“I love this,” Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez says as he looks around the scattered debris of his gym in San Diego. His intense gaze scans the heavy bags and speed balls, the hand wraps and water bottles, the gloves and head guards, with an empty ring at its very heart. It’s just after 10 in the morning and the familiar clatter and din of his training camp has already begun for the day. Álvarez, the best boxer in the world, turns back to my Zoom screen and then, leaning forward, he speaks in Spanish with surprising ardour for a 30-year-old fighter who has been boxing professionally for more than half his life: “I love it. I’m always motivated because I love boxing.”
It’s strangely moving as we reach the core of a rare one-to-one interview with Álvarez and he switches back to English to say two simple yet compelling sentences. “This is the reality of my life. No boxing, no life.”
After 58 fights, and just one defeat against Floyd Mayweather when Álvarez was 23 years old, the Mexican is chasing a new form of domination. He has won world titles at four weights – from junior-middleweight all the way to light-heavyweight – and on Saturday night, in front of a 70,000 crowd, he aims to take the WBO super-middleweight belt from Britain’s unbeaten Billy Joe Saunders in Arlington, Texas. Álvarez is the WBA and WBC title-holder and, after Saunders, his next objective is to become one of boxing’s rare unified champions by winning the IBF belt against Caleb Plant in September.
Before Álvarez assesses the challenge of the unpredictable Saunders we revisit his past in the streets of Juanacatlán, just over 20 miles from the teeming city of Guadalajara, when Álvarez was a small and shy boy bullied because he had red hair, freckles and pale skin. He looked Irish rather than Mexican and he was teased mercilessly when, at the age of six, he was sent by his father, Santos, to sell ice-creams at the bus station in downtown Guadalajara.
“My dad wanted me to sell ice-creams on the buses,” Álvarez says in Spanish. “I was quiet but it wasn’t necessarily a sense of being timid when I got on to the buses. It was more a real embarrassment. I could see how they looked at me and what they said because I was different to them. I was a redhead. They would also pinch me when I came to them and tried to walk past. There was always this sense of feeling something was off in my life.”
He was meant to sell paletas, or ice pops, but sometimes there was so much taunting that the frozen goods melted into a sad pool of coloured water. When he was 10 his eldest brother, Rigoberto, urged him to use his fists to shut down the bullies but it took time for him to find the courage. But, nearly 20 years on, Álvarez says he has not forgotten how life changed when, finally, he could take it no longer. The teasing and the pinching was too much for him to bear and, at the age of 11, he fought back.
Outside his family house in Juanacatlán he was ridiculed again about his freckles and hair colour. He stunned everyone when he let his fists fly and he soon made blood spurt from a bigger bully’s nose. “I liked it too much,” Álvarez says now. “I knew everything would change.”
Álvarez was the youngest of eight children, seven of whom were boys, and he never shied away from a street fight after then. He eventually followed his brothers into boxing at the Guadalajara gym run by “Chepo” Reynoso, and his son Eddy, who is still Álvarez’s trainer.
There was no holding back his prodigious talent as he stormed through the tough Mexican amateur ranks. The Reynosos knew they had to let him loose and, on 29 October 2005, just three months after he turned 15, Álvarez climbed into the professional ring for the first time. He faced an 18-year-old Mexican called Abraham Gonzalez, who had fought once before. “I remember it very clearly,” Álvarez says. “It was a great fight for the fans. I did well and they stopped it in the fourth round because my opponent had a cut over his eye. For me it was a great fight because it started everything.”
He was soon celebrated across Mexico as “Canelo” – his nickname alluding to his cinnamon colouring. “Chepo” Reynoso said: “I wanted [his boxing nickname] to be something softer, nicer, because he was being called such harsh things.”
His parents separated just before his professional debut but Canelo still lived with his mum, Ana Maria, in a tiny concrete house. But he is now the most lauded fighter in America, and all of boxing, and Álvarez is impressively stringent when he tells me how corrosive fame can be if it is allowed to eat away at the focus which has driven him for so long.
The Reynaso family have protected him since he was a teenager and his loyalty to them is obvious: “It started when I was 13 and I walked into their gym. My home was still with my mother but I felt the vibes of the place and knew this was the type of environment that I needed to be in. I could tell that they cared about me as a person as well as a fighter and it’s the same today.
