of its best practitioners. The bonus is that Canelo’s and Gennady’s fighting styles—reliant as they are on explosive, hurtful power-punching—should yield a memorable fight, an increasingly rare occurrence when it comes to Vegas extravaganzas.
But as in so many of the sport’s best nights, much more than a mere title is at stake. What fuels the massive interest in Canelo vs Golovkin, more than any direct animosity between its participants, is the fact that both fighters claim to represent the same ideal: the wildly successful action hero who fears no one and is feared by everyone. Both the Mexican and the Kazakh already represent that construct to an extent, but to complete the paradigm, the one thing left to do is to fight each other.
This weekend, at long last, we’ll see them do just that. Canelo will be looking to validate his skills and accomplishments by trying to defeat the most formidable rival he has yet faced. Golovkin, on the other hand, will have the chance to prove he can do to a truly elite talent what he has done so many times to less worthy rivals, hoping that by doing so, some of Canelo’s fame and exorbitant earning power will rub off on him. And if there’s an even deeper meaning to Canelo vs Golovkin, it has something to do with the long, winding road of mamadas we all had to travel to get here, a road paved over the foundation the fighters themselves laid when each claimed to be the standard bearer for Mexican boxing.
When Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions took control of Canelo’s career back in 2010, the hope was that Alvarez’ eye-catching fighting style would mesh with his good looks to produce a prizefighter of mass appeal. Given that Canelo regularly cashes eight-figure paychecks for his ring appearances, the strategy seems to have paid off. Further proof lies in the fact the Mexican redhead is one of the three most famous active boxers in the world, the others being Manny Pacquiao, whose name still carries currency despite the fighting senator being in fistic decline, and Anthony Joshua, the heir apparent to the undisputed heavyweight crown. But unlike middle-aged Pacquiao, the 27-year-old Canelo is only about to enter his prime; and unlike Joshua, the Mexican is a proven attraction in the North American market, where top fighters can earn the largest purses to be found anywhere in the world.
If it took years for the precocious Canelo to climb to the top of the sport, it was because the old guard of boxing–namely Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao–refused to yield the spotlight until they had milked every last cent out of their brands (and they might still not be done). But it’s undeniable the changing of the guard is finally taking place, and it was last May that Canelo realized his biggest threat to becoming the face of Mexican boxing was not Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., as many of us envisioned just a few years ago, but instead a human wrecking ball from an obscure Eastern European nation, a fighter named Gennady Golovkin.
Hailing from literally the opposite side of the planet, “Triple G” won over large swathes of fans, many of them Mexican, with what at first glance amounted to little more than a catchphrase. But that last part is not entirely accurate; Ramona Shelburne recently wrote about the origin of Gennady’s fighting style, as well as the infamous quip, for ESPN:
“It was when he started training with Sanchez that Golovkin began to hone his high-pressure, swaggering style, something he and Sanchez have modeled after one of Mexico’s all-time great fighters, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. Golovkin absorbed everything. The pressure. The face-first aggression. Bravado. Defense. The style fit his inherently aggressive street-fighting nature. He just needed to polish and refine his technique… In 2014, it all came together in a savage knockout of Daniel Geale at Madison Square Garden in New York, punctuated by a callout to the sport’s most passionate fan base: “This my style, like Mexican style,” Golovkin told HBO’s Max Kellerman.”
Whether Golovkin’s “Mexican Style” utterance was premeditated or improvised, there’s no doubt the phrase hit a sweet spot. It’s no secret boxing in North America is directed to an audience composed of minorities, chief among them the Latino community and those with a connection to Mexico. It’s a country with a long and rich boxing tradition, and which has been bereft of a genuine boxing deity ever since Julio Cesar Chavez began his long, sad march down the ranks in the late 90s. Oscar De La Hoya, despite possessing many of the requisite attributes to fill that role–the skills, the charisma and the ability to take on the biggest challenges available–was denied since he was born on the wrong side of the border. Meanwhile, Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera and Juan Manuel Marquez, tough and accomplished as they were, had to settle for sharing the torch among them, as they individually failed to achieve the mass appeal of J. C. Chavez.
It seems baffling that after all these years such a boxing-crazed country, and one that produces so many world champions–there are nine Mexican title holders at the moment–still hasn’t found the heir to Chavez. On the other hand, it takes a very special boxer to fill what is arguably the toughest role in all of sports. Consider that to even be considered for the job, the fighter not only has to prove himself as an elite talent in one of the most dangerous sports known to man, but he has to do so while practicing a distinctly Mexican fighting style which is long on courage, endurance, and capacity to inflict pain. On top of that, he has to possess enough charisma to win over his countrymen. This is even trickier than it sounds, because this charisma has to be made up of equal parts humility and bravado, making him both relatable and likeable, but also leaving no doubt in people’s minds as to how much of a badass he is. Chavez, Salvador Sanchez, and Ruben “Puas” Olivares all shared this intangible, indispensable, quality.
