Canelo Alvarez’s homecoming: Boxing’s biggest star returns to Mexico, his horses and a moment 11 years in the making
GUADALAJARA, Mexico — CANELO ALVAREZ STROLLS on Mexican soil, past the elegant horse fountain that greets visitors and inside the stable lined with his prized stallions — all 30 of them — at his ranch named Las Reinas (The Queens) for his wife and two daughters.
Alvarez doesn’t show his sanctuary often. He finds solace here from the whirlwind pressure he carries as the standard-bearer of his sport the world over — and especially in his boxing-obsessed country.
“This is my home, this is my privacy,” Canelo tells ESPN. “All of this is just for me and for my family. … I love horses. I love riding. And I love being here.”
Canelo takes a deep breath to soak in the air surrounding the dream ranch he’s able to occasionally enjoy between training sessions. When he was a child, Alvarez would work at his godfather’s ranch in Juanacatlán. He milked cows, fed pigs and tended to the horses.
“I liked that a lot,” he says, “and I will never forget that.”
The injury risk of riding a horse so close to this fight night prevents him from his favorite activity, but it doesn’t stop his admiration.
There’s Rancherito, one of Canelo’s first horses, a gift he received from the Mexican singer Ezequiel Pena. Espartano, the calm colt reserved for his 5-year-old daughter, Maria Fernanda, complete with pink saddle. And Rio, Alvarez’s favorite of the brunch.
“I just bought [Rio] like two years, three years ago … from Spain,” Alvarez says. “When you buy … a horse, you need to make sure he is intelligent because he can learn everything — he can do many things. That’s one of the best and more intelligent horses I’ve ever had. They understand you. If you ride one horse with fear, they feel it.
“You can connect with a horse, for sure. … I think [Rio] is special.”
The sprawling property sits on the outskirts of Guadalajara, far from the bright lights of Las Vegas where Alvarez, 32, typically fights. He’s boxed in Sin City 16 times, headlining 15 of those cards, beginning in 2012 with a bout against “Sugar” Shane Mosley.
The last time he competed in Guadalajara was one year prior, when he retained his 154-pound title with a 12th-round TKO of Ryan Rhodes. During all the time that’s passed, Alvarez has climbed to the pinnacle of the sport, from winning titles in four weight classes on his way to a lengthy stay at the top of the pound-for-pound list, to becoming the singular face of global boxing.
During this run through the best fighters boxing has to offer — Gennadiy Golovkin, Erislandy Lara, Sergey Kovalev, Amir Khan and Miguel Cotto, among others — Canelo has lived and trained in San Diego.
But ahead of his first boxing match in Guadalajara since 2011, Alvarez (58-2-2, 39 KOs) is preparing in his homeland for a defense of his undisputed super middleweight championship against England’s John Ryder (32-5, 18 KOs), whom he’ll fight on Saturday at the 50,000-seat Akron Stadium in front of friends, family and a whole lot of fans who have patiently waited for his return.
“It means a lot to me coming back as the best boxer in the world and bringing a great fight, a main event,” he says. “It means so much because at the end of the day, this is the people who always supported me, since the beginning, so I’m bringing them the experience I’ve been living in other places [around the U.S.] so they can experience it, too, in their own city.”
Better yet, Canelo didn’t wait until the end of his fighting days to deliver a bout for his Mexican people like so many countrymen before him.
Rather than a farewell homecoming in the twilight of his career, Alvarez has sacrificed the mega paydays — routinely upward of $35 million, though he’ll still earn eight figures Saturday — he enjoys in the U.S. to bring his people an event while he’s still in his prime as perhaps the world’s top fighter, if not boxing’s top star.
“Sometimes money is not the thing,” Alvarez says. “I just want to fight here with my people who supported me from the beginning and like the best fighter, not like I’m gonna retire …I’m coming like the best fighter out there and I think they deserve this.”
RIGOBERTO ALVAREZ WORKED at his father’s paleteria (ice cream shop), and one day, he was tasked with selling popsicles at the nearby bus station.
But there was one problem: 12-year-old Rigo was embarrassed. He wandered around the bus station and then returned to his father a box filled with melted ice and sticks.
The eldest Alvarez re-stocked that box, and with his crying son in tow, came back to that bus station — the one where the guards often solicited bribes since they didn’t have the requisite permit — to show his oldest boy how it was done.
