LAS VEGAS – It's one of the sad realities of boxing in the early 21st century that holding a major world title isn't necessarily an indicator of a fighter's ability.
Politics play into what happens with sanctioning body titles as much as punching power.
Canelo Alvarez is Exhibit 1-A of this boxing oddity. Can he fight – really fight – at the sport's highest level? Who knows? The 21-year-old Mexican still has much to prove and many skeptics to convince.
Alvarez, though, holds the World Boxing Council's super welterweight title. He's looked great man-handling second-rate opposition or one-time first-class fighters who had seen better days.
But the belt he wears around his waist is among the sport's most prestigious and has been conferred upon some of its biggest stars since it was created in 1963. It's the belt that Oscar De La Hoya wore on two occasions. It's also been around the waist of guys like Floyd Mayweather Jr., Manny Pacquiao, Thomas Hearns, Wilfred Benitez, Nino Benvenuti and Shane Mosley.
Alvarez will make the fourth defense of his title on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden when he meets the 40-year-old Mosley. The fight will serve as the primary undercard bout of the HBO Pay-Per-View show that features Mayweather against Miguel Cotto.
De La Hoya, now Alvarez's promoter and his loudest proponent, admits that Alvarez still has much to prove.
"I still have those questions, absolutely," De La Hoya said. "Every time I question him, though, he proves me wrong. Every opponent I face him with, I expect good performance from him and he gives a great performance. The fact that at 21 years old, when he's still growing, still maturing, still learning, he has won a world title and done what he has done is incredible. He still isn't totally there yet, but I believe he will get there."
Alvarez is confident without being cocky, and it's what has helped him become one of the sport's most popular fighters even before he's had anything approaching a career-defining fight.
The Mosley fight could be, though Mosley is 40 years old and coming off a series of horrendous performances.
De La Hoya predicts an Alvarez knockout, and Alvarez doesn't shy away from that kind of talk.
"Shane Mosley is a very seasoned fighter, and I'm preparing for the best Mosley," Alvarez said after a workout at the IBA Gym in Las Vegas. "I have to be at my best. I think I need to look good winning, but I know everything there is to know about Mosley."
That's the confidence of youth talking, and not a wise champion who understands that every opponent is a risk.
Many great fighters, including many much more talented than Alvarez, have learned the hard way that boxing is very unforgiving for unprepared champions.
Mosley knows Saturday's bout figures to be his last shot. Since his dominant win over Antonio Margarito in Los Angeles on Jan. 24, 2009, Mosley has looked every one of his years and not like the fast, powerful man he once was.
He fought to an uninspiring draw against Sergio Mora and then was routed in 12-round decisions by Mayweather and Pacquiao.
He is desperate to keep his career going and says that, for the first time since that Margarito bout, he's healthy.
In a bid to explain his listless effort against Pacquiao, he leans down and pulls up his pant leg to show a long scar. He had surgery to repair a ruptured left Achilles tendon he suffered while playing basketball. He fought Pacquiao four months later. As an example of how long it normally takes an Achilles to heal, Pro Bowl defensive end Terrell Suggs ruptured his Achilles this week and is expected to miss the entire 2012 NFL season.
"The bad fight with Pacquiao was because of this right here, just so everybody knows," Mosley said, pointing to his left leg. "It happened in January and I fought him in May. I really shouldn't have been walking."
Mosley went on to speak at length about his health. He was seriously injured before he fought Mayweather, he said, having hurt himself in a snowboarding accident. But he said he's regained his health and his speed is better than it has been in years.
"I'm definitely faster now than when I fought Mayweather," Mosley said.
If that's true, it's yet another challenge for the 21-year-old Alvarez to overcome in his bid to prove he belongs at the Mayweather-Pacquiao-De La Hoya-Mosley level.
His manager/trainer, Chapo Reynoso, called Alvarez's progression in the gym "extraordinary."
De La Hoya is confident that the physical skills required for stardom are there. The question, he said, is whether Alvarez can handle the mental hurdles required to not only defeat a legend, but to compete at boxing's highest level.
"When I faced Julio Cesar Chavez [in 1996], I knew I had the better skills at that point," De La Hoya said. "But there was a mental hurdle I had to overcome. His ré sum é was impeccable. He had been the champion for so long. I grew up watching him. He was an idol to millions of people. That created a huge mental challenge for me, and it's something every fighter looking to move up to that next step has to overcome.
"I knew I had the physical skills, but when you're in that ring against a legend, against a future Hall of Famer, you know you're going to see things you haven't seen, angles and different tricks of the trade. I had to deal with that and that's what Canelo is facing now."
If it's bothering Alvarez, he's not showing it. He knows how to handle being a star – having his every move scrutinized.
Now, though, it's time for him to prove he is really a champion.
It's the classic boxing scenario of a young star on the rise meeting a veteran looking to hang on for another payday or two.
If Alvarez is, as De La Hoya believes, the real deal, things could be ugly in a hurry for Mosley.
Alvarez, though, now needs to go out and do it.
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