Thus, with all this in mind, what we’ll witness on Saturday night is much more than a fight for middleweight supremacy. This will in fact be a battle for the very soul of Mexican boxing. Canelo, the more popular fighter and the one with the right geographic origin, is one win away from finally becoming the standard bearer of Aztec prizefighting. If the redhead believes in predestination, he knows that his fight with Golovkin is as desirable as it was unavoidable. This is because what has so far kept Canelo from achieving full-on demi-god status in Mexico is a signature balls-to-the-wall win like Chavez had against Edwin Rosario and Salvador Sanchez had against Wilfredo Gomez. The closest Canelo got to earning his was his points victory over Miguel Cotto in November of 2015, but that bout just didn’t fulfill the action requirements of the signature win he’s looking for, and the fact it didn’t end with his opponent lying helpless on the canvas didn’t help either. The cost for the adulation of the nation of Mexico just has to be paid in blood. Nothing else will do.
Golovkin’s case to become the poster boy for Mexican boxing is a lot harder to make, not least of all because he hails from a country as foreign to Mexicans as any other in the world. But this just makes it all the more remarkable that Gennady has already made significant inroads with the Mexican populace. As unlikely as it sounds, it just might be that Mexican fight fans—as affected as the rest of the world by the forces of inclusion and globalization–are ready to embrace a boxing superstar hailing from Kazakhstan of all places, foreign culture and ethnicity be damned.
Moreover, Golovkin already displays the charisma which we discussed above: his post-fight aw-shucks bluster is as endearing as his knockouts are brutal. Tellingly, Gennady didn’t even need to learn Spanish to bridge the cultural gap with his Aztec fans; all he needed to do was destroy the occasional liver with his left hook, just like all the great Mexican fighters worth their salt have done. Body shots like that are guaranteed to put a smile of recognition on the faces of a Mexican audience, regardless of the origin of the pugilist doing the punching.
Going by what both boxers bring to the table, fight fans of all stripes will be smiling and nodding all night long on Saturday. While there is some overlap between Canelo’s and Golovkin’s pugilistic attributes, there are also crucial differences that complement each other, and should result in some violent exchanges. Fighting behind a stiff, versatile jab, Gennady Golovkin likes to stalk his opponents, punishing them to the body with his trademark left hook and firing off the right hand upstairs. Canelo, for his part, is most comfortable when his adversary brings the fight to him, so he can evade incoming fire with upper-body and head movement and then retaliate with well-placed, fiery combinations. All this violence will be neatly complemented by both fighters’ ring smarts, as both possess underrated defensive skills, and both are well-versed in setting traps with smart foot work and deceiving feints. In short, both the blood thirsty and the purists have plenty to look forward to.
With so much heavy artillery on the field of battle, the outcome may well come to rest on the durability of the combatants, both in terms of stamina and the sturdiness of their respective chins. Gennady boasts of never having visited the canvas, not during his hundreds of amateur fights, and not in his pro career, where he’s faced strong punchers and larger foes who were discouraged from imposing their physicality by virtue of Golovkin’s power. Canelo has faced dangerous brawlers, but none with Gennady’s level of prowess, and none who held an edge in size over him. And while endurance is a concern for Alvarez, he manages his punch output judiciously and in fact this is where the Mexican’s underrated grit and fiercely professional determination could give him the kind of boost that can’t be quantified in odds, which see “Triple G” as a slight favorite.
Thus, what this is all boils down to is that there is every reason to expect Canelo vs Golovkin to be a fight worthy of the prize truly at stake: the adulation of both the most blood-thirsty and the most discerning of boxing fans, whether they’re Mexican or not. Enough questions and enough talent have been packed into this weekend’s main event that it’s almost impossible to imagine Canelo vs Golovkin failing to satisfy. The potential rewards have never been higher for either fighter, but victory will only come at a cost. Who wants it more out of the two? Who’s willing to sacrifice more in their quest to become the face of Mexican boxing? Who is willing to get up off the canvas and taste their own blood and battle on in order to seize the ultimate victory, the ultimate glory?
It promises to to be violent, dramatic and memorable, with repercussions and shockwaves both for pugilism and for a boxing-mad nation where gladiators like Chavez, Zarate, Olivares and Sanchez are genuine legends. Not a bad way to celebrate the start of a war, all those years ago, in a little town named after pain. –Rafael Garcia