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Column: Canelo Alvarez is fighting Sergey Kovalev, but he has Julio Cesar Chavez’s legacy in his crosshairs

Mexican former boxing champion Julio Cesar Chavez, left, and British Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton spar during a promotional event ahead of the Formula One race in Mexico City on Oct. 23.
Mexican former boxing champion Julio Cesar Chavez, left, and British Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton spar during a promotional event ahead of the Formula One race in Mexico City on Oct. 23.
(Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

Canelo Alvarez won’t say it.

Not explicitly.

Doing so would be too brazen, even by boxing’s permissive standards of speech.

But listen carefully to Alvarez. The truth is there.

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However measured his words, however monotone his delivery of them, Alvarez reveals that Sergey Kovalev isn’t the only opponent he will take on Saturday night at the MGM Grand.

Alvarez wants more than a victory. He is looking to secure a place in Mexican boxing history, which, by extension, means he is chasing the fighter who is synonymous with the sport in his home country.

He’s pursuing Julio Cesar Chavez.

What Michael Jordan is to LeBron James and what Diego Maradona is to Lionel Messi, Chavez is to the 29-year-old Alvarez.

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At this point, Chavez has a legacy that appears insurmountable.

Ryan Garcia has the ingredients to become boxing’s next big thing, and has since turned to Canelo Alvarez to seek the right recipe.

More than three decades after his pugilistic peak, Chavez remains the standard in Mexican boxing. He has become more than a fighter. He is now an embodiment of an idealized version of a culture. He might as well be a myth.

His popularity is such that his son, Julio Jr., became one of boxing’s greatest attractions almost entirely because of his name. The likable Chavez Jr. didn’t show any of the dedication necessary to compete at the highest levels, but he was nonetheless the crowd favorite when he challenged Alvarez in 2017. Alvarez predictably destroyed him.

“There is no comparison between me and Canelo,” Chavez Sr. told The Times in the buildup to that fight.

The Mexican people would agree.

Chavez won his first 87 fights, administering savage beatings to the likes of Edwin Rosario, Jose Luis Ramirez, Hector Camacho and Greg Haugen. Ironically, it was his most controversial win that transformed him into an iconic figure: a come-from-behind victory over Meldrick Taylor in which referee Richard Steele stopped the fight with two seconds remaining.

Alvarez was wiped out in his first megafight, a decision loss to Floyd Mayweather when he was 23. The two most important fights of his career were against Gennady Golovkin; he was awarded a draw in the initial encounter and a controversial decision victory in the rematch. The two other most notable wins also came on close decisions, against Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara.

There’s also the subject of style. Alvarez’s versatility has sometimes resulted in criticism, such as when Alvarez elected to stick and move in his first showdown with the power-punching Golovkin. Alvarez’s emphasis on defense has created an impression he has more to offer, something trainer Eddy Reynoso confirmed was the case.

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“There are many things he does in the gym that he doesn’t do in fights because they’re unnecessary,” Reynoso told reporters in Spanish earlier this week. “He knows how to do many things you haven’t seen.”

Chavez, on the other hand, looked as if he held nothing back. He was fearless. He was relentless. He was always on the attack. His style resonated with Mexicans, who believed that his style represented their national character.

Canelo Alvarez looks to underline his reputation as the best while Sergey Kovalev will try to resurrect his career when they meet in the ring Saturday.

Alvarez has yet to inspire the same level of passion. He might never.

Perhaps because of that, Alvarez and his camp sound as if they are focused on reaching more tangible benchmarks. A victory over the 175-pound champion Kovalev will give Alvarez something Chavez never had, a world title in a fourth weight class. Chavez won world championships at 130, 135 and 140 pounds; Alvarez has won titles at 154, 160 and 168 pounds.

Alvarez was measured when he spoke about his ambitions at a news conference earlier this week.

“The reality is that I want to continue making history in this sport, to leave a great legacy,” he said in Spanish. “I think the day I retire, the numbers, the history and the championships I’ve won will reflect my position as a fighter.”

Reynoso was bolder.

“I’ve always told him if he continues down this road, without doubt he will be the greatest boxer Mexico has ever produced, whether people like it or not,” Reynoso said.

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As Reynoso spoke, Alvarez crossed himself and tapped his knuckles on the table in front of him.

Reynoso didn’t mention whom Alvarez would have to surpass to reach that position, but he didn’t have to.


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