“They always see beyond the fame, see beyond the money and see me as their friend rather than just their fighter. They also came from poor backgrounds and that is why we can have that wisdom to make the right decisions. They have always looked after me since I was that kid.”
Fame has also meant that Álvarez’s family have been targeted and, in December 2018, before he fought the Liverpool boxer Rocky Fielding, his brother was kidnapped. In the week of the bout against Fielding, Álvarez had to negotiate his brother’s loss without involving the police. It is not surprising that, when revealing this shocking incident last week, Álvarez said: “Nothing is easy in this life. Everything is difficult.”
Deep into his 16th year as a pro, Álvarez’s dedication to boxing appears unflagging. He insists that, despite the adulation, he will not be derailed by his celebrity status or by hubris. “Fame is a lot more dangerous than anything else,” he says. “It can do a lot of damage. Firstly, people come out of the woodwork offering you things like drugs and money and trying to align themselves with you. You can control them but, when you have fame, there is this sense you’re untouchable. That is even more dangerous because once you start thinking this way you won’t put in the work that got you to that position. You also start thinking your opponents are all easy but that’s not the case. I never believe what fame tells me. I believe only in hard work.”
Does he expect Saunders to give him his hardest test since Álvarez’s two battles with Gennadiy Golovkin? In 2017, his and Golvokin’s first fight was judged a draw while Álvarez won the rematch on points a year later. “Billy Joe Saunders will be very difficult for the first few rounds because he has a different style. But I am at that level where I can adapt to other fighters’ styles so after a few rounds I expect to work him out.”
The Álvarez plan means that, apart from cleaning up his division if and when he beats Saunders and then Plant in September, he will have fought four world title bouts in 10 months – for this post-lockdown series of contests began last December when he outclassed Callum Smith, another unbeaten British fighter, and then followed it with a crushing third-round stoppage of Avni Yildirim in February. Only the unheralded Turk, Yildirim, can be dismissed because Smith, Saunders and Plant all won legitimate versions of the world title.
The fight this weekend is the most interesting. Saunders is an excellent boxer, as skilful as he is elusive, but the real meat of the contest is found in their contrasting characters. Álvarez is as serious as Saunders is wayward, as grounded as the British fighter is provocative. They also occupy opposite positions on bullying. Álvarez’s memories of all he endured as a kid still fuel his relentless fire in the ring. But Saunders often appears on a social media as a repugnant bully – whether he is taunting a female drug addict about sexual acts in exchange for crack or making supposedly comic videos advising men how to hit their female partners.
This is the base level at which Saunders operates for, despite his subsequent apology to women and urging them to “stay blessed”, he thought it was a joke to advocate domestic violence if “your old woman is giving you mouth” and “she’s coming at you, spitting a bit of venom in your face”.
Does Álvarez see the fight as a chance to bring down another bully? He shakes his head as he does not need to trash-talk Saunders. “I’m not really aware of all that’s happening on social media,” he says coolly. “Even now I don’t take any notice of what happened in the past with him. I am going in there to put in a great performance and win a great fight.”
Over the past few decades many world champion boxers have opted for an easy life. They have had one or two fights a year and spent the rest of their time out of the gym or sidestepping unification contests. Álvarez has been pleasingly old-school in his unsated thirst for work since he found a way out of the mammoth $365m 11-fight contract his former promoters, Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy, brokered with the streaming service DAZN in 2018. There had been tension between Álvarez, De La Hoya and DAZN and the break, which still saw the fighter recoup a huge chunk of the original deal, seems to have liberated him.
Álvarez is like no one else currently in boxing. He is the biggest force in the fight game and a free agent. But he is running out of opponents. Álvarez suggests that he will box for another seven years and that his resolve and grit will remain undented no matter how much fame and wealth – those twin enemies of all boxers – rolls his way. But, as has been clear in our time together for this interview, Álvarez is an ordinary man, with a bruised past, rather than some indestructible fighting machine.
Does he feel concerned that boxing, the most damaging of all sports, gets every fighter in the end? Álvarez looks up and, after a serious pause, he nods. “It does worry me. I know what boxing does to fighters. But this is another reason why I train so hard and work on my weight and make sure that I am always on the lookout for any moment where I am not thinking about boxing. This is my life. And this is boxing. The two are the same for me.”