LAS VEGAS — As a youngster, Santos Saul Alvarez began fighting on the streets of Guadalajara for reasons different from the other kids.
He wasn’t little and a great target for bullies. Nor was he so poor that he needed his fists for food or money. He fought because he was taunted and teased, given nasty nicknames because, of all things, he is redheaded and freckle-faced. He would have been the toast of the town in Dublin, but redheads are about as common as albinos in Guadalajara.
At 14, he was sparring against the likes of world champion Oscar Larios. At 15, after an amateur boxing record of 44-2, he got a professional license and fought 10 times at age 16. Along the way, he was discovered by matchmaker Eric Gomez of Golden Boy Promotions, who eventually put him in the ring in Cabazon at Morongo Casino. That was Oct. 24, 2008. He was 18, had a record of 21-0-1 and was still an unknown.
“We couldn’t believe what happened,” says Oscar De La Hoya, who owns Golden Boy, a company whose name is derived from the phenomenal fan base he had as an Olympic champion and multi-division pro champion. “Thousands of people crossed the border from Mexico, just to see him fight. We knew we were onto something.”
Now, the redheaded kid who responded with his fists to taunts of “Hey, freckle-head,” has become one of boxing’s stars. He is 22, carries a record of 40-0-1, and is the main reason that tickets are still selling for his Saturday night match at 154 pounds against unheralded Josesito Lopez.
That fight will be at the MGM Grand, and if Golden Boy Chief Executive Richard Schaefer is accurate in his assessment here Wednesday that he needs to add 2,000 seats to his original 14,000-seat setup because of ticket demand, it is a further testament to the drawing power of Alvarez. That’s especially true because on the same night, just a mile down the street at the Thomas & Mack Center, another boxing match — one correctly perceived to be more competitive and compelling, between Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Sergio Martinez, is taking place.
“Let me tell you how big this kid is,” says Schaefer, whose job it is to do just that. “When he fought Shane Mosley [May 5], the people at Televisa [a Mexican TV network] told me he did a 26.1 rating.They also told me that last month’s Olympic soccer final between Mexico and Brazil did a 19.1. That’s 30% higher than one of the biggest soccer games in the country’s history.”
De La Hoya tells a different story with the same message.
“We went to his weigh-in at an outdoor plaza in Guadalajara,” he says. “We stepped off the bus and were mobbed. Pretty soon, I realized, none of this was for me. Around me, you could hear a cricket chirping. My ego was crushed, but I knew we had found the next great one.”
Actually, well before De La Hoya and Gomez and Schaefer found Alvarez, there was Jose “Chepo” Reynoso. He found him, trained him, managed him and has been with Alvarez so long that it was he who gave him the now-famous nickname, Canelo.
“I wanted it to be something softer, nicer,” Reynoso says, “because he was being called such harsh things.”
In English, “Canelo” translates to cinnamon. The name, color and flavor achieved what Reynoso wanted. It stuck, fans loved it, and it has become, along with Alvarez’s heavy punches and fast hands, the calling card of an international champion.
He is named for his father, Santos, who fed his family by selling ice cream from a pushcart and now owns several ice cream stores. That makes Saul his middle name. He has a 4-year-old daughter whose name is Emily Cinnamon Alvarez. He is the brother of former 154-pound WBA champ Rigo Verto Alvarez, who is now 32. He is also the baby of six brothers — he also has one older sister — who once all boxed on the same card in Guadalajara on “Alvarez night.”
But for a world of boxing fans, he is, and always will be, Canelo.
The magic of that is best explained, with wonderful quirkiness, by Reynoso, the man who created it.
“If you have a field full of cows and they are all black except one, which is red, you look at the red one,” Reynoso says. “And if it happens that the red one is the one who gives the best milk, then you know you have something special, and you say, ‘Wow!’ ”
That is exactly the reaction Golden Boy and the Canelo camp seek from fans Saturday night.