One after another, the popsicles vanished from the box, replaced by pesos — pesos Rigo would use to sneak into boxing matches at the Arena Coliseo Guadalajara steps from the bus station.
Soon, Rigo wanted to box, a way to defend himself from the constant torment of bigger, stronger bullies at school. Only his father, Santos Alvarez, didn’t want anyone in the family to fight. So Rigo would sneak into the boxing gyms to pursue the sport of his idol, Julio Cesar Chavez, regarded as the greatest Mexican fighter of all time.
By the time his father discovered he was training, Rigo was about 17, independent enough that no one was going to stop him.
At age 22, Rigo turned pro in Mexico with a first-round KO. Eventually, he moved to Tijuana to focus on his blossoming boxing career, but all wasn’t going according to plan.
He returned to Guadalajara after two years of fighting in the pros ready to hang up the gloves for good. But he didn’t come empty handed.
That evening around 7:30, he came over to the family house to say hello to mom and dad when suddenly, little Saul, 12½ years his junior, was pressing him.
“Hey, dude, where are my gloves?”
“Hey, kiddo, first say hi and give me a hug. Go open my trunk, you’ll find your gloves and your headgear.”
Rigo gloved up his 11-year-old brother and another kid from the neighborhood Saul brought along and went back to chatting with his mother. Boxing was over for him, Rigo said. He’d had enough.
But suddenly, something changed as Saul and his friend exchanged some punches. When Rigo stopped the clock to signal the end of the round, he looked over at their mother in astonishment.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Well, your son here is a raw diamond. He was born to do this.”
“Rigo, I want to be like you,” Canelo said.
“No, bro, you’re not gonna be like me, you’re gonna be better.”
One major impediment still loomed: their father’s blessing. Every evening, Rigo trained Saul at home before Santos returned from his ice cream shop. Eventually, buzz started to percolate around a 12-year-old wunderkind who was making the rounds at boxing gyms around Guadalajara.
By the time he turned 13, Canelo was ready to fight in the amateurs. So Rigo sat his father down at the paleteria to persuade him.
“Why don’t you want him to fight?” Rigo asked.
“I don’t want them to hit him,” Santos replied.
“But one thing you don’t understand about your son: he was born to hit others so you don’t have to worry.”
Santos seemed unmoved by the conversation. But one day, when Canelo was scheduled to compete in the amateurs, Santos took him to the ice cream shop. When Rigo went home that evening to pick up Canelo for his fight, he was nowhere to be found.
“Where’s Saul?” Rigo asked their mother.
“Actually, your dad took him to go compete himself,” she said.
All these years later, Santos recalls that conversation at the ice cream shop that changed their lives forever. “Your son, he’s going to be famous; he’s going to be a star. And he’s not going to get hit.”
“Wow, you said it, and look at us: Now we’re living it.”
A BIG SMILE washes over the face of Jose “Chepo” Reynoso as he sits on a stool inside the ring of his cozy Julian Magdaleno Gym in Guadalajara.
At 70, Chepo acknowledges that he doesn’t recall as much these days, but a moment in 2003 when one teenager walked through his gym doors for the first time is etched forever in his memory. The teen was scrawny, just 13 years old, and possessed red hair and freckles.
Alvarez trained at the Julian Magdaleno Gym during the next five years, laying the foundation for his transcendent career. It was clear to Chepo that Saul Alvarez was no ordinary boy. There was simply something innately special about the kid he nicknamed Canelito, Spanish for “Little Cinnamon.”
“The first day I trained, that’s when I thought, ‘This is what I want to do with my life,'” Canelo recalls. “And I committed 100% to it. It took me a year and a half to debut as a pro, so I focused 100% and to me, boxing came first always…. I wanted to become a world champion because I had good examples at the gym.”
“It’s a very special place for me because that’s where I started learning everything,” he adds. “I will always be thankful to my brother Rigoberto for bringing me to Eddy and Chepo because they were the right people to bring me to where I am right now. Boxing is a rough sport when you are in the wrong hands.”
Chepo’s assessment of his young prodigy would be validated during Alvarez’s 13th pro fight in Tepic, the capital of Nayarit, a western state about 108 miles from the gym. Canelo was 17, and when Chepo saw the size of his opponent at the weigh-in, he immediately became concerned.
