'Canelo' Alvarez fights to stay on top as new stars rise and Saudi Arabia enters US market

Boxing's biggest draw set to face Jaime Munguia on Saturday in wake of criticism of his choice of opponents

Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez, right, in action in his win against Jermell Charlo last September. EPA
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Any debate as to boxing’s biggest attraction has been a short one for around a decade now, ended swiftly by a single word: 'Canelo'.

The Mexican, Saul Alvarez, known universally by his nickname, has been the one fighter able to consistently pack arenas and sell pay-per-views, especially in the key US and South American markets.

He claimed the throne in 2015 in the immediate aftermath of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao serving up a turkey in what was this century’s biggest fight, and the most lucrative ever.

As the stench from that anti-climax lingered, just seven days later Alvarez went out and destroyed James Kirkland in three exhilarating rounds and has never looked back.

Yet, while he prepares to face Jaime Munguia in Las Vegas on Saturday for his annual Cinco de Mayo spectacular, the 33-year-old’s grip at the top might just be loosening a little as he heads into the home stretch of his historic career.

There are several factors at play, with the emergence of new stars in the US market, the growing influence of Saudi Arabia and, perhaps most pertinently, his risk-averse approach to selecting opponents chief among them.

The prelude to Alvarez's return to the ring has served to highlight all three of these trends.

There hasn’t exactly been much hype ahead of his all-Mexican showdown with Munguia, with boxing fans still basking in the afterglow of Ryan Garcia’s spectacular upset victory over Devin Haney.

Garcia, 25, a Mexican-American and former stablemate of Alvarez, surged to the brink of crossover stardom in the US as he dropped the heavily-favoured Haney three times on his way to a decision in New York on April 20.

That result provided a signature win for Garcia, whose marketability is exemplified by a sprawling social media footprint of more than 25 million followers across all platforms. He is not the only coming force in the market. Gervonta Davis, inactive since stopping Garcia last April but slated to fight Frank Martin on June 15, is another who moves the needle stateside.

That's not to suggest either can match Alvarez's pulling power, but for so long 'Canelo' has been the only show in town, bouncing from network to network and cashing cheques. Inevitably, one generation must give way to the next, and the likes of Garcia, Haney and Davis are ready to make their mark.

Meanwhile, as the boxing world collectively processed Garcia’s star-making performance, Saudi Arabia made its latest power move, announcing a ‘Riyadh Season’ card to take place in Los Angeles on August 3, headlined by pound-for-pound great Terence Crawford challenging Israil Madrimov for the WBA light-middleweight title.

That compelling main event is just the tip of the iceberg, however, with the card so stacked from top to bottom it immediately kick-started an online debate as to whether it will be the best ever staged on American soil – or at least the best since the early 1990s when Don King would unleash Mike Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez on the same bill.

That raised the prospect of the deepest card in US boxing for more than 30 years coming together with Alvarez conspicuous by his absence; the undisputed super-middleweight champion remaining outside of the Saudi orbit for the time being.

A second international ‘Riyadh Season’ event is expected to take place in London this September, with Anthony Joshua likely to headline.

It seems the Saudi boxing boom will continue for some time yet, with cold, hard cash predictably neutralising the previously entrenched promotional divides that held the sport back.

However, right at the time when the biggest and best fights are starting to materialise, Alvarez has chosen to reject out of hand the challenge of potentially his most dangerous opponent.

The clamour for him to face David Benavidez has been building for some time. In fact, you could make a convincing argument that it is the most intriguing and marketable fight that can be made outside of the heavyweights.

Alvarez (60-2-2) won’t entertain it, though, opting instead to tread the well-worn path of the veteran A-side fighter in denigrating the younger Benavidez’s credentials at every opportunity.

When asked if that is the biggest fight available to him, Alvarez said: “Maybe. Who knows? But he brings nothing to the table for me. He just brings 25 extra pounds on the night of the fight. That’s it. He has nothing to offer me. I’m the one. If a promoter who I work with offers $150 to $200 million, then I'll fight tomorrow. That's the only reason I'll fight with him.”

Alvarez's elevated status as boxing's biggest draw has brought with it handsome rewards, with his guarantee in recent years reported to be in the region of $30-35 million per fight.

Promoter Eddie Hearn has said before he expects the Kingdom to approach Alvarez at some point, but if the past 18 months have shown us anything, it's that they will pay what's required – but only in return for a premium product.

On Saturday, he faces an opponent who, in theory, should help him showcase his famed counterpunching talents. Munguia is aggressive but has displayed vulnerability – especially in a razor-thin victory over Sergiy Derevyanchenko last June – and is considered a live underdog in what is likely to prove a pleasing style match-up.

While the 43-0 Munguia is more than good enough to capitalise should Alvarez's gradual decline suddenly accelerate, his selection, alongside strong rumours of a bout against the limited Edgar Berlanga in September, has done little to dispel the suggestion that 'Canelo' is no longer prepared to take risks since biting off more than he could chew against Dmitry Bivol at light-heavyweight in May 2022.

Since then he has beaten a 40-year-old and faded version of Gennady Golovkin, fringe contender John Ryder and a career light-middleweight in Jermell Charlo.

But in this era of Saudi mega-cards, and as the next generation of US-based fighters begins to make noise, Alvarez will need to do more to stay at the pinnacle. While he claims Benavidez has nothing to offer him, the fickle nature of sport means that fans – and perhaps the Saudis – might soon be asking, ‘what have you got to offer us?’.

Updated: May 01, 2024, 7:02 AM