By STEVE BRENNER
GRAPEVINE, Tex. — The Mariachi band played with unmistakable pride. Fans screamed, desperately scrambling to get a glimpse of their hero.
Young and old, several hundred of them came out on Wednesday to pay homage to Sául Álvarez, the Mexican boxer widely known as Canelo and viewed as one of the most popular — and marketable — stars of a sport entering its post-Floyd Mayweather, post-Manny Pacquiao era.
“I took my girls out of school for the day so they could see him,” Jessica Muniz of Dallas admitted as she watched Álvarez’s public workout on Wednesday at the Gaylord Texan Resort here. Muniz said her 10-year-old daughter, Aubrey, is an aspiring boxer who has modeled her style on Álvarez’s aggressive, power-punching approach.
“Girls her age normally have posters of boy bands on the wall,” Muniz said. “She has pictures of Canelo.”
The appeal is there for all to see. The 26-year-old Álvarez, a handsome, dynamic technician whose next win will be his 50th as a professional, is considered by some to be the best fighter in the word. He is in Texas this week to attempt to seize the super-welterweight title of Liam Smith, an unbeaten Englishman from Liverpool. The fight, on Saturday night at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium in Arlington, will take place less than 24 hours after Mexican Independence Day, and that convergence of a state holiday and a popular Mexican fighter in a big fight has set up what amounts to a perfect boxing storm.
Oscar De La Hoya, the former world champion who now acts as a promoter and mentor to Álvarez, predicted this week that more than 70,000 fans would attend the fight. That would break the nearly 40-year-old record for an indoor boxing match, set when 63,350 turned out to see Muhammad Ali beat Leon Spinks in 1978 at the Superdome in New Orleans. The audience willing to pay to see the Alvarez-Smith bout on television will be multiples of the in-person crowd.
In interviews this week, Álvarez (49-1, 33 knockouts) called the chance to represent Mexico this weekend “a great honor.”
“It is great to know there will be so much love from them,” he said.
Raised in the rural town of Juanacatlán, Álvarez grew up in a family of seven siblings — including six brothers who all became professional fighters. He learned to ride horses on his family’s farm as a boy, and at times he still appears happier riding bareback at breakneck speed as he is in aiming for his third world title. Even as his talent in the ring has won praise, it is a different word people often ascribe to him — humility — that has only added to his appeal.
“Mexico is paralyzed when Sául fights,” said his trainer, Chepo Reynoso. “I’ve known him since he was a kid and he hasn’t changed over the years despite the fame.”
The only difference, Reynoso said, is that now “he rides better horses.”
For now, the only blemish on Álvarez’s record is a defeat — on points, at age 23 — at the hands of the ultimately unbeaten Mayweather. Since then, Álvarez’s performances have impressed, especially his 2015 encounter against Miguel Cotto. The victory over Cotto won him the middleweight title, a belt that he defended once and then relinquished to return to his more natural weight, but it also helped elevate Álvarez to boxing’s apex.
Yet as far as Álvarez has come, support for him is not universal. There are those who doubt him as a fighter, or as a box-office draw. For some of his countrymen, though, the main problem is aesthetic: at first glance, Álvarez just doesn’t look Mexican. His nickname, Canelo, means cinnamon in Spanish, and it is a reference to his thick red hair.
“Some Mexicans don’t recognize what a great fighter he is,” said Ernesto Amador, a TV commentator for the Univision Sports network.
He added: “You have two different types of Mexican fans: those who live in the United States know their stuff and appreciate the efforts. He is an idol. But in Mexico, his critics know nothing about boxing. They drink two beers and think they are experts. I was a fighter. I know how good he is.”
The sales for HBO’s pay-per-view coverage of Saturday’s fight will be a good sign of Álvarez’s drawing power. His fight with Cotto produced more than 930,000 subscription buys, but that number was halved earlier this year when Álvarez defended his newly won middleweight title against England’s Amir Khan.
That means reputations, as well as quite of bit of money, will be on the line Saturday night. That and an even bigger payday on the horizon, against the current middleweight champion, Gennady Golovkin.
Golovkin, a ferocious and fearsome puncher from Kazakhstan, is arguably the most dangerous boxer in the world at the moment, and one of the few rivals to Álvarez as a marquee draw. The possibility of his being paired with Álvarez in a head-to-head rivalry similar to Mayweather-Pacquiao is creating a frenzy.
An Álvarez-Golovkin encounter, however, won’t happen as quickly as either camp desires. Golovkin operates as a middleweight, at 160 pounds, while Álvarez will weigh in for Saturday’s fight against Smith at 154. Álvarez has never fought heavier than 155, and his camp has shown little interest — so far — in moving up.
Still, while there are risks to agreeing to fight a bigger, more experienced opponent — at 34, Golovkin is eight years older than Álvarez — the potential of a multimillion-dollar payoff has given everyone involved a sense of urgency to set a date.
“It will happen next year,” De La Hoya said Wednesday, not for the first time.
Until then, Álvarez will fight for himself, for his fans, and for Mexico.
“He is a humble man and that’s why Canelo is so popular,” said Robert Montano, a fan from Fort Worth.
Montano, too, acknowledged that Álvarez still has doubters. Just not at the gate.
“I think the fact he doesn’t look Mexican makes some think twice,” Montano said. “The girls like him though, which is important. And if the girls buy tickets, the boys will follow.”