Mexico’s most promising young boxer has a shock of unruly red hair and pale skin. Freckles are strewn across his prominent chin and thick shoulders.
Yet Saul Alvarez doesn’t look a bit out of place in Los Angeles’ downtown Placita Olvera, where fans gathered earlier this week at a public workout to catch a glimpse of the 20-year-old welterweight better known as Canelo – the Spanish word for cinnamon.
”He’s already a rock star with Mexicans,” said promoter Oscar De La Hoya, no stranger to young celebrity himself. ”If he wins Saturday, the same thing is going to start happening all over the world for Canelo. I think he’ll become a man on Saturday. He could be the next big thing in the sport for the next 10 years.”
Alvarez (33-0-1, 25 KOs) faces the biggest test of his career Saturday night against 39-year-old Carlos Baldomir at Staples Center in the main undercard bout before Sugar Shane Mosley’s fight with Sergio Mora. Although Mosley is a Pomona native with a strong Southern California following, the promoters think Alvarez just might be the biggest draw on the card – a remarkable achievement for a boxer with just three previous U.S. fights.
Alvarez’s distinctive appearance, right down to his thin red sideburns, is only part of his appeal. He loves the brawling style of Mexico’s most beloved fighters, and his Latino fan base has embraced him both as a boxer and a heartthrob, with television ratings for his fights approaching the Mexican national soccer team’s numbers.
Alvarez turned pro at 15, hit his stride with seven consecutive knockout victories in 2008-09, and signed with Golden Boy Promotions last January. He’s even in a high-profile relationship with Marisol Gonzalez, a television reporter and former Miss Universe contestant who’s seven years older than him.
Yet conquering Mexico as a teenager still wasn’t nearly enough for Alvarez, whose ambition has grown along with his talent.
”I always thought in my dreams about being the main event, not the undercard,” Alvarez said through a translator, although his English is improving in lessons with a private instructor. ”Since I was 15 years old, I dreamed even bigger than this fight. I want to get there soon. I want to be a world champion as soon as I can.”
Alvarez has Irish ancestry somewhere in his family tree – his mother also has red hair – but was born and raised around Guadalajara. His father is a horse trainer who now owns ice cream parlors, and his youngest son is an avid horseman who looks great in a cowboy hat – just one more reason for his millions of female Mexican fans to swoon.
”The girls love seeing him on a horse, love it,” De La Hoya said with a laugh.
Even before Alvarez signed with Golden Boy, he was a star on Mexico’s Televisa network in fight cards built around him – an unheard-of honor for a teenager with no world titles. Fans can’t get enough of their redheaded adopted son.
Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer says Alvarez drew 60 million viewers for his most recent fights on Televisa, rivaling the audience for Mexico’s World Cup matches.
”He’s really the Mexican James Dean, but hopefully without the car crash,” Schaefer said. ”He’s handling it all quite well, but I hope he’s totally focused on this fight. We’re putting him in with a guy who has an iron chin and an iron head. I’m a bit worried it might be too much for him, and I did express that internally.”
Baldomir is an imposing opponent for Alvarez, even though the Argentine has fought just twice in the past 34 months. The 39-year-old fighter has beaten Joshua Clottey, Zab Judah and Arturo Gatti, and he stretched the skills of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Vernon Forrest.
Baldomir’s second pro fight was the day before Alvarez’s third birthday, and the veteran sounds unusually confident he can exploit holes in Canelo’s hard-charging style. Jose Miguel Cotto knocked down Alvarez in the first round of their meeting last May before Alvarez rallied for a ninth-round stoppage.
Since signing Alvarez, De La Hoya has counseled him on the dangers of early fame. The Golden Boy rocketed to prominence as a 19-year-old gold medalist in the Barcelona Olympics, but hit several pitfalls during a stellar pro career.
”I tell him that the more you have, the more humble you have to become,” De La Hoya said. ”There is maybe going to be a stage when he buys the cars, when he gets the clothes, the girls, the fame, everything. When you’re a kid at that age, you almost expect it, because you’ve been thinking about it for so long. But if he can understand what’s really important and grow out of that sooner rather than later, he can really be a powerhouse in this sport.”