By Jason Keidel
If boxing is to save its vitality, it needs vital boxers to fight each other. Seems simple enough, an athletic algorithm that serves the sport and its fans. But between corruption, incompetence, and the new reality that a gifted 200-pounder can play other sports for the same money sans the brain damage, it’s increasingly difficult to find singular talents inside the squared circle.
So to keep the sweet science from going sour, we need fights like the one scheduled for Saturday, between Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Erislandy Lara, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
And while technically there’s no title on the line – both men will enter the ring as junior middleweights – the belts have become so diluted that we bank more on name than nuance of the myriad sanctioning bodies. Floyd Mayweather, Jr and Manny Pacquiao could fight in a phone booth for free and we wouldn’t care whether one or the other were a champion.
So in the absence of a Super Fight we have a stellar fight. Alvarez (43-1-1) and Lara (19-1-2) are ardent pugilists and serious craftsmen. Many see this as a classic matchup between bull and matador, with the hard-charging Alvarez crowding Lara, the sleek southpaw who is just now getting his due at 31. Lara did not have his first pro fight until 25 because of his arduous path to the U.S. from Cuba.
The hardscrabble road to stardom is a boxing staple; the outhouse-to-penthouse narrative is what gave the sport its emotional superiority and emblem of Americana. And while Alvarez’s rise to stardom looks facile when buttressed against Lara’s saga, he’s been fighting professionally almost since puberty. Both men embrace the hard work and harder truths of their profession.
Boxing, like any sport, needs stars to draw the casual observer, the guy or gal with an itchy finger cruising the remote. Canelo Alvarez has the handsome contours, punches, and personality for crossover appeal. And he has shown an ability to overcome his loss to Mayweather by taking on tough opponents since being out-pointed by the most heralded boxer on the planet. Canelo is the kind of face and fighter to lead the sport into a new age.
We always loved boxing for its eccentricities, for the outsized characters, and the endless second chances. It’s the sport that allowed Bernard Hopkins, who spent years in prison for armed robbery, to become perhaps the greatest middleweight of all time. It’s the sport that allows for epic and disparate characters, from Tyson to Holyfield, from Robinson to LaMotta.
From fiction to reality, we’ve embraced the outsized boxing figure. Apollo Creed had nothing on Muhammad Ali. Rocky Balboa was an amalgam of real-life Italian fighters from the ‘40s and ’50s. And not even cinema tried to replicate someone like Don King.
And, in the cinematic vein of high risk and low reward, Alvarez should get credit for fighting Lara, who is considered the most dangerous fighter at 154 lbs. Canelo has more cash, cachet, and can handpick his next opponent. Even his own promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, was adamantly against the bout. But Alvarez insists he needs this fight to keep his considerable ambition intact.
For such a young fighter – heck, such a young human – Canelo, 23, has a rare prescience, keen sense about his sport, and his role in it. If boxing is on life support, then Canelo is its pulse. The two monoliths, Pacquiao and Mayweather, aren’t going to fight – at least according to Mayweather – even if it’s the most important and profitable fight in the sport’s history. Ali didn’t have to fight Frazier three times for the sport to prosper. But fights like Alvarez – Lara are essential to keep pugilism’s postmortems at bay.
For his part, Lara has assumed the spirit of the spoiler, crashing post-fight pressers and challenging the Mexican icon to a fight, questioning his courage and manhood. It worked. Indeed, Canelo admits the chatter battered his more diplomatic sensibilities.
Lara asserted that he tried the respectful route and was ignored by the young champion. So, he had to do it the other way. It’s not easy to distinguish between an athlete’s private and public personas. Especially with boxers, who often ride their bravado to the box office. With a booming baritone that belies his smallish frame, Lara speaks with an equally masculine and confident mien. He may not win the fight, but he will not lose because of insecurity.
Should he win the bout, Lara’s life will become the human-interest story du jour. He tried to flee communist Cuba, only to be caught and shipped back to Cuba, where he was detained in a Castro safehouse, and was never allowed to train again. His second attempt, which included 18 hours on a crowded boat, is the journey that lands him in Las Vegas, the place of American Dreams and a few vivid nightmares.
Alvarez saves his bombast for the ring. He gives his opponents no chalkboard fodder. He has no ornate lifestyle, sprawling posse, or conga line of luxury cars. He is, forgive the cliché, a throwback, all about the business of boxing. It is his profession. And he is a professional. It’s hard to find a bigger star with smaller appetites.
Lara has a similar allergy to excess, his modest Houston home is pregnant with his offspring and his wife, who is also pregnant with their fifth child. The most extravagant adjunct to his house is a pigeon coop, where he owns about 30 birds.
Erislandy Lara was willing to do anything to reach America, and now he’s 12 rounds from realizing the American Dream. “The American Dream” is his moniker, and his mission. But Canelo Alvarez is quite a firewall between the fantasy and the reality.
You can leave Las Vegas a big winner or a very bruised loser. It’s not the type of town given to indecision – which is fitting for two fighters looking for a knockout.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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