There's something different about Canelo Alvarez ahead of Sergey Kovalev clash

Kevin IoleCombat columnist

LAS VEGAS — Superficially, everything was so familiar, yet to those who know, they were actually so different. The car pulled up to the entrance of the MGM Grand and Canelo Alvarez slipped out and headed toward a ring in the hotel lobby where several hundred fans chanted his name.

A phalanx of television cameras awaited him. In a room off the lobby, a small knot of reporters waited to question him about his challenge of Sergey Kovalev for the WBO light heavyweight title on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden.

He’s made this walk, heard these roars, done these interviews for years now. It’s old hat to the 29-year-old superstar.

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A win over Kovalev would give him a championship in a fourth weight class, making him one of only 20 men in boxing history to pull that off.

“It means a lot to me,” Alvarez said via interpreter Vivien Nichols. “… It’s a huge accomplishment that not a lot of people have done.”

If he wins, he’ll join three Hall of Famers — Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Mike McCallum — as the only one-time super welterweight champions to go on to capture a light heavyweight title.

Given that the next division up (cruiserweight) is 25 pounds north of light heavyweight, there will be no fifth championship no matter how he fares against Kovalev.

“Probably not,” he said, chuckling.

Nichols’ presence was part of what is so different about Alvarez. In the past, he’s primarily used Golden Boy matchmaker Roberto Diaz to interpret for him. Sometimes he used Golden Boy publicists Ramiro Gonzalez or Gabriel Rivas, and at other times it was handled by Golden Boy president Eric Gomez or CEO Oscar De La Hoya.

But it’s no secret within boxing circles that Alvarez and De La Hoya are at odds. De La Hoya did not show Tuesday, and it was no coincidence. The Athletic’s Mike Coppinger broke down the news in an excellent deep dive on Wednesday, but the essence of the story is that Alvarez is firmly wresting control of his career.

No one at Golden Boy speaks for him any more. No one at Golden Boy makes decisions on his behalf. Alvarez is the captain of the ship and he’ll sink or swim with his decisions. What he finally decided he won’t do is fail by doing what someone else told him to do.

Canelo Alvarez motions to the crowd Tuesday during a ceremonial arrival for his upcoming boxing match in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Canelo Alvarez motions to the crowd Tuesday during a ceremonial arrival for his upcoming boxing match in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Fourteen years to the day earlier, Alvarez was 15 years old and made his pro debut in Tonala, Mexico, when he stopped Abraham Gonzalez in the fourth round of a super lightweight bout for which Alvarez weighed 139 pounds.

Never did he dream that he’d be the biggest star in the sport or that he’d make generational wealth from his boxing career. His only goal that day was to somehow get the same respect that was shown toward Oscar Larios, a world champion at the time who trained in his gym.

“I saw how everyone was with him and that’s what I wanted for myself one day,” Alvarez said.

He’s now grossed over $500 million in his career and could get to the billion-dollar mark someday if he fights long enough.

He’s a winner not because he’s 52-1-2 with 35 knockouts and wins over a slew of elite opponents. He’s beaten Gennadiy Golovkin, Shane Mosley and Miguel Cotto, each of whom is likely to be elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame one day, as well as top-tier fighters like Austin Trout, Daniel Jacobs, Liam Smith, Amir Khan, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Erislandy Lara.

He’s a winner regardless of the outcome of the Kovalev fight because he’s won the game. Boxing is a like a lottery ticket for a lot of poor kids from the wrong side of the tracks who have little hope of succeeding otherwise. They can put in and put in and put in and wind up with nothing to show for it. Every now and then, though, there’s someone like Alvarez, who works the system to his advantage and cashes that winning PowerBall check.

Just earning the money in the first place is hard enough, but boxing history documents so well how difficult it is for them to keep it. Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson burned through $300 million before going bankrupt; with Evander Holyfield, it was a bit more than $200 million.

Alvarez has kept his money and has set his children’s grandchildren up for future success. That is beating the system.

Sergey Kovalev walks through the crowd during his arrival Tuesday. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Sergey Kovalev walks through the crowd during his arrival Tuesday. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Canelo Alvarez and Co. won’t be caught off guard by Kovalev

Beating Kovalev is another matter. Kovalev is 36 and perceived to be on the back side of his career. Though Alvarez is smaller, he’s a huge minus-500 favorite to win at the MGM Grand Sports Book.

Kovalev, though, is on something of a career resurgence after a shocking 2018 loss to Eleider Alvarez (no relation). Kovalev blamed many of his problems as a pro on a lack of good training, and dismissed his ex-trainer, John David Jackson, as a man who did nothing for him other than hold the mitts.

Kovalev has a video on his phone of an amateur fight in which he was a stylistic boxer, and he’s attempting to go back to that to prepare for Saturday’s bout.

“If he does what I know he can do, he’s going to surprise a lot of people,” trainer Buddy McGirt said of Kovalev. “Not me. He’s not going to surprise me because I know he’s going to win the fight. But I know in my heart if he does what I know he can do and he puts it all together Saturday, which I know he will do, everybody is going to be in for a shock.”

Count on this, though: Fans may be shocked. Media may be shocked. People at Golden Boy, or within the boxing industry at large, may be shocked by what Kovalev can do.

The three people, though, who guaranteed they won’t be shocked if Kovalev looks and boxes great are Alvarez and his trainers, Eddy and Chepo Reynoso.

“The thing Canelo does is he covers all the details,” Eddy Reynoso said. “He thinks of everything and we prepare him for that. He’s never surprised.”

And so it really wasn’t much of a surprise that Alvarez showed up Tuesday without the Golden Boy brass getting into the picture frames and fawning all over him.

He long ago vowed he would be the one to make the decisions and when he felt things weren’t going the way he envisioned them, he stepped up.

Golden Boy’s existence is tied directly to Alvarez; without him, it’s largely insignificant in the wider boxing landscape.

Alvarez is a winner, but he’s one of the rare fighters who doesn’t score all of his wins inside the ropes. He’s gotten plenty of them outside, as well.

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