LAS VEGAS — Were it not for the low point of his career, the moment when he learned just how much he didn’t know, Canelo Alvarez may not be the same boxer he has become since losing to Floyd Mayweather in 2013.
Alvarez was 23 years old on Sept. 14, 2013, an undefeated champion overflowing with confidence. He spoke next-to-no English in those days, but he didn’t need to say a word to express himself. His body language said it all. He was a super talented, impeccably trained young man who knew he was going to win.
For months on a cross-country tour, he’d heard others speak of Mayweather’s greatness, of Mayweather’s sublime defensive skills and of his ability to completely take a fighter out of his game plan. Alvarez would just sneer and nod his head when he heard those words as if to say, "Just wait. You’ll see.”
The first bell rang and Mayweather took Alvarez to school. Mayweather knew subtle tricks that only the super elite know and understand how to put into practice. Alvarez’s eyes were opened. Mayweather knew things he hadn’t been exposed to yet, and he exploited every weakness Alvarez had and took advantage of every mistake he made.
It was a humbling moment for Alvarez, but in a substantial way, it made him who he is today. Alvarez took the loss to heart and set out to make certain it never happened again. He worked diligently on the flaws in his game that Mayweather exposed.
And over time, he turned himself from an uber-talented force of nature into an uber-talented force of nature who happened to be smarter than everyone else.
“At that time, Canelo was young and he was a great fighter even then, but he didn’t know exactly what it took to beat those true superstars,” said Sergio Mora, a former world champion and a broadcast analyst for DAZN, which will stream Alvarez’s fight Saturday at T-Mobile Arena against Dmitry Bivol for the WBA light heavyweight title.
“He got that experience against Mayweather and he learned from it. He gained a lot from that. He had all of this talent, but he gained an incredible amount of knowledge from that fight.”
Eddy Reynoso, Alvarez’s highly regarded trainer, told Yahoo Sports when the Bivol fight was first announced that Alvarez had an insatiable desire to learn. Alvarez has a tremendous amount of pride and a deep desire to be the best at whatever he does.
Mayweather would often say, “Skills pays the bills,” but it was more than just skills that led him to a 50-0 career and a spot in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. It was knowing how to use those skills, and which to use at a given time, that made him so great.
Since his only loss, that’s what Alvarez has done, as well. He made the loss work for him and turned it into a positive.
He’s still a young guy and won’t turn 32 until July. In the nearly nine years since he fought Mayweather, Alvarez has added layers to his game. He’s put the time in in the gym, and so there is nothing now that he hasn’t seen or doesn’t know how to do.
When he faces Bivol, he’ll give up a lot of height, but it’s no big deal. He’s been here before.
“Saul, he just loves boxing and he loves to learn about this sport, every day, more and more,” Reynoso said.
It’s led him to become the elite fighter of his generation. No one in this era has fought more top fighters than Alvarez. No one has fought more champions. No one has faced more undefeated fighters.
Going back to the start of his career, he’s fought 13 undefeated boxers. Bivol, who is 19-0, will be the third in a row. Caleb Plant (21-0) and Billy Joe Saunders (30-0) were his previous two opponents.
Alvarez has been successful against these great fighters, all of whom have had different styles and are built differently, by using the knowledge he gained in the ring to better himself.
Ask him if he’d like to fight any great fighter he’s yet to meet, be it unified welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr., unified light heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev or unified heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk, Alvarez basically shrugs and says, “Why not?”
He needs the challenge and he gets himself motivated by picking the best opponents he can find.
He loves the sport, he loves the competition and he loves the satisfaction he gets from winning.
Whether it’s fighting Gennadiy Golovkin a third time after going 1-0-1 in two bouts against him or calling out Usyk, Alvarez is willing to take on anyone in an effort to prove he’s the best.
He’d probably still be the best had he not faced Mayweather, but it almost certainly wouldn’t have been such a linear rise to the top like it has been. Alvarez has gone 15-0-1 since losing to Mayweather and has won belts at 154, 160, 168 and 175.
He’s now the pound-for-pound king and has an ambitious schedule lined up if he wins on Saturday, with bouts against Golovkin and the Beterbiev-Joe Smith Jr. winner on the line.
He’ll take on all comers, even if his team thinks he’s making a mistake. Daring to be great takes a rare courage. Alvarez has that in abundance.
He has the lessons he learned from his only career loss to thank for putting him on the rocket to greatness that he’s on now. And if that means a move to heavyweight, well, as he loves to say, “Why not?”