From THE RING Magazine: Mexican Idol – Next Generation
COTTO VS. ALVAREZ
MEXICAN IDOL: NEXT GENERATION
CANELO ALVAREZ’S MIX OF TECHNIQUE AND TENACITY COULD DISPEL THE STEREOTYPE OF MEXICAN BOXERS
Scars around the eyes, across the forehead and along the chin have defined the face of Mexican boxing for about as long as anybody can remember. That face is a stereotype but it’s always there, like jagged evidence of an old wound.
It’s a durable remnant, Purple Heart proof of having been there. Each scar is another stripe, worn like chevrons on the khaki sleeves of combat vets who know how to fight because they endured. Survived.
If they won, they won because they were tougher. It’s an admirable ethic. Almost heroic. But that’s why it’s a myth, too. Tough without technique isn’t much more than a good radial tire.
But nothing gets more mileage than a stereotype and the brawler has long been the face of Mexican boxing. It still is, despite a long history of brilliant technicians like Ricardo Lopez, Juan Manuel Marquez and Miguel Canto.
If Canelo Alvarez beats Miguel Cotto on Nov. 21 in a renewal of the Mexican-Puerto Rican rivalry, he becomes the new face of Mexican boxing. But what would that new face look like?
“I think Mexican boxers have been evolving,” says Mauricio Salvador, a versatile Mexico City journalist and author who edits the magazine Esquina Boxeo.
Salvador mentions Marquez, Lopez and Erik Morales as recent examples of Mexican fighters who have executed the trade with an improved level of technical proficiency. He foresees a chance for more of the same from Canelo, the popular Mexican redhead who still has more freckles than scars.
“Canelo, I think, embodies, as Marquez or Morales, a fighter with good fundamentals and some very Mexican tendencies such as going to the body and showing an eagerness to trade in a war, if necessary,” Salvador said.
Canelo might need an effective fusion of old and new against the clever and ever-resilient Cotto, a Puerto Rican who has re-invented himself again and again over the last couple of years.
But not everybody is convinced there’s a transformation, or even a trend underway in Mexican boxing. The brawler and technician have always been there, side by side.
The reigning example of a great technician was Canto, says Rafael Mendoza, who has been watching Mexican boxing for the last six decades as a writer, journalist, editor, adviser and manager. From 1969 through 1982, Mendoza watched the skillful Canto become one of the best flyweights of the 20th century.
“What Floyd Mayweather Jr. is doing today, Canto did and did better,” said Mendoza, who lives in Guadalajara and was part of Canelo’s management before the fighter signed with Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions.
Canto mastered boxing’s technical side in large part because television wasn’t a factor in his day, says Mendoza, who argues that the networks are the game’s de facto matchmakers these days. They underwrite the big fights. They only buy what they want. And, Mendoza says, they want knockdowns, knockouts and lots of action.
“HBO wants a fight with a lot of punches,” Mendoza said. “The more, the better. You could land one or could land 20. As long as you throw a lot of punches, HBO will be happy. That’s what they’re going for in this fight.
“That’s fine. I understand. But that kind of emphasis takes away some of the technical skill that we saw in Canto or Sugar Ray Robinson or Willie Pep.”
Mendoza says Canto’s technical brilliance was overshadowed, first by bantamweight and featherweight great Ruben Olivares (1965-1988) and then by Julio Cesar Chavez, who from 1980 through 2005 forged a career at junior lightweight, lightweight and junior welterweight that is Mexico’s version of TBE – The Best Ever.
“Olivares’ technical skill was good enough but mostly he had the best chin I’ve ever seen in boxing,” said Mendoza, who also managed and advised Marquez and Humberto “Chiquita” Gonzalez among other Mexican legends. “Chavez was also a pretty good technician but mostly he just had all of these great physical gifts. He had long arms, very heavy hands, great durability and everything else he needed to fight for so long at such a high level.”
Canto’s technical skill probably would have been overshadowed anyway, Mendoza said. At 112 pounds, he fought at a weight often overlooked. Besides, average fans have never appreciated technical skill, which is another way of saying it’s not the best way to get paid. Mayweather, history’s highest-earning athlete in any sport, is the notable exception.
Until Mayweather, technique just didn’t sell, even if it won. Even De La Hoya can attest to that. In the middle of his Hall of Fame career, he hired Jesus Rivero, Canto’s former trainer and reputed guru in defensive tactics. Rivero liked to talk about Pep, perhaps the greatest defensive fighter of all time.
“Pep really wasn’t all that popular when he was fighting,” Mendoza said. “Years later, the fans forgave him, I think, because he was such an innovator.”
But De La Hoya wasn’t going to wait around for that kind of delayed gratification. Boxing is about getting paid. The customers didn’t want to see De La Hoya elude punches so much as they wanted to see him take one or two punches to throw one. They wanted to see some of the Mexican stereotype in De La Hoya and – to a degree – he obliged. In a victory over Miguel Angel Gonzalez, De La Hoya showed off a bruise beneath one eye and said it showed that he, too, could be a Mexican warrior.
