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Canelo Alvarez: Cultural Phenom Rises, Questions Remain

Canelo Alvarez has a lot left to learn, but has become one of boxing's biggest stars at age 21. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Canelo Alvarez has a lot left to learn, but has become one of boxing's biggest stars at age 21. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

For 21-year-old Saul Alvarez, better known now and forever more as Canelo Alvarez, it has been a whirlwind couple of years. He's gone from hot young Mexican prospect ("You know, the kid with the red hair") to featured Golden Boy star, multiple-time HBO main eventer, and one of the most popular fighters on the planet. On the last count, nearly 30 million in Mexico watched his fight with Matthew Hatton in March.

That's a lot, if you're wondering. And his U.S. TV numbers and gate appeal has gotten pretty decent, too.

But what has he really done? I was talking about Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr on Twitter yesterday, and the point was made that the pair of them, though handled somewhat differently, are in the same boat: They've both become so "overrated" that at this point, they're "underrated."

There are people out there who would have you believe that these guys are a pair of Mexican Tyrone Brunsons or Victor Oganovs. In more realistic terms, they've both got a lot to prove, but Alvarez has fought a very tough schedule for his age (a lot tougher than Beibut Shumenov, who gets all kinds of props), and Chavez has made some steady improvements under the care of Freddie Roach.

Plus, they both come to fight. But backlash was inevitable. Chavez because of the nepotism angle, Alvarez because he's so heavily hyped.

So what has Alvarez really done? Let's be fair and look back on the rise of Canelo, dating back to his first major U.S. TV appearance in 2010, and see if he's grown, if he's regressed, if he's stagnated, and what we can really expect right now, given how many good looks we've gotten from the young star.

May 1, 2010: Jose Miguel Cotto

Alvarez stopped Cotto in the ninth round of his co-feature fight on the Mayweather vs Mosley card, and turned a lot of heads. When I did radio spots the week after the show, everyone asked about this "Canelo" kid, the 19-year-old dynamo who had faced a little adversity early, but came back and closed the show in impressive fashion.

Cotto was a decent test, but no doubt undersized and not there to win -- or, well, he wasn't signed up to win. Cotto did come to fight, and didn't roll over.

July 10, 2010: Luciano Cuello

This is the last fight Alvarez had that was not carried by HBO in some capacity. Cuello had given Chavez Jr a really stiff test in March 2009, but Alvarez steamrolled through him with no trouble whatsoever, physically overwhelming the Argentinean-born fighter. It was no contest, and Alvarez was quite impressive in this fight.

September 18, 2010: Carlos Baldomir

Baldomir was older than dirt for this fight, and he had looked it in recent outings. But he was presented as Former Welterweight World Champion Carlos Baldomir. This was the co-feature to the dreadful Mosley vs Mora main event in Los Angeles, and most of the crowd clearly came to see Canelo, who drew by far the biggest reaction of the night and may have wound up the only reason anyone went home happy. Baldomir had nothing in the tank, but Canelo did what he was supposed to do by becoming the first man in over 16 years to stop the iron-chinned veteran.

December 4, 2010: Lovemore N'dou

N'dou had more left than Baldomir, and he proved it by lasting the full 12 with Alvarez. This was the first fight where you could see some frustration from Canelo, who wanted to put on a good show but was stifled a little bit by the still durable N'dou, who despite being a natural junior welterweight fighting at 150 pounds for this one, was able to avoid taking much significant damage. Alvarez controlled the fight and easily won, but he didn't wow anyone. N'dou didn't let him.

March 5, 2011: Matthew Hatton

Though this fight was perfectly decent to watch, it still sticks in my craw as a major sham that the WBC allowed to happen. For one thing, Matthew Hatton had zero business fighting for a vacant 154-pound title. He was the European welterweight champ coming in. Second, the contracted 150-pound catchweight wasn't met by Alvarez, which is the biggest problem, as the WBC allowed the vacant belt to go to him with the near-shutout decision win anyway. If the fight had a normal 154-pound limit for the 154-pound belt, and Alvarez couldn't make weight, they wouldn't have let him take the belt. But I guess since he was still under 154 (he weighed in at 151.5), they just chose to ignore it. I mean, oh well!

June 18, 2011: Ryan Rhodes

Rhodes was supposed to be a slick, semi-dangerous veteran opponent. But he wasn't. It was clear early that he wasn't physically strong enough to deal with Alvarez, who bullied him and beat him up when he got the chances to unload. Rhodes was stopped in the 12th. I thought this was a terrific performance from Alvarez, who was cool, calm, and collected, and put his punches together beautifully on the timid Rhodes.

September 17, 2011: Alfonso Gomez

Now this is a fight that really intrigues me. Yeah, the stoppage was early, but Alvarez was almost surely going to win and probably was going to get him out sooner than later anyway. But what I found a little bit fascinating was the fact that it was the first sign of arrogance and true ego from Canelo, who frankly dicked around in the early stages of this fight, working on some bastardized form of the James Toney shoulder roll that absolutely did not suit him at all. Toney, and Floyd Mayweather who also uses a shoulder roll defense, got away with that because both had fast hands, incredible ring IQ, and they had seriously dedicated themselves to the style. Alvarez was out there just fooling with it and it didn't work. Gomez was able to do some good work and was in the fight, despite going down in round one and being way behind on the scorecards.

It was a sign of disrespect, I think, from Alvarez. Follow that up with his involvement in the Ulises Solis attack down in Mexico recently, and I think you can see little personality cracks starting to show.

I always say you shouldn't forget that Alvarez is still a 21-year-old for two reasons:

  1. When you're honest about it, it makes his level of competition look at least understandable, and in my opinion, fairly impressive.
  2. We really don't know how he's going to handle a few things, like stardom, adversity, and an inevitable first loss. You never know with fighters until the pressure is on, in and out of the ring.

If Alvarez disrespects Kermit Cintron the way he did Gomez, that could be trouble. I think Cintron's always had an overrated punch, but he's definitely a harder hitter than Gomez, and if he can catch Alvarez the way Gomez did a few times, he could do actual damage.

The future still has a lot to hold for young Canelo -- whether that's a continued climb into megastardom, a collapse, or simply a plateauing of his value and his skills relative to his competition, we'll find out. 2012 could be the pivotal year for him, if he gets through his final fight of 2011.

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