The story of a fight begins long before the cameras are turned on, the houselights are turned down, and the scorecard girls are raised up to the ring to hoist their numbered placards. (At this point, I pretty much expect John Oliver to pop up ringside next to a Tecate-branded woman in stilettos and ask, baffled, "How is this still a thing?"). The juiciest plot lines are set in motion at the start of training, or even earlier.
The particular tale of Canelo Alvarez versus Liam Smith is no different.
May 18, 2016: Canelo gives up his WBC 160-pound title belt, which in another context would be just like any other piece of bling extortionist bodies dole out for a fee. In this case, however, the WBC wants its belt to reflect actual conditions on the ground—likely for its own pecuniary gain, but still. Gennady "GGG" Golovkin is the best middleweight in the world. If Canelo wants to keep that title, his camp must set up a match with GGG within 15 days. Even I know they won't, as Oscar De La Hoya has been telling me in interviews for the past year that the match won't take place till the fall of 2017.
So Canelo abandons the belt, and his promoter, De La Hoya's Golden Boy, releases this statement ostensibly uttered by the fighter: "I will fight 'GGG,' and I will beat 'GGG' but I will not be forced into the ring by artificial deadlines."
(I think Canelo may be one of the savviest 26-year-olds in the world, but I'm willing to bet no pug has ever utilized the phrase "artificial deadlines.")
And so Oscar De La Hoya's promotional firm sets up another battle for its lone star, on September 17th in the Lone Star state: Canelo will face Liam "Beefy" Smith, a British 154-pound champ, whose odd nickname in this context suggests he'll be carved up like so much roast at a backyard quinceañera.
And he is, only with a more savage effort than most stateside fans anticipated Canelo needing. He lashes Smith with hooks to the body that would rent another man's liver utterly—just grind it to pieces like so much organ confetti. Only Liam Smith is game enough to take those shots and return fire, till he finally hits the deck for the third and mercifully final time in the ninth.
The Englishman on press row next to me whose head was bowed and hands were clasped together as if in prayer can look up now.
It's glorious violence—amplified monster-truck-style by flames shooting up from the corners of the arena before the win and an indoor fireworks display afterward. And it is the salvation of a soporific pay-per-view card that to that point failed to live up even to the press' modest expectations after its heavyweight co-star, Luis Ortiz, abandoned the show. (One other bright spot: the slice-and-dice job performed by the smiley surgeon Jojo Diaz, who won when the opposing corner determined his opponent's face should be disfigured no longer. Although even then you wish Diaz had closed the show himself.)
So goes the ending.
It begins with Canelo training in his own gym, in the San Diego area, very close to the headquarters of Qualcomm, the major telecom outfit. Canelo's prepping for Smith, and what will be his third bout in Texas, where his cheering Mexican-American backers pack the joints. He has already won matches in the Alamodome (attendance: 39,247) in San Antonio and Minute Maid Park in Houston (31,588).
Those are big numbers for any one person to draw to a stadium, and make no mistake: they come to see him. Now pundits are wondering just how close Canelo can get to AT&T Stadium's max capacity of 111,000 spectators.
The cynics say De La Hoya chose the biggest Texan venue to obscure Canelo's ducking of GGG. I don't count myself among them, primarily because it isn't Canelo who's ducking anybody. The frustration vented among boxing junkies in advance of this match should actually be directed at their own business: to succeed in today's game, even the most talented boxer must be carefully handled. How carefully depends on his or her talent, true. But when Oscar formulated his plan for his guy to face GGG in the fall of 2017, how much talent did he know for sure Canelo possessed? Earlier this past Saturday night, anyone on press row would've said that Canelo's power necessitated a calendar change, an unleashing of the beast by De La Hoya.
Then Beefy Smith stood up to nine rounds of Canelo's best bruising, and at moments even reciprocated. And Beefy is no GGG, I promise you that.
