‘Eight hundred pesos, ”Saúl ‘Canelo’ Álvarez says quietly as a little smile dances across his freckled face and he remembers how much he earned on his professional debut in October 2005. He was just 15 and that fight purse, which is the equivalent of just under $ 40, seems endearing compared to the $ 160m Alvarez is expected to make for the three bouts he has planned this year.
Before we turn to the seemingly unstoppable wealth and fame that now surrounds him as the best boxer in the world, Álvarez breaks down the money he made for stopping Abraham Gonzales in the fourth round of his debut in the Mexican city of Tonalá on the outskirts of Guadalajara. “They actually only paid me half of that,” he says of his 800 pesos. “The other half was in tickets. I gave all the tickets to my family. ”
He scrunches up his face and laughs. “I’ve got an absolutely massive family so in the end I came home with 400 pesos. But I didn’t do it for the money because I was working with my dad [selling ice-creams in Guadalajara]. I didn’t know any other way of living, so 300, 400 pesos seemed a lot. ”
They called him Canelo then, just as we all do now, because of his cinnamon coloring. His gingery hair, freckles and pale skin made him look more Irish than Mexican. Canelo is now 31 and he still carries something of the Fighting Irish in him because, when asked how much longer he wants to keep boxing, he looks very serious. “I want to keep fighting my whole life. I so enjoy it. I am fighting for legacy now. The money’s already there. ”
His gentle swagger is rooted in the cold, hard reality of his current domination of boxing. While he soon downgrades his hope of fighting forever to a more realistic “six, maybe seven years”, Canelo’s ambition retains the same burning intensity. He has won world titles in five different weight categories – stretching from welterweight to light-heavyweight, from 147 to 175 pounds – and he talks of his desire to fight Oleksandr Usyk who is the current IBF, WBA and WBO world heavyweight champion.
Canelo became the first undisputed super-middleweight champion of the world last September when he beat the previously undefeated Caleb Plant. On Saturday night, in Las Vegas, he moves back up to light-heavy to challenge the impressive and also unbeaten Dmitry Bivol who holds the WBA version of the title.
Canelo is not a typical boxer in either his look or demeanor. At his final press conference with Bivol on Thursday, Canelo took his five-year-old daughter, Maria, up on stage with him. He spent more time looking at her drawings than trying to appear mean or imposing. Maria stuck her tongue out at Bivol but Canelo was a model of decorum and respect. He knows Bivol is an accomplished champion and there was no attempt to trash-talk or demean the Russian. Canelo and Bivol exchanged warm handshakes and engaged in a civilized face-off.
“For me, he’s the best in the division,” Canelo says of Bivol whom he suggests is even more of a threat than Artur Beterbiev, the intimidating IBF champion. “Beterbiev is a strong fighter who always comes forward. But Bivol is really good. He’s also strong and he’s good on the inside and out. He has everything – skill, strength and power. He’s tricky and a really good champion but I believe in my skills and I’m very confident. I need to be my best because he has the stamina for all 12 rounds too. I know it’s going to be difficult. “
Bivol has remained in the shadows this week, biding his time and conserving energy, while Canelo has been in great demand. The Mexican leads the promotion on Dazn, the streaming platform, and he has had many media duties. But, in conversation away from the formal public gatherings, Canelo’s conviction and desire is obvious.
He has already been a world champion at light-heavyweight, when he knocked out another Russian, Sergey Kovalev, in November 2019 but Bivol is a more taxing opponent. Kovalev was 36 and had lost three previous fights. Bivol is 31 and looks much fresher with his perfect 19-0 record.
“Kovalev was heavier, stronger, but Dimitry is going to be more difficult because he’s a really good fighter. He’s very confident. But I like this kind of challenge. These are the fights that are going to put me in the history of boxing. It makes me feel alive. ”
In his last 10 fights, Canelo faced eight reigning world champions. He has become known as “the belt-snatcher” because he took away the titles of all eight. His yearning to become the first undisputed world champion in the super-middleweight division was satisfied eight months ago and so confronting Bivol appealed most. “I beat all the champions at 168 [pounds] so I needed to take another challenge, not just for my history, but for myself. To have an opportunity to win another title at 175 is amazing. ”
Bivol is entitled to feel disrespected, despite Canelo’s public politeness, because much of the chatter this week has switched to the pound-for-pound king’s next opponent. Canelo is already talking openly about the deal that has been agreed for him to fight his bitter rival, Gennady Golovkin, at super-middleweight in September.
