canelo alvarezCanelo Alvarez has the look of a star, but can he handle the pressure of facing Floyd Mayweather? (Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS – Three years ago, a few days before he was to fight in Las Vegas for the first time, Canelo Alvarez was leaning against a wall, talking to a couple of reporters in a gym above an auto repair shop.
Alvarez seemed bored by the proceedings and gave mostly curt answers that revealed little about himself or what he was thinking.
It was easy to look at him and wonder, "This is the sport's next big star?"
Alvarez was then asked if he were ready to fight in Las Vegas, the de facto Boxing Capital of the World. Then, Alvarez finally cracked a hint of a smile.
"Is Las Vegas ready for Canelo?" he asked in response, chuckling.
The city is ready for him now, as he's greeted as if he's a red-headed Elvis everywhere he goes in this city. His fight Saturday against Floyd Mayweather at the MGM Grand Garden for the WBA/WBC super welterweight titles is doing record business.
The gate of nearly $20 million is a record. The pay-per-view sales are projected to be massive, potentially breaking the 2007 record of 2.5 million Mayweather set against Oscar De La Hoya. There will be more closed circuit tickets sold in Las Vegas for the fight than ever before.
More than 500 movie theaters around the country will show the fight and, already, tickets are selling briskly, an almost unbelievable feat given that the vast majority of tickets are usually sold in the moments before the show begins.
As the hype builds to a crescendo, there is only one concern, and that is among a very small group of fans who are desperate to see someone, anyone, finally defeat Mayweather: Is Alvarez ready?
From a business standpoint, he was ready long ago. The fight would have been a mega-promotion if it had been held in 2012 rather than 2013.
But some of the Anyone But Mayweather crowd fear that from a boxing standpoint, Alvarez is being rushed, and that while he may have the potential to be The One, he's not ready yet.
It's a concern not without reason, despite Alvarez's gaudy 42-0-1 record. His record is littered with less-than-formidable opposition. Save for Austin Trout, his last victim, the remainder of his most talented foes were either long over the hill or moving way too far up in weight to have a realistic shot.
Alvarez was just a couple of months past his eighth birthday when Mayweather won his first world title in 1998, and he's now just 23.
Eight months ago, Golden Boy matchmaker Eric Gomez worried that Alvarez wasn't ready to face Austin Trout. Trout is left-handed, a skilled boxer and huge for the weight division.
Gomez, a childhood friend of De La Hoya's who had been trained in the ways of making matches by Hall of Famers Don Chargin and Bruce Trampler, wasn't alone in his reluctance to pit Alvarez against Trout.
Most members of Alvarez's inner circle were similarly concerned. Rather than fighting Trout, they reasoned, put him in against an easier opponent and place him on Mayweather's May undercard, where he'd get more exposure and be at less risk.
Alvarez himself spoke out forcefully, and Gomez said he ultimately was convinced.
"The time is now [to fight Mayweather]," said Gomez, who often serves as Alvarez's interpreter. "It's now or never. He is ready. I was worried about the Trout fight, to be honest with you, and I talked to him about it. I made a couple of points why [he shouldn't take the fight], but he really wanted it and it was clear to me that he just didn't pull the name out of the air.
"He'd thought about it and knew he could beat Trout. He broke it down for me so well. He had it so perfectly thought out."
Alvarez and Gomez sat chatting about what a fight with Trout would look like. Gomez laid out his concerns, of which there were plenty. Trout was big and strong and could take a punch. He was left-handed, which causes veterans problems, let alone developing young fighters.
Trout is slick, Gomez told Alvarez, and has combinations you haven't seen before. Alvarez, though, was undeterred.
"He broke down the fight perfectly," Gomez said. "He was right on the money. He said, 'Eric, I'll do this, I'll do this and I'll do that. And if he does this, I'll do this, this and this.' He said it so matter-of-factly. And that was only the second time in my matchmaking career I had that kind of a talk with a fighter."
In 2008, veteran Shane Mosley pleaded with Gomez for a bout against Antonio Margarito. Mosley was coming off an ugly fight with Ricardo Mayorga, and Gomez didn't like the prospect of a match with Margarito.
But Mosley broke it down and Gomez finally gave in. It would turn out to be one of the signature wins of Mosley's career.
And so, Gomez finally conceded that Alvarez should fight Trout. And when Alvarez beat Trout, Gomez had no hesitation agreeing to send him in against Mayweather.
Alvarez is under no illusions. He's not a 23-year-old dreamer; he's very much a realist and knows how difficult it will be to defeat Mayweather.
Mayweather is one of the great fighters of this, or any, generation, and he's among the best defensive boxers who have ever lived.
Alvarez is aggressive, but he's not a wild brawler in the tradition of so many Mexican fighters. He's cool, calculated and cunning in the ring.
[Related: What does Canelo Alvarez need to do to win?]
He appreciates the nuances in Mayweather's game, and recognizes the difficulties they'll pose for him.
"You know, I've fought with all types of fighters, all styles, but he's different," Alvarez said of Mayweather. "Obviously, he's Floyd Mayweather; he's different. He's a very, very smart fighter. He's very smart [and] that's basically the difference [between him and other guys I've fought]. I've fought guys who are similar, but with Floyd he's very, very smart, so it's different."
Former world champion Paulie Malignaggi, who will be part of Showtime's broadcast crew calling the fight, was impressed by the way Alvarez handled himself against Trout.
That was a fight that could have gone either way – "I wouldn't argue too much with you if you told me you thought Trout won that fight," he says – but Alvarez showed that he could compete with a legitimate world champion in his prime.
The fight with Mayweather was made, Malignaggi believes, because of business demands, but that doesn't mean he is without a chance.
"Canelo is so popular and he sells so much that this fight became inevitable," he said. "His people are going to sell him as the best thing since sliced bread, and that's how it goes in boxing.
"Having said that, this kid is a very good young fighter. He's earned the shot. He's a good body puncher. He's big, and he's going to have a huge size advantage in the fight. This isn't just, 'Show up, collect a check and win,' for Floyd. It's a lot more than that. This fight is a risk [for Mayweather, as well]."
There is plenty of substance to Alvarez's style. He's handled the pressures of training camp brilliantly. He's shown no signs of cracking, or of wilting in the limelight.
If Mayweather wins, it's going to be because Mayweather was simply the better fighter, and not because Alvarez was intimidated or melted down.
His greatest strength may be his mental toughness. He's been a superstar in Mexico since before he was 20 years old.
His former girlfriend is Marisol Gonzalez, a 2003 Miss Universe pageant contestant. Their relationship was gossip fodder for years in Mexico. The couple couldn't go anywhere without being followed by cameras and reporters.
He handled the paparazzi and the prying eyes the same way he's dealt with his boxing career: With a maturity beyond his years and with a cool, clear head.
It's why regardless of what happens Saturday, Gomez will have no regrets.
"This kid is very mature for his age, but really, he's mature for any age," Gomez said. "I've been around him for a while. I see the way he approaches things and handles things. It's the way he answers questions that, a lot of times, gets under a fighter's skin. I see the way he handles that, the way he goes about it. He's impressed me.
"There have been many opportunities during this promotion for Floyd to get under his skin or into his head, and I've been there and see it up close, and it hasn't worked. It just hasn't worked. This kid is a stone-cold killer, and very few fighters have that."
The answers will be known in a few short days, but the answer to one lingering question is clear: Canelo Alvarez is plenty ready for Vegas. And judging by the crowds and the response, Las Vegas is ready for him, too.