GUADALAJARA, Mexico — A full mariachi band, with 25-plus members on each side of the massive entrance ramp, serenaded Canelo Alvarez to the ring. It was a hero’s welcome for the boxing star’s first fight in his native country in nearly 12 years.
Fireworks lit up the sky at the open-air Akron Stadium, home of Chivas soccer club, with 51,000-plus screaming fans chanting his name: Ca-ne-lo! Ca-ne-lo! Ca-ne-lo!
At long last, Canelo returned home Saturday to the place where it all started 20 years ago; the city where Saul Alvarez, a red-haired, freckled boy grew into simply Canelo, a mononym synonymous with boxing the world over.
From the humble Julian Magdaleno Gym to the No. 5 spot on Forbes’ highest-paid athletes list at $110 million in earnings last year, Alvarez has accomplished it all during his legendary career. But he delivered those triumphs in the U.S., mainly one place: Las Vegas.
What Canelo really wanted, with his legacy secured, was to deliver a fight in his prime as the best fighter in the world rather than a farewell fight. The 32-year-old vowed to push for the knockout in his undisputed super middleweight championship defense against John Ryder but settled for a unanimous-decision victory.
“It’s a historic moment for me,” said Canelo, ESPN’s No. 5 pound-for-pound boxer. “I’m glad to be here with my people who supported me from the beginning. I’m very thankful to be here and very thankful with my people.
“[Ryder is] a very strong fighter, man. And when he’s going for everything, they turn it on. [The opponents] are more difficult than usual, but I knew that. I’m in this position a long time … and I respect my opponents because I know they’re coming for everything.”
Canelo was able to break Ryder’s nose in Round 2 and dropped him hard in Round 5. He wobbled him several times in the ninth but wasn’t able to get the stoppage.
Ryder, with a towel pressed into his bloody, bandaged nose, offered that despite the beatdown, Alvarez is past his best days.
“He couldn’t get me out of there,” Ryder said. “His plan was to stop me. He didn’t.”
The victory — Alvarez’s eighth against a British fighter without a defeat — was Alvarez’s first following left wrist surgery in October. And it was also his first following an underwhelming and disappointing campaign. Last May, he suffered the second defeat of his pro career when Russia’s Dmitry Bivol routed him. In September, Canelo closed out his trilogy with rival Gennadiy Golovkin with a decision victory where he didn’t look his best.
Throughout the build-up of this fight, Canelo has maintained his goal: a Sept. 16 rematch with Bivol at 175 pounds, rather than 168 where he remains the undisputed champion. But after the way Bivol outboxed Alvarez the first time, and the way Canelo has looked in his next two fights, revenge appears to be his toughest challenge yet.
“I think I’m better than him — that’s it,” Canelo told ESPN on Thursday. “If you see the first five rounds, six rounds, I dominate the fight. But then I get tired, of course, because I don’t train at my 100%.”
Now, Alvarez said he know his left hand is good to go after 12 rounds with Ryder. But after 63 pro fights, a pro career that started at the tender age of 15 in Guadalajara, there will be those who question Alvarez’s form in this unforgiving sport.
Not just Ryder, but perhaps even Bivol, who told ESPN’s he’s only interested in a rematch at 168 pounds for Canelo’s four titles after he already soundly defeated him at 175.
“Why should I even do the rematch at 175?” said Bivol, who’s never weighed less than 173 pounds for a fight. “What is the challenge or what is the motivation for me if I’ve already beaten him at that weight class? … He might have a better chance at 168 because he said that that’s his weight class.”
But all these weight matters and debate over Alvarez’s prime will wait for another day. Canelo rightfully pointed out that every opponent is coming at his best when standing across the ring from boxing’s top star. David Benavidez, a volume-punching Mexican-American, is waiting in the wings and said he wants to take Canelo’s prized weekends — Cinco De Mayo and Mexican-Independence Day — away from him.
Canelo said it’s easy to say that and another thing to do it. He remains the face of boxing until further notice and no matter what happens, owns an argument as Mexico’s best boxer of all time, even greater than Julio Cesar Chavez. Alvarez’s longtime trainer, Eddy Reynoso, believes Canelo has already surpassed Chavez, but there are plenty of detractors.
What’s clear: Alvarez is beloved by his people who lined the streets outside the Degollado Theater on Friday for a ceremonial weigh-in, just hoping to sneak a look at their idol in the flesh after he left the venue.
Young and old, they overcrowded block after block, pushing and shoving and chanting his name. In this boxing-crazed country, one man — one name — stands above the best, even atop the Chivas soccer club that only allows Mexicans on its team: Canelo.