All the fight week action minus the actual combat takes place 20 miles down the road from Arlington in a beautiful resort in Grapevine.
The morning of the fight, the hotel's Riverwalk Breakfast Buffet is like a VIP IHOP—you can't move without bumping into a boxer or a member of his entourage. As I head toward the omelet station, I tell Smith's trainer Joe Gallagher it's a good thing the weigh-ins have been pushed to the day before the bout (when they were day-of, a boxer couldn't partake of this fabulous spread).
Later, after I've inhaled my omelet, I head to Smith's table to introduce myself more formally. And knowing the Smiths hail from Liverpool and love its red football club (sorry, Everton, but you never walk alone), I tell them that my brother fell for Liverpool eight or nine years ago, and man, those teams were fantastic. When they had Mascherano and Xabi Alonso and Yossi Benayoun and Fernando Torres.
Of course, I add, you can't forget about Steven Gerrard—the team's soul, its captain, who now plays for the Galaxy in MLS. Oh, the Smiths haven't forgotten Gerrard, they tell me, in unison. He's flying in for the fight tonight. The way they say it, it sounds like, "We're bringing out all the big guns."
Later that day, with eight and a half hours to go before the fight, I'm at a press conference for another upcoming bout, seated amongst the odd traveling family that is today's boxing press corps. There are no fedora-wearers in the room, no cheap cigars, no writers on the take (that I know of). Just a bunch of dudes in oatmeal shades of khaki.
There is a younger, diverse crowd in the room whose trade, being online video, assures them a place in the boxing ecosystem for at least the near future. But the ones with pens and pads—we're roadies following a band whose concerts can be streamed everywhere, rendering our written descriptions increasingly unnecessary and our ranks ever smaller, fight by fight.
I am crouched in a chair next to Larry Merchant, the former HBO Boxing analyst who's slated to the call the event for the international and online feeds. On this morning, at 85 years old, he looks spryer than most of us, wearing a baseball raglan t-shirt, shorts, and a white baseball cap. And—bless the man, who grew up in Greenwich Village in in the 1930s and 40s, who played linebacker at the University of Oklahoma, edited the Philly Daily News' sports section in the 50s, and wrote a New York Post column in the turbulent 60s—Larry turns to me and says, It's amazing. Here we are in the middle of Texas, with Friday night lights one day and college football on another and the NFL on a third. And there are 30 newspaper pages down here devoted to a fight. They're saying 50,000 people have tickets to this thing. And while Larry has learned to shave off a zero when promoters put forth attendance numbers, this event could be the exception (hell, the venue can hold twice that sum).
It's the most heartening thing I've heard in months on this trail. And the actual attendance will wind up being 51,240 people—greater even than the figure Larry was sold.
What all these thousands first see in the ring—the underwhelming undercard—yields only waves of booing (followed by waves of The Wave, because fans have nothing better to do than sit and stand on cue).
Then we get the unexpected salve: the Canelo-Smith tug-of-war. Canelo tears at Smith's torso, and Smith crumples, only to launch back into Canelo's midsection when the Mexican pauses for a breath.
Before Canelo scores his first knockdown, which changes the direction of the fight for good, my other neighbor on press row—not the English one in silent prayer but a rather more unbiased American—says, "We might see an upset."
Then comes the boom, and our eyes dart toward the floor. Smith is kneeling there, having been clobbered. Talk of an upset ends abruptly. But the boom, like the pyrotechnics, also scares the shit out of me. There were 50,000 stories of this fight in that arena alone, but mine is this:
As I sat in Dallas watching a championship bout, my phone began buzzing with messages from concerned friends. A dumpster planted with an explosive device had blown up in my Manhattan neighborhood, literally doors down from my building. I kept telling well-intentioned friends that it was OK—only one person was seriously injured, no one had died, my building's windows didn't shatter (14 stories of windows shattered across the street), and anyway, I would've been saved by my love of boxing and consequent presence in America's most famous arena.