Canelo insists that his focus on Bivol is searing but there is no hiding the animosity he feels towards Golovkin whom he has fought twice before. They drew their first fight in September 2017 – which is one of two draws on Canelo’s 60-fight record alongside his solitary defeat to Floyd Mayweather four years earlier. The consensus at ringside was that Golovkin should have been awarded the decision. Canelo won the rematch exactly a year later and, when they complete their trilogy, the final bout between them will be deeply personal.
“He’s always saying stupid things about me,” Canelo says of Golovkin. “He discredited me a great deal for things I’ve achieved so that makes a fight like this very personal. He has said a lot of bad things about me. ”
Canelo sounds intent on hurting Golovkin. “Yes,” he says bluntly. “There’s just one simple rule: ‘Don’t fuck with me.'”
That spiteful urge is present in all great fighters – even in such charismatic or polished characters as Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard – and Canelo carries it in spades. His unbreakable self-belief, which also defines the most ferocious champions in history, is evident in his certainty that he can beat Usyk – the former undisputed world cruiserweight champion who moved up to heavyweight to outclass Anthony Joshua last September.
“Why not?” he says of the prospect of facing Usyk. “I like it. Let’s do it at 200 pounds, 201 maybe [making it a heavyweight contest]. I fight everybody. I don’t care. ”
It’s hard not to laugh and then check again that he really thinks he can beat Usyk. “Yes. Yes. I like the idea, the possibility. Next year, maybe, we can look forward to it. ”
Usyk was given permission to leave Ukraine, where he had joined the military at the outset of the Russian invasion, to prepare for his rematch with Joshua in July. We can only imagine the capital that Vladimir Putin, a boxing fan, would try to extract from a Bivol victory for Russia on Saturday night in Vegas. Does Canelo feel added pressure against the backdrop of war? “No,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a Russian or not, I always come to win.”
Does he understand why some people feel uncomfortable with the fact that Bivol is even being allowed to fight in America? “I understand it a little but we are here, right? It is what it is. ”
Away from fighting, Canelo’s obsession with golf deepens. He now plays off a low handicap and he nearly made a hole-in-one at a PGA Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. Canelo also believes that “golf has made me feel better in the gym because before it was boring. I used to have gym-house, gym-house, gym-house and it’s kind of hard. But right now I go to the gym, then to golf, then to the house. ”
He might love golf but, as he says with a laugh, “Oh, it’s hard to play. Golf is hard. ”
When I ask if he is a patient and philosophical golfer, Canelo shakes his head in amusement. “I get really mad. I almost throw my clubs. ”
His favorite golfer is, currently, Brooks Koepka. “I just like the way he plays. I like how he stays low and still when he hits the ball, he stays down a little more. I like that swing. ”
Canelo’s renown has spread to the pristine fairways and manicured greens of pro golf and, last month after he had struggled at the Masters, Jon Rahm, the current world No 2, said: “I feel like I fought 10 rounds with Canelo.”
Last week Canelo and Rahm met at a restaurant. “The owner of the restaurant says: ‘Hey, Jon Rahm is inside,'” Canelo recalls. “I go to him and say hi and we started talking a little bit. For me it’s amazing to see that kind of guy because I love his work. Maybe we play a foursome one day – with Tiger [Woods] too. ”
But first, in an arduous and complex bout which will earn him more than $ 50m against Bivol, Canelo aims to light up Las Vegas. It is the weekend of Cinco de Mayo, which celebrates Mexico’s independence, and his vast and boisterous army of fans will turn the gaudy old city green, white and red.
“I always wanted to be one of the best but I never imagined it’d be of this magnitude,” Canelo says. “I feel really happy.”
The memory of that first 400 peso purse still frames everything he has done and may yet do in the ring. “I believe so. I’m happy with all I’ve achieved but I remember what I’ve been through. That’s why I’m grateful for everything I’ve got now. More than anything this [400 peso memory] keeps my feet on the ground, and makes me want to help more people, because I’ve been in the shoes of those that have needed help.
“I remember where I’ve come from, that feeling of being powerless when you’re not able to do things. That keeps me close to those who need help. ”
It also drives the fighter with the cinnamon coloring as Canelo’s march to boxing immortality continues.
Alvarez v Bivol is on Dazn in the UK and on Dazn pay-per-view in the US