The Man Who Would Be King

By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
– Macbeth, Act IV, Scene I

If Bono is right when he sings that “ambition bites the nails of success”, then Saul “Canelo” Alvarez has been doing plenty of chewing lately. Last week boxing fans learned the 23-year-old Mexican super welterweight has agreed to accept the challenge of Erislandy Lara to find out who is the best 154-pounder not named Floyd. Last Sunday night it was confirmed via twitter that the fight is indeed on and Saul Alvarez and Erislandy Lara will meet July 12 at the MGM Grand in one of the best matches the sport can offer.

The contest is a boon for boxing fans, who’ll see the two most talented full-time super welterweights lock horns in a pick’em fight. While the Mexican holds the edge in both size and power, Lara is perceived by many the more skilled pugilist. Given Canelo’s lacklustre performance the last time he faced a master boxer (think Floyd), not to mention the difficulty he experienced tangling with an opponent Lara dominated (think Austin Trout), the Cuban must be considered a serious threat to befuddle and maybe even humble the Mexican.

While we can later analyze things from a technical point of view, right now it’s important to point out the unique circumstances of this match coming together so quickly. Still fresh in our memory is the image of Lara mounting the podium to challenge Canelo at the press conference following the red-head’s domination of Alfredo Angulo. After Saul brusquely dismissed Lara, no one expected this fight to be made anytime soon, and indeed Lara was slated to headline a minor card in Las Vegas against Ishe Smith the day before Mayweather’s Cinco de Mayo extravaganza. Only a few weeks ago it was hard to find anyone who believed Canelo would step up to face Lara, who looked nothing short of dominant against the talented Trout this past December.

Lara got his wish and will face Canelo on July 12

Some will say that given Canelo’s intention to compete three times this year and the dearth of recognizable names at 154, he had little choice but to face Lara. But the truth is someone with Canelo’s mass appeal will always have options, and from among those available he has chosen the most challenging. But he has also set himself up for the best possible pay-off: even if he sustains a loss, his willingness to face the toughest competition will be commended. And Lara, coming off big wins against Trout and an Angulo far more primed than the one who absorbed a horrible beating from Alvarez, has never been more highly regarded. The truth is, for Alvarez, there’s much to gain and less to lose in taking on “The American Dream.”

But there’s also something to be said about Canelo’s recent level of competition on the whole, which speaks clearly to young Saul’s moxy. It’s true he fought a long string of undersized, faded and outmatched opponents, even as he started headlining cards on HBO and Showtime. But to his credit, when he finally stepped up, he did it with authority. To wit, over his last three fights Alvarez has narrowly defeated Austin Trout, lost to Mayweather, and put a beating on a fading “Perro” who was coming off a competitive loss to Lara. By facing Erislandy next, he puts together a run of four consecutive matches against four champions or top contenders. How many active boxers can boast that?

To put in perspective how much Canelo’s star-power has grown, it’s interesting to compare the divergent paths of Alvarez and his countryman Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. In September of 2012, Jr. challenged Sergio Martinez for the undisputed middleweight crown, while on the same night Canelo disdainfully busted up Josesito Lopez. By going toe-to-toe for TV ratings, the two stars competed for the hearts and minds of millions of Latino boxing fans. Almost two years later, Canelo is regarded as the more talented inside the ring and the more collected and mature outside it. Chavez Jr. is viewed as something of a happy-go-lucky buffoon who makes the most of what comes his way, essentially committed only to his own whims and impulses, and always aware his dad, his promoter and whoever heads the WBC have his back.

Ruthless careerist meets pothead buffoon.

But where Chavez’ tomfoolery is for the most part inconsequential, there’s a disturbing side to the Canelo operation which occasionally surfaces before being efficiently contained by its PR machine. The incident which most obviously illustrates this is the widely-circulated story that in 2011 Canelo beat up former light-flyweight title holder Ulises “Archie” Solis over a misunderstanding Canelo sought to clarify with his fists outside the ring. While the story elicited some attention from the mainstream media, and allegedly an arrest warrant from the Mexican police, no real repercussions befell Canelo. Ulises posited that it was because Alvarez bought off both police and media.

There’s also the story unearthed by Deadspin’s Eric Nusbaum that one of Canelo’s brothers “killed a guy” in Juanacatlan, Jalisco, where Canelo and his brothers grew up. Nusbaum speculates this episode is the reason Canelo and his clan don’t often return to their native town. And more recently, there’s the report published in a Mexican magazine that Canelo pounded so furiously on 40-year-old sparring partner Javier Jauregui that he was rushed to hospital where he later died. It is this last incident which led to Canelo barring Televisa, which owns the magazine in question, from broadcasting his upcoming fight with Lara. Canelo denies the story and is reportedly furious at the Mexican TV network.

