Canelo Alvarez reveals the circumstances that turned him into a fighter, how he copes with the pressures of superstardom and what makes him tick outside the ring. By Don McRae
“I GET very nervous and I scream like a crazy person,” Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez says with a wry little smile as he describes his emotions at ringside when Oscar Valdez, Ryan Garcia and Andy Ruiz Jnr are fighting and he is reduced to the role of a spectator. Álvarez, the best boxer in the world, feels helpless as his training partners and friends from Eddy Reynoso’s gym in San Diego climb through the ropes and battle through fights which test their ambition and resolve.
Álvarez is a methodical and dedicated fighter, whose unquenchable appetite for work is as striking as his brilliant aptitude for the clinical violence of boxing. He talks so calmly and thoughtfully this morning that it is hard to imagine him ever screaming crazily as he sits in this very same gym while he explains the close bond he shares with his fellow fighters.
“I come from a big family in Mexico,” Álvarez says, “and I have six brothers. They are all boxers. One night [in Guadalajara in January 2006] all seven of us boxed on the same promotion. It was a Guinness World Record. So I like this very much. And now I have this with Eddy’s fighters. We are a tight-knit family. We are on the same team and we all think the same. We are in boxing and in the gym for the same reasons. And we always try to lift each other up when it comes to boxing and life. It makes us strong.”
It becomes easier to understand the depth of this connection when Álvarez tells me how last year he gave one of his favourite horses, which was worth around $100,000, to Valdez. The two world titlists spar each other occasionally, even though Valdez fights at super-featherweight, six divisions lighter than Álvarez, the WBA and WBC super-middleweight belt-holder. It is obviously more an exercise in helping Valdez and Álvarez never unloads any power shots. But he stresses the quality of the smaller man, whom he cheered on passionately when Valdez shocked Miguel Berchelt with a magnificent display to win the WBC super-featherweight title earlier this year.
“We are good friends,” Álvarez says of Valdez. “He is such a good guy and he always makes us happy in the gym. He helps me get better too and he is always positive and working hard. I like that kind of guy and the fact he is very good at his job. I told him one day that I want to give him a gift to say thank you. Oscar really loves animals and so I decided that a horse would be the best gift. I gave him this horse I really loved because I knew he would look after it so well. He has done this and that’s one of the things that makes us such good friends. We love horses.”
Álvarez owns a huge ranch in Mexico with many horses. He rides 38 of them personally while many more are used by his family and friends. When he takes a rare break from boxing and the gym in San Diego, Álvarez yearns to be on his horses. “This was my dream when I was young,” he says. “I always wanted to buy a horse because I loved them so much. I asked my father many times if we can have a horse but the answer was the same. We were too poor. So when I started to box professionally I was saving up for the moment I could get a horse. I always said: ‘One day I’m going to buy a horse.’ So to give a horse as a gift now is special,”
There are some moving moments in our interview when Álvarez tells me, in Spanish, about how he was bullied as a young boy in the streets around his home in Juanacatlán and when he was selling ice-creams for his father, Santos, at the bus station in downtown Guadalajara – 20 miles away. “My dad wanted me to sell ice-creams on the buses. I was quiet but it wasn’t necessarily a sense of being timid when I got onto the buses. It was more a real embarrassment. I could see how they looked at me and what they said because I was different to them. I was a redhead. They would also pinch me when I came to them and tried to walk past. There was always this sense of feeling something was off in my life.”
The taunting and pinching shadowed the shy, pale-skinned, freckled and red-haired little kid from the ages of six to 11 – when he finally fought back. “I liked it too much,” Álvarez says now with a dry smile as he remembers blooding a big bully’s nose before he dropped him. When his brothers crowded around him to cheer and raise his hand, Álvarez felt different. He felt powerful. “I knew that everything would change,” he says simply.
He soon followed his brothers back to Guadalajara and the small, rickety Julián Magdaleno gym run by ‘Chepo’ Reynoso, and his son Eddy, who is still Álvarez’s trainer today. He praises the Reynoso father-and-son team for the way in which they have always looked after him and protected him – especially now that fame, as Álvarez says, has become his deadliest enemy.
“I think fame is a lot more dangerous than anything else,” he says while suggesting that the safe haven of the gym in San Diego is one of the vital buffers which protects him. “I could tell that ‘Chepo’ and Eddy cared about me as a person as well as a fighter [when they first met] and it’s the same today. They always see beyond the fame, see beyond the money and see me as their friend rather than just their fighter.”