“He was a grown-up man in his thirties, with a bunch of tattoos and very, very strong,” Chepo remembers. “I was like, ‘Oh my god!'”
After all, Chepo knew Canelo’s parents trusted him with their son’s safety in this unforgiving sport. What would he tell them if Canelo was hurt? So Chepo informed the promoter: “If I think my kid is in danger, I’m gonna stop the fight.”
“We couldn’t cancel the fight because it was the main event, but the promoter agreed … ‘OK, if it’s too dangerous, you stop the fight,'” Chepo recounts. “And I told Saul, “I’m worried — he’s very strong.”
Canelo quickly calmed his trainer’s fears. He floored Jesus Hernandez in the closing moments of the opening round and finished him off with a knockout just 12 seconds into Round 2.
“Saul came to the corner and told me, ‘There you have your worries!'” Chepo says. “Since that day I’ve never worried again.”
Alvarez would go on to knock out opponents big and small, fast and powerful, from 147 pounds to 175 pounds. All along, he exhibited the five characteristics Chepo says he looks for in an elite boxer: discipline, talent, character, punch resistance, and of course, a powerful punch.
“He threw punches and always moved forward, but he didn’t move his head, so we started teaching him how to move his body, how to feint, and many other things,” Chepo says. ” … Whatever we taught him, he learned it extremely fast. … We were amazed.
“Look, this kid learns and not only that, he comes here and does it in the ring. That was the difference between him and many other kids that didn’t make it in this sport.”
In October 2005, Alvarez was ready for his pro debut. The venue: Arena Chololo Larios, a humble arena named after Chepo’s first champion, Oscar Larios.
He scored a fourth-round TKO victory and made a request to his idol, “El Chololo”: “I want you in my corner when I become a champion.”
“Saul has talked about it, he got a lot of motivation from Chololo, a disciplined man who became a world champion,” Chepo says, “and Saul saw how they treat a champion and said, ‘I want to be a world champion too.'”
Canelo’s development continued. He fine-tuned his game in Mexico before he headed to the U.S. for his first true test (and mainstream American exposure).
On the PPV undercard of Floyd Mayweather-Mosley in Las Vegas in May 2010, Canelo was rocked in the opening round by Jose Cotto, the brother of then-star boxer Miguel Cotto. Alvarez weathered the storm and rallied to score a ninth-round TKO.
“When he started fighting, he used to knock out a lot, so we knew he had the power in his hands. We knew he was smart, but he’d never been hit,” Chepo says. “We didn’t know if he could take the punches. Cotto hit him in the first round in Las Vegas, it was his debut in Las Vegas, and he handled it well….
“He was hurt, but he didn’t go down; it was the only round he lost. After that, he regained control and the fight was over by the second round. That day we knew Saul had a good jaw, too.”
With these victories, Saul “Canelito” Alvarez became Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, and as his star grew to meteoric proportions, he was transformed into a mononym: Canelo.
In March 2011, four months shy of his 21st birthday, Canelo became a champion with a decision win over Matthew Hatton (Ricky Hatton’s younger brother) in Anaheim, California. Standing in his corner: Oscar “El Chololo” Larios.
“Saul always honors his word,” Chepo says. “Since he was a kid, he’s been like that. He always keeps his promises — he’s not two-faced — and what he says he’s gonna do, he does it, and that brings me a lot of joy.”
Three months later, in June 2011, Alvarez made the first defense of his title. The venue: a 15,000-seat arena in Guadalajara owned by the famed Mexican singer Vicente Fernandez.
“Vicente Fernandez and some other celebrities were there to watch the fight and the people were thrilled because I came as a world champion to my first defense of the title,” Canelo says. “I was happy to offer them a fight for the championship to the people who supported me since the beginning of my career.”
Alvarez hasn’t fought in Mexico since a November 2011 bout against Kermit Cintron. Fans in attendance that night watched a victorious rising prospect who was on the precipice of mainstream exposure and acceptance. On Saturday, he’ll return to those fans as the face of a sport and one of the highest paid athletes in the world.
CANELO’S MOTTO IS emblazoned in large white letters surrounded by gold stars on the black wall of his posh, air-conditioned gym on the more affluent westside of Guadalajara.
No Boxing, No Life.
The gym is just a short drive from the ranch, and on this morning just 19 days away from fight night, there’s little time for horseplay. Alvarez skips rope while Eddy Reynoso intently watches on. The same slogan is written across Reynoso’s black hat.
