Monday, May 20, 2024
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Oscar De La Hoya may have accidentally unlocked ‘Heel Canelo’ in trying to antagonize the undisputed champion

After establishing himself for over a decade atop the sport as one of the biggest pay per-view stars and best pound-for-pound fighters of this century, boxing fans have become accustomed to the professional demeanor and mild-mannered confidence that Mexican icon Canelo Alvarez carries. 

But if you’ve watched closely ahead of the build to Saturday’s PBC on Prime Video PPV in Las Vegas (8 p.m. ET, including simulcast on DAZN PPV), where Alvarez (60-2-2, 39 KOs) defends his undisputed 168-pound championship against Jaime Munguia (43-0, 34 KOs) inside T-Mobile Arena, it’s clear that Alvarez is fighting against much more than his polite Mexican countryman. 

Two new opponents have entered the scene amid Alvarez’s bi-annual residency in Sin City, where he typically headlines massive events each May and September, to celebrate the traditional holidays of Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day, respectively. 

This time, Alvarez finds himself in constant need to defend himself, not just against the court of public opinion, which has reluctantly labeled him a ducker for avoiding a can’t-miss clash against two-time super middleweight champion David Benavidez (28-0, 24 KOs), but in the face of his former promoter, Oscar De La Hoya of Golden Boy, who finds himself across the ring from Alvarez (as the co-promoter of Munguia) for the first time since their bitter 2020 divorce.  

In fact, the ongoing feud against De La Hoya bubbled over during Wednesday’s final press conference in unpredictable ways as the Hall-of-Fame boxer openly took credit for carefully building Alvarez to the global star he has become today while Alvarez uncharacteristically clapped back by accusing De La Hoya of stealing money from him (along with reminding the boxing world of his ex-promoter’s multiple public missteps in recent years).

While De La Hoya’s boldness was almost certainly aimed at attempting to distract Alvarez away from his level-headed preparation to fight the rugged and powerful Munguia, a 27-year-old from Tijuana who is trained by Hall-of-Famer Freddie Roach, it appeared to almost work too well. Alvarez, who interrupted De La Hoya’s opening statements with a flurry of insults delivered in Spanish, eventually left his chair to go after him until security quickly intervened. 

In the crapshoot world of pre-fight mental warfare, where poking the bear can have drastically different results based upon the competitor in question, the debate now becomes whether Alvarez will have too much on his mind entering such a dangerous showdown this Saturday or whether the constant state of unrest will lead him to an all-new level of focus and motivation to deliver upon his promise of a knockout within eight rounds. 

Given Alvarez’s history of answering the call when the pressure is on and the lights are the brightest, it’s more likely that the latter takes place, which is why Alvarez, who enters with defined advantages over Munguia in terms of experience and overall craft, remains as high as a 5-to-1 betting favorite. 

Seeing this version of “heel Canelo” return has been interesting, mostly because this side of Alvarez’s persona has been on holiday since it was last seen in 2018, when a pair of failed drug tests pulled him from a scheduled May rematch with Gennadiy Golovkin, which nearly led to Munguia, then just 21, becoming the last minute replacement (until the Nevada commission refused to approve him due to inexperience). 

De La Hoya made jabbing references to the drug test fiasco (which Alvarez claimed was due to eating tainted beef in Mexico) during his verbal skirmish with his ex-fighter on Wednesday. What he failed to reference, however, was just how much the negativity of that time back in 2018 fired up Alvarez to be at his very best. 

Coming off a disputed draw with Golovkin in their first fight on year earlier, as fans and media seemed to indirectly blame Alvarez for the controversial scorecards, the result was arguably the best performance of Alvarez’s great career. He backed Golovkin up repeatedly during their September 2018 rematch en route to majority decision win that erased any lingering doubt whether Alvarez lacked the kind of machismo that Mexican fans expect from their beloved heroes. 

It’s because of the strength of that performance, however, and the incredible success that followed it, that has fans so openly questioning their loyalty to Alvarez over his ambivalence toward Benavidez. 

Alvarez followed up the Golovkin rematch victory with the three most fruitful years of his professional career as he unified middleweight titles against Danny Jacobs, moved up to light heavyweight to knock out titleholder Sergey Kovalev and settled back at super middleweight to claim all four titles during an incredible 11-month period in 2021 that saw Alvarez dominantly defeat a trio of undefeated champions. 

Considering Alvarez moved up to 175 pounds again in 2022 in a competitive loss to unbeaten champion Dmitry Bivol before briefly teasing a title shot up at cruiserweight, the excuses that Alvarez has used to sidestep such a marketable rising star in Benavidez, whose “Mexican Monster” nickname was given to him by none other than Mike Tyson, remains such a head scratcher. 

Alvarez has referenced the fact that Benavidez regularly rehydrates upward of 25 pounds as a reason why the fight doesn’t make sense (even though Alvarez has fought at light heavyweight twice in the past five years). He also said he would need to make Benavidez agree to a rehydration clause, which he admits would take away from the credit he would receive for beating him. 

Leaning upon his A-side leverage to make claims that don’t seem to add up given his long history of daring to be great hasn’t been the best look for Alvarez as critics continue to debate whether he’s scared of Benavidez, who recently announced his own move up to 175 pounds due to the frustration of waiting, or if he simply doesn’t want to bend to Benavidez’s demands. 

Either way, unless the sanctioning bodies that benefit greatly from the large sanctioning fees received from Alvarez each time he defends their titles, mandate Alvarez to fight Benavidez next, it’s a dream matchup we may never see. And Alvarez, who has repeatedly accused fickle fans of never being satisfied, seems content with that.

Alvarez has shown respect for Munguia at every turn and said he chose him as his opponent for this fight due to his exciting style, which only further frustrated critics who are still hung up on Alvarez’s previous stance that he was done fighting fellow Mexicans. 

“Yes, I’ve said I don’t want to fight Mexican fighters,” Alvarez said Wednesday. “But someone respectful like Munguia, someone who has earned this fight, it’s something that I’m glad we were able to make happen. I feel better than ever and I’m ready for this fight. I know it’s going to be a great fight for the Mexicans and for the Mexican history. I’m proud about it.”

De La Hoya’s amped up performance seems to be a direct reaction to Alvarez’s attempts to get him banned from all fight week events, as he continues to accuse his ex-promoter of stealing everything from money to shine from his fighters. But it’s too early to tell whether the attempts at mental warfare will pay off or whether they will backfire as De La Hoya may have unwittingly placed a target directly upon Munguia. 

“I don’t really pay attention to if [Munguia] is younger or older. I’m different. I’m Canelo,” Alvarez said. “I’m different and I don’t care. I think my experience, my talent and my intelligence is different.

“[A physical fight] is what I expect and I really like it. This is going to be a great Mexican war. I am going to win and win decisively.”

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