Álvarez recently revealed that, just days before he fought Rocky Fielding in December 2018, his brother was kidnapped. It needed Álvarez himself to negotiate his safe release. That ordeal helps explain why he is guarded and, also, why he takes such pride in the simple pleasures of family.
His face lights up when he tells me his eldest daughter, Emily, is a champion show-jumper. “She loves it. She loves horses like me. She is 13 now and she’s the best [in her age group] in Mexico. Whenever she has a competition in Mexico I’m always there.”
Can he watch Emily in peace without being swamped by fans? “Most of the time, in that [horse] world, people allow me to be comfortable while watching her. They are very respectful and understand that I’m there to support my daughter.”
Álvarez and his family spend less time in Mexico these days, because of security concerns, but he still dreams of fighting again in Guadalajara. He made his pro debut at the staggering age of 15 in October 2005 in Tonala, which is just over 10 miles from Guadalajara. Álvarez relives that bout, which he won on a fourth round TKO against an obscure Mexican called Abraham Gonzalez, and he sounds sincere when he describes it as “a great fight.”
He turns 31 in July but Álvarez tells me he wants to box for at least another seven years. When he climbs through the ropes to face WBO boss Billy Joe Saunders in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday night, it will be Álvarez’s 59th fight. He has embraced an old-school thirst for fighting regularly and, should he defeat Saunders, he will aim to unify all the super-middleweight belts by beating Caleb Plant, who holds the IBF strap, in September. That would be his fourth fight in nine months – and we should not forget that Callum Smith, Saunders and Plant are all legitimate and excellent opponents.
Álvarez’s intelligence shines out during our interview. I also see how, before every fight, he hugs family members and his friends as if he might even be preparing to say goodbye. And, after each bout, Álvarez cuts a tender figure when he rocks and kisses his baby daughter. There is simple human evidence here that he is aware of the terrible dangers of boxing – even to a supreme world champion.
When he tells me about his ambition to box for seven more years I point out that this could mean another 15 to 20 bouts against younger men – even if he slows his current work rate to two or three fights a year. Álvarez nods when I ask if he harbours deep concerns about the damage boxing can do to him. “Yes,” he says emphatically, staring straight into our Zoom camera. “It does worry me. I know what boxing does to fighters.”
Álvarez explains in some detail that boxing, which is freighted with such brutal risk, drives him to work so hard in the gym. The rigours of the fight game, and the camaraderie and encouragement of his trainers and friends in the gym, mean that he remains rooted in the bruising realities of boxing. Álvarez, also says, with a light laugh, that he works hard on his defence and on staying out of the way of punches as much as he can.
He is aware that Saunders offers a different kind of threat. Rather than percussive knockout power, Saunders is slippery and awkward in and out of the ring. The British fighter will test him and Álvarez acknowledges that Saunders “is a bit more complicated.” But part of the drive that separates Álvarez from most other fighters is obvious when he stays clear of any criticism of Saunders. Even after I detail some of the appalling stunts Saunders has produced on social media, especially when he has displayed his unacceptable attitude to women on depressing occasions, Álvarez stays studiously aloof. He focuses instead on himself and his trade.
A few weeks after this interview I tried again on a British media call with Álvarez. I asked him if he was concerned that Saunders might try to get under his skin with some erratic and even wild behaviour in fight week. Álvarez shut the possibility down with polite disdain. “He might try to do that, but he won’t achieve it.”
I also asked Álvarez what he had learnt from his solitary defeat – against Floyd Mayweather Jnr in September 2013. “I definitely learnt a lot of lessons, especially how to deal with defeat. I understand that mentality is the most important thing, mindset. I understood also that a defeat is not derailing my main goal, which is to become the best fighter in the world. Sometimes we think we are ready to do certain things when we are not. That applies professionally in other areas of life and it happened that time. But my mind is set on becoming the best fighter in the world. That’s still there.”
As the noise of his San Diego gym escalates and work begins for the day I ask Álvarez if those early years of being bullied still drives his quest for respect – and if he always believed in his rare ability to fight. “I always felt it, ever since I was 15,” he says, leaning forward intently as our interview approaches its end. “The first time I fought as a professional I had a feeling that I was going to be a world champion. I don’t care if people respect me for that or not. I do it because I went into boxing with all my heart and I don’t expect anything back. It’s great that people now say I am the best boxer in the world. But those words don’t change me. I always prepare for the next fight with all my heart. I understand that, even now, nothing is easy. Everything is difficult. It makes me work as hard as always. But that work is easy when you love it. This is how it is for me. I love boxing.”
Álvarez smiles into the screen one last time. “Now, my friend,” he says, “it’s time for me to work again. It’s time for me to do what I love.”