But to be honest, each bang in that arena till the end of the night carried an eerie double resonance for me. As I write this now, a second explosive device has been found three blocks from my apartment, other explosives have been found in New Jersey, a car of men seemingly bound for a NY-area airport has been stopped, its occupants arrested, and another person of interest, perhaps the main culprit, has been apprehended after a shootout.
I am back in New York City, but those HBO TV trucks I saw beneath the football stadium are very similar to the cable news cars encircling my block.
Whenever things go boom, in ring or out, everyone who hears the sound, in person or on TV, has a story.
There are only two scenarios for boxing fans now, and they're both winners. Either De La Hoya feels the heat and puts together a spring 2017 match between Canelo and Golovkin or he sticks to the schedule he has always mentioned to me and the show goes on in exactly one year.
That's it—just a year. And if you think somehow there's no guarantee it'll happen then, come to my apartment—they've just reopened streets to traffic—and I'll play you a whole lot of tape that'll make a liar out of De La Hoya if he does push it beyond a year. For now, this, from a phone conversation we had a month ago:
Me: I can wait a year. Any message for those who can't?
Oscar: The message is look, I'm not gonna take seven, eight years to make this fight with GGG just the way Mayweather and Pacquiao took seven, eight years. This fight is gonna happen relatively soon, and it's gonna be the best fight they ever watched. I think this can be Hagler-Hearns all over again.
The plan before the Beefy Smith fight was for Canelo to take another quote-unquote easy match in December, so he could sneak three fights into a single year (ideally, Oscar said, Canelo would like four, but events these massive are highly difficult to arrange).
Given Beefy's muscular defiance and the injury Canelo suffered to his right hand during the bout, that December match has been scratched, meaning Canelo would have eight months before his Cinco de Mayo weekend fight in 2017. That's plenty of time to arrange the next Hagler-Hearns. But Oscar fears that a loss would diminish the reputation of Golden Boy's only current star, and also that a war with GGG could damage Canelo permanently. That's why the schedule has remained rigid instead of flexible.
But to my mind, GGG is a once-in-generation talent. If Canelo were to lose brutally to him, it'd be like Tommy Hearns taking it on the chin in three hellacious rounds against the harder Marvin Hagler. That's not a career-ruining loss—it's a career-making one. That sounds really callous considering the way Hearns slurs his words these days, but if Oscar wants to make the Hearns comparison, he has to accept the possible outcome.
And it isn't as though Hearns' boxing career ended then. In the 1980s, fans were just as eager to watch Hearns after that loss as they were beforehand and he could still deliver. Same thing happened after Hearns lost to Sugar Ray Leonard a few years prior. These three—plus Duran—are considered the four kings of their decade because they clashed. It doesn't matter that they pegged losses on each other.
Canelo and Golovkin can coalesce into a new a generation of kings, perhaps to be joined by the Charlos if they move up, or cancer survivor Danny Jacobs (although I remain suspect of his track record, save for his incredible defeat of Peter Quillin).
I hardly can hold it against Oscar if he sees threats lurking around each corner and acts defensively for it. Al Haymon's promotional outfit has taken away so many of the fighters he thought he secured, and now King Kong Ortiz is gone, too.
But Canelo is, at the very least, the second-best middleweight in the world by a good margin. If he wins, every amazing offer comes his way. If he loses to GGG, he becomes that much more attractive to the rest of the top 10—vulnerable Canelo will be catnip to young lions seeking to make a name for themselves.
* * *
While Canelo was training near the headquarters of Qualcomm for this fight—an event undertaken in order to put off the GGG match—I had to laugh when I saw the company's ad on the back of my September issue of Wired.
"Anyone can talk about 5G," it read. "We're creating it." Then it had a bunch of copy on previous cell phone standards, including 3G, and the oh-so-appropriate slogan: "Qualcomm: Why Wait."
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