In a way, it’s a relief to know there’s more to Canelo than the boringly tame media-darling who makes the rounds at press conferences and PR exercises. Canelo’s persona as displayed on TV and quoted on press releases is a bland cypher, a hollow vessel into which his adoring fans pour their own vicarious desires. At the same time, it’s deeply disturbing to ponder the effectiveness with which Saul—who one minute looks like the foremost example of clean-cut success, and the next is accused of assault and manslaughter—can suppress the dark side of his life.

Oscar and Saul: The old king and his thane.

Perhaps this paradox is best explained by the key factor actually guiding Canelo’s career choices ever since Oscar De La Hoya and Richard Schaefer understood the Mexican’s true potential: ambition. Even if it’s nothing new for a boxing promoter to try and profit from the appeal and talent of a young up-and-comer, lately there’s been a dramatic twist in the relationship between Golden Boy and Canelo. While De La Hoya and Schaefer saw only dollar signs instead of freckles on Canelo’s face from the moment they first assessed the Mexican phenom, Canelo’s own ambition has by now out-grown his promoters’ designs, moving him to single-handedly launch a relentless campaign to become the one true king of boxing.

Shakespeare might recognize in the young prizefighter’s character the traits of Macbeth, the Scottish prince whose lust for power led him to ruthlessly kill the king and wear his crown. In this version, Oscar and Richard are together Lady Macbeth, whispering encouragement and opprobrium in equal measures, convincing the young contender that the highest throne can be his, if he’s willing to do whatever it takes to attain it.

But at this point it’s fair to say that Canelo is already something of a king. If Alvarez vs. Lara materialized sooner than anyone expected, it’s due to Canelo’s ambition and no one else’s. After his painfully one-sided drubbing of Angulo, Golden Boy Promotions’ CEO Richard Schaefer uttered the names of James Kirkland and Carlos Molina as likely future opponents, only dropping Lara’s at the final moment as a sort of afterthought. But much like he did a year ago when he demanded to face Austin Trout, Canelo has asserted himself and Lara is next. With his recently discovered power to dictate terms, his ability to manipulate the media, and his now vast personal wealth — all of it predicated on his undeniable mass appeal — Alvarez has bigger things in mind than just amassing more money while beating up amenable opponents.

The Trout fight showed Canelo’s new desire to take on serious risk.

There are two crucial differences between the current cash-king of the sport, Floyd Mayweather Jr., and the king-in-waiting, Canelo Alvarez. The first is that Floyd operates under a strict maximize-revenue-while-minimizing-risk directive; Canelo, on the other hand, seems intent on building, at any cost, a legacy that fulfills the promise that Oscar and Richard have convinced him is his. In light of his defeat last September, Saul has shown himself aware of his limitations as a prizefighter, but he’s also aware he’s smart and still learning in the ring. Yes, he failed against Mayweather last year, but at his young age Canelo can afford to bide his time, build up his record, and attempt another takeover once Mayweather’s retirement leaves behind a massive power vacuum.

The second difference is the pressure exerted by their records on their decision-making. As Floyd approaches the end of his career, the need to keep his precious ’0′ becomes increasingly important. But Canelo, having already tasted defeat, is unburdened by that prerogative. It’s ironic that Floyd, by inflicting a loss on Canelo’s resume, has freed the Mexican to become bolder. So vested is Canelo in forging his own legend that he’s willing to travel where Mayweather never ventured: the path of most resistance. In other words, if he’s going to achieve greatness, the Mexican will do it his way, no matter the consequences.

The first attempt failed, but the passing of the crown is coming.

It goes without saying that in taking so many risks, Canelo will either triumph spectacularly or suffer a tragic fall. Also, in contrast with Mayweather, Canelo’s risk-ridden strategy means backing down from any challenge is unacceptable. Like Macbeth, all challenges must be faced, come good or ill, as facing and beating the best today is as much an investment in tomorrow as it is a way to solidify and grow his fan-base. Both increase the chances that in a post-Mayweather world, it will be Canelo who holds court over a lineup of potential opponents who will come hat-in-hand asking for the favor of the king.

Ambition is one thing; discipline is another. The two together are difficult to beat. Fortune often favors the prepared, and in a sport that habitually focuses on the short term without regard for the future, Saul is playing a long game with complete conviction it will pay off. Resisting his profit-maximizing backers, Canelo is eager to pay his dues, even as he collects preposterous checks and basks in the adulation of millions. But money and stardom are not enough for the ambitious Canelo. What he desires most goes beyond mere success. He wants the kingdom and the crown and to be long remembered as a truly great boxer. He wants greatness. And like Macbeth, he will stop at nothing to get it.

–Rafael Garcia

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