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Canelo Alvarez was on top of the world a year ago, his standing in the fight game poised to hit the stratosphere.
He had begun 2019 by defeating Daniel Jacobs to unify three middleweight titles. And his encore was jumping two weight classes to knock out Sergey Kovalev to become a light heavyweight titlist. It was a year of mounting achievement, not unlike the years that had preceded it, years that had seen the redhead out of Jalisco, Mexico, win world titles in four weight classes.
At the dawning of 2020, momentum was in high gear and revving, and the expectations laid at Alvarez’s feet had even taken on a tangible form. In late 2018, he signed a monumental deal to make the streaming service DAZN his broadcast partner for 11 fights. He now was three fights into a contract worth $365 million, making him not just boxing’s biggest star but its richest one. The sky was the limit.
Yet when Alvarez (53-1-2) steps into the ring to face Callum Smith on Saturday in San Antonio (8 p.m., DAZN), it will be his first boxing match of 2020. Not his first fight, though.
“Obviously, it’s been very difficult,” Alvarez, 30, told ESPN last week through an interpreter. “It’s very difficult. Many things have happened, things that happen in life.”
These are words that could be spoken by many in 2020, but for Alvarez, the difficulties haven’t all had to do with COVID-19. Alvarez’s fights so far this year have taken place not in a boxing ring but in a courthouse. In September, he filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that DAZN and his longtime promoter, Golden Boy Promotions, were not living up to the 2018 agreement.
The parties reached a resolution last month to dissolve the deal, and days later the Alvarez team announced the bout against Smith, 30, of Liverpool, England. Like Alvarez, Smith (27-0) owns a version of the WBA’s impossible-to-keep-track-of multiheaded super middleweight title.
“He’s an important fighter,” Alvarez said. “He’s a strong fighter, smart. We’re going to continue moving forward and close the year with a big bang.”
Canelo Alvarez, left, hasn’t fought since he stopped Sergey Kovalev to capture the WBO light heavyweight title in November 2019. Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports
The “moving forward” declaration is part fight strategy and part business plan. Alvarez is now a free agent, not beholden to a single promoter, able to guide his career as he sees fit.
“Fortunately, we are moving forward now and following our dreams,” Alvarez said. “That is why I became a free agent — to be able to do [my] own thing, working with different promoters.”
It’s a career trail that was blazed by Floyd Mayweather and is available only to those rare fighters with the sway to sell themselves. Mayweather was great at it, and even in retirement, remains so. Alvarez is a quiet man who lets his fists do the talking, and how that sells is an open question.
Perhaps because of that innate difference between him and Mayweather, or maybe just because of his own tight-lipped nature, Alvarez stops short of characterizing his old rival as a role model. “I am going to follow what we are doing,” he said. “Our dreams are here.”
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If those dreams include fantasy matchups, Alvarez is not saying. Just as he did not name Mayweather as a model for his business plan, he has no names to offer when talking about his future inside the ring. No names other than the one right in front of him, Callum Smith.
“Obviously, my short-term goal is to unify the titles at 168 pounds,” Alvarez said. “With everything that happened, I think this is the best fight that could happen.”
One name that Alvarez does not bring up is that of a legendary boxer he has been tied to for a decade: eight-time world champion Oscar De La Hoya, chairman and CEO of Golden Boy Promotions. Their split was not pretty, with icy interactions becoming the norm as the business relationship soured. Now that it is over, though, Alvarez is making it a point not to dwell on the past.
“Well, look, I have nothing really to say here,” he said of De La Hoya. “The last year, we were just not seeing eye to eye, we were not working well together. But before that, we had great years together. And I don’t wish him ill. I wish him the best. And that is it.”
Max Kellerman is curious about Canelo Alvarez’s next partnership after it was announced Alvarez was released from his contract with Golden Boy.
The closest Alvarez came to revealing the disillusionment that accompanied his disconnect with his former promoter — who wasn’t just any boxing businessman but also a legend of the ring — was when he addressed his own dual role as a fighter and promoter. For a decade, Alvarez has headed Canelo Promotions, which works with young fighters in Mexico.
“We are here to help them, to be there for their best interests,” he said.
And if the time comes when the interests of the fighter differ from the interests of the promoter?
“Obviously, if they’re not happy, if they’re not content with anything that we’re doing with them, let them go,” Alvarez said. “We are here to help them become what they are to become, but not keep them if they’re not happy with us.”
Of course, Alvarez the promoter does not have anyone under contract whose status in the sport rises anywhere near the level of Alvarez the fighter. Perhaps his future will take him to that crossroads. As Alvarez takes the reins of his own fight career and continues to run his promotional company, there will be lessons for him to learn about the boxing business.
“The last year, we were just not seeing eye to eye, we were not working well together. But before that, we had great years together. And I don’t wish him ill. I wish him the best. And that is it.”
Canelo Alvarez on Oscar De La Hoya, chairman and CEO of Golden Boy Promotions
One recent business development — a lucrative one — that Alvarez does not favor in boxing: spectacle bouts featuring celebrities. He was among the millions who tuned in three weeks ago and watched YouTuber Jake Paul knock out former NBA star Nate Robinson, and he did not like what he saw.
“I don’t know why the [state athletic] commission would grant them a license when this is not what they do, like the basketball player that’s never done it,” Alvarez said. “Why would they give him a license? He could get hurt while doing that. We’ve seen it happen.”
Why was he watching, then?
Alvarez was tuned in to the pay-per-view for that night’s main event, the return to the ring of champions Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. Both men are in their 50s, yet Alvarez came away from their fight unabashedly awed, particularly by Tyson. Although Jones had competed as recently as 2018, Iron Mike had been collecting rust for 15 years. That a fighter could perform as he did following such an extended inactivity was fascinating to Alvarez.
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“Such a legend, Tyson — it’s great to see,” Alvarez said. “His biggest fight was the fight against himself, being able to get in the ring and do what he does.”
Twenty years from now, Alvarez was asked, might we be talking about a return to the ring by a 50-year-old Canelo?
There was a pause as Alvarez pondered such a future, and then a not-so-emphatic “We’ll see.”
The future has so many possibilities when it is fully under one’s own control. That future starts this weekend, when Alvarez seeks to add another title belt to his trophy case. How he performs against Smith will be the first trending signal in over a year, indicating the trajectory of the Canelo business headed into 2021.