Steve Bunce on Boxing: Saul "Canelo" Alvarez - the child brawler who went from murky meets to world title


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The Independent Online

There are child stars in safe sports such as tennis, chess and golf where contact is minimal but it is rare in boxing for people to turn professional until they are 19 or 20 at the earliest.

Saul "Canelo" Alvarez had fought 21 times before his 18th birthday and won his first world title when he was just 20. Alvarez turned professional when he was 15 and entered a secretive and often shunned world of fights between very young fighters that exists and thrives in Mexico. They are not illegal fights – they show up on a fighter's record – but some of the locations and tales from the bloody and murky business are dreadful.

This Saturday, in Texas, Alvarez, now 22 and unbeaten in 42 fights, is in a bout for the partial unification of the world light-middleweight title when he meets another fully mature man in Austin Trout, who is 27. Alvarez graduated from the truly mean streets of the hard business but thousands in Mexico fail to make the grade and vanish too soon. However, some continue to fight on the alternative circuit and have records like one win and eight defeats, in the case of Alvarez's first opponent, or no wins in seven fights, Alvarez's second opponent. The third boy he met, Miguel Vazquez, is a world champion at lightweight, which seems to validate the baby-boxing business in Mexico.

It can be a brutal and brutalising apprenticeship and in many ways it exposes the gap between Mexico's rich professional heritage and its chaotic amateur existence. The type of fights that Alvarez had during his first years as a professional were little more than amateur contests with money, no head guards and without vests. Sadly and disturbingly, there is very little scope for losing and learning; Alvarez fought a 10-round fight of three minutes each round just a month after turning 18 – as an amateur, he would have just left the safety of three rounds of two minutes each. "It was a hard way to learn but it suited me fine," Alvarez said. "In some fights the opponents were my age and in other fights they were older. I had to learn fast to survive and I did." He certainly did and testimony from the men that have shared the ring with him in the last couple of years is glowing. "His time and judgement is fantastic," said Sheffield's Ryan Rhodes, who himself still holds the record for being the youngest man to win a British title aged 20. "Forget his age, he's a man and I reckon he has been for a very long time." Alvarez beat Rhodes in a world title fight in Mexico in 2011.

In 2001, the American squad at the World Amateur Championship in Belfast included a brilliant young welterweight called Anthony Thompson, who was just 16 and too young to enter. However, there was some type of farcical blunder – there was an alternative birth date – and he was allowed to fight, winning a few contests and getting closer to a medal before he was named as an illegal competitor by the big-hearted Cuban delegation. He was yanked out, turned professional after some serious offers and faded without glory. He had too much, too soon and clearly struggled with living the right life. Alvarez is like a saint, so they say.

My favourite child brawler was a Puerto Rican fighting genius called Wilfred Benitez. He turned professional just after his 15th birthday and won the world light-welterweight title from Antonio Cervantes, arguably one of the sport's forgotten idols, at just 17. Benitez was terrifying in the ring, a contender at 17 for the greatest fighter of all time, but lifestyle and his hard ring years took an early toll and by 25 he was wrecked. Alvarez is fighting history on every level and it needs to be said that life can be savage for a washed–up teenage star, even in safe sports.