There’s an air of seriousness that follows Alvarez and his team while he trains, and following an underwhelming 2022, Canelo needed a reset.
Last May, Canelo, fighting at 175 pounds for just the second time, was routed by champion Dmitry Bivol. Four months after that setback, Alvarez was back at 168 pounds for a defense of his undisputed championship against his bitter rival, GGG. Canelo came through with the victory, but he didn’t look like his usual self. He stated after the bout that he would need surgery on a nagging left wrist injury.
“When you lose, it’s hard, but it’s boxing and this is life…,” Alvarez says. “It’s a lot of stress when you have some issues in your body…. As a fighter, I say, ‘No … I can keep training and I can do it with one hand,’ and that’s not true. You need to be 100% because … the fighters out there, they train 100% to fight with me because they have nothing to lose. So that’s more f—ing danger for me.”
Eddy Reynoso, Canelo’s main trainer, knows how much Canelo pushes himself through the trials and tribulations of the cruelest sport.
“[These have been] the most difficult moments of his career … there’s been a lot, but he doesn’t like to show it,” Reynoso says. “I know he’s had hard moments in his personal life, but he’s always been a strong person and never lets you see he’s desperate.
“And that’s one of his best qualities: that despite going through hard times, he always shows the best attitude at the gym and that has made him a strong man.”
The hardest moment of his professional career came when Canelo was just 23, far from the multi-dimensional fighter he would grow into. But even then — and even in defeat — his immense star power was on display.
Mayweather comfortably boxed his way to a decision victory when they met in 2013, an event that generated approximately $150 million in revenue, the second-highest grossing boxing match in history at the time.
Despite the commercial success, Alvarez was disappointed.
“He learned he still had things to learn and to raise his head and keep going,” Chepo says. “You can’t sit down and cry over your losses; no, no, you have to think, ‘I have to learn more, I have to know more, I have to work harder.'”
Canelo adopted that mindset, of course, and improved by leaps and bounds. Traditionally, Eddy pointed out, Mexican boxers start at 135 pounds and below — legends like Chavez, Juan Manuel Marquez, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera.
But a Mexican icon competing at 160 pounds, let alone 168 and 175? Sure, there have been Mexican fighters who won titles at those weight classes, but never at the highest levels.
“He’s a very small fighter for those divisions, but despite that, he defeated the [challenges] in his career and that’s why I believe he has been and will continue to be an unconventional athlete,” Eddy Reynoso says.
“Saul has been the Mexican idol the country wanted because each time he fights the stadium is full. … To me, Saul is, without a doubt, the best Mexican boxer in history.”
There will be many who will argue for Chavez, but Canelo is still building his case. Two months shy of his 33rd birthday, Alvarez remains in his prime with a chance to leave no doubt.
Alvarez continues to push for a rematch with Bivol, a challenge that seems like an insurmountable task after the way the first fight played out. And there’s also the prospect of a fight with David Benavidez, an undefeated, Mexican-American volume-puncher.
Victories over Bivol and Benavidez would only firm up Alvarez’s claim as the greatest Mexican boxer of all time, and on Saturday, he’ll give back to all those who have supported him since Day 1.
“I think we’re gonna enjoy watching Saul fighting and that motivates many young kids,” Rigo says. “The same way we felt motivated by Julio Cesar Chavez, I think right now there are a lot of kids that find motivation in Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez and that’s good because one day a kid will tell Saul, “I wanna be like you”, and he’ll be able to tell him, ‘No, you’re gonna be better than me.'”
And just maybe, Canelo will have a special guest in attendance. His grandmother has never been ringside for one of his fights — Canelo says she’s frightened when he’s in the ring — but he’s hoping she’ll be there among the 50,000 Mexican-flag waving fans obsessed with the beautiful sport of boxing and the man who has become synonymous with the fight game.
“These are the people who always supported me, since the beginning, so I’m bringing them the experience I’ve been living in other places so they can experience it, too, in their own city,” he says.
“It’s gonna be one of the best nights of my career…. It’s gonna be a very special moment for me and all my people.”
And after the fight is over, there won’t be a post-fight party on the Las Vegas strip or A-list celebrities waiting for him at a lavish club. Instead, Canelo will return back to his family, his horses and his ranch. The place that brings the world’s most famous pugilist the tranquility he craves.