“Knockouts, not technique,” said Mendoza, an aficionado of the technical art but also a realist about the business. “You make money by scoring knockouts. You make money by getting knocked out, too.”
Canelo, he says, has the capacity to be a good technical fighter but knows what the fans want to see. And he isn’t the first Mexican fighter to emphasize entertainment over technique.
Mendoza was in Humberto Gonzalez’s corner during the 1990s for all three fights in the junior flyweight trilogy with Michael Carbajal, an Olympic silver medalist from Phoenix. Carbajal won the first bout in 1993 by getting up twice to score a dramatic seventh-round stoppage in THE RING’s Fight of the Year. Gonzalez allowed himself to get into a brawl with Carbajal, a good boxer, yet by nature a brawler with unusual power.
In the two rematches – first at The Forum in Los Angeles and then in a Mexico City bullring – Gonzalez did what few believed he could do, especially in front of Mexican fans. Carbajal was convinced Gonzalez would be forced into a debilitating brawl. Mexican fans would accept nothing else. Carbajal, a Mexican-American, believed the Mexican stereotype. But Gonzalez surprised him, not once but twice. He boxed, carefully and with stubborn discipline throughout each of the 12 rounds, winning a split decision in Los Angeles and majority decision in Mexico City.
“Chiquita was a very, very good technician,” Mendoza said. “I don’t think Carbajal knew that at the time. I think he thought Chiquita would be like that Mexican stereotype. That he would brawl. But he could really box. It’s just that he, like so many other guys then and now, thought he could get the job done with a quick knockout, mostly because he had been winning with early knockouts.”
Gonzalez learned the thinking-man’s side of the scarred game at trainer Nacho Beristain’s Romanza Gym in Mexico City alongside Lopez, Daniel Zaragoza and Marquez, whose right-hand knockout of Manny Pacquiao serves as an exclamation point on the list of brilliant technicians and perhaps represents a milestone in how much the Mexicans have evolved. Romanza is where many believe Mexican boxing began to move away from the stereotype.
“Mexican boxers have been evolving to more rounded, technical ones ever since (Salvador) Sanchez, and even more when Nacho Beristain took Mexican boxing into his hands,” Mauricio Salvador said. “Ricardo Lopez and Juan Manuel Marquez are the best examples of this.
“Right now, it is not that rare that Mexican boxers are technically efficient instead of just brawlers or punchers. Sure, you have your (Orlando) Salidos, (Giovani) Seguras and (Jorge) Arces but also your (Juan Francisco) Estradas, (Gilberto) Ramirez and (Oscar) Valdez.”
But it’s still not clear how Canelo fits into the theory, if at all. Beristain has never trained him. He lost a majority decision to Mayweather in 2013 that – despite the scorecards – was so one-sided that it left doubts about his corner, trainer Eddie Reynoso and manager Chepo Reynoso.
The 25-year-old Canelo has been with both since the beginning. But Mendoza split with Canelo because he says he did not believe the Reynoso team had the experience to get Canelo through the adversity he faced against Mayweather and might encounter against Cotto.
“The Reynosos are very, very nice people,” Mendoza said. “But against Mayweather, you could see that they didn’t know what to do.
“Canelo is very loyal. I think he learned then that he’s just going to have to figure some things out on his own. We’ll see.”
Salvador has some of the same concerns.
“At 25, he is already an experienced fighter and even when he has suffered from stamina issues, experience can take a boxer to another level,” he said. “My main concern is not him but his corner because I don’t think Reynoso can teach new things to Canelo.
“You can see that, in some fights, his corner has been really of no use. But they are very close so I think fighter and trainers are experiencing the same learning curve.”
It’s hard to know if that curve will include a turn that will take Canelo down a career path he hasn’t foreseen and doesn’t want. He conceded that the Mayweather loss was a tough lesson.
“I’m a more complete fighter,” he said at media stops in Los Angeles, Mexico City and New York after the bout was formally announced. “I’m more mature.”
He also seems to understand that he is poised to reach a new level, one that will generate comparisons to the Mexican legends. There will probably never be another Julio Cesar Chavez, just as surely as there’ll never be another Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali.
“Yes, Canelo is the best-positioned fighter for being the next great Mexican fighter, just as Sanchez, Chavez, Barrera, Morales and Marquez were before him,” Salvador said. “At first labeled as a marketing product, mainly because of his involvement with Televisa, his recent moves have shown bravado and a confidence in himself.
“There are other very good Mexican fighters but none with the appeal of Canelo. More interesting, Canelo would be in position to gain the middleweight crown from Cotto and that is, I think, a huge achievement for Mexican boxing.”
An achievement big enough perhaps to finally replace that old stereotype with a new, unscarred face.