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Canelo Mania Is Here

Kelsey McCarson

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Canelo Alvares

Last Thursday, Canelo Alvarez and Austin Trout visited Houston, Texas as part of their three-city, two-day press tour to promote their WBC and WBA Super Welterweight World Championship Unification bout. The highly anticipated encounter is set for Saturday, April 20 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas and will be televised live on Showtime.

An eight-piece mariachi band strums gallant war hymns in anticipation of his arrival. Some of Mexico’s finest and most recognizable music fills the air, as anxious onlookers line the specially brought in barrier gates hoping to catch a glimpse of the fair-skinned, redheaded fighter called Canelo.

The PlazAmericas mall has become the frequent home of such boxing related events as of late. Press tours, weigh-ins, fan events—PlazAmericas is Houston’s de facto home of pre-fight proceedings. Many have appeared here. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. has strolled through these halls at least twice already, toting with him Mexican legend and father, Chavez Sr. The old man almost always brings telecast partner Marco Antonio Barrera along, who in any other tandem would stand a chance at being the most recognizable Mexican in the building. Erik Morales stepped on the scales here in 2012, before his first valiant effort against rising force Danny Garcia. Jorge Arce and Nonito Donaire stood on this very same stage back in November, a makeshift encampment sandwiched between some escalators and the food court.

Yes, fight fans flocked in droves to see these men, but no one — no one– packed them in the way Canelo Alvarez did last week.

“Viva Mexico!” an admirer screams at him, as the undefeated junior middleweight strides in with unassuming confidence just as the band triumphantly finishes its final song.

The obvious is apparent. At the tender age of 22, Canelo Alvarez (seen in above photo by Rachel McCarson) is already Mexico’s biggest boxing star. More than that, though, he’s also one of the country’s most recognizable pop celebrities. In fact, Paul Magno, editor of The Boxing Tribune, told me Canelo was as big as a celebrity can get in Mexico.

“How big is Canelo here? Mention boxing to any mainstream, casual fan and Canelo is the name you'll immediately hear,” said Magno, a U.S. expatriate who now calls Mexico home.

Even in Texas, Magno’s words rang true. When the 23-year-old walked onto the stage, many of the women in attendance blushed and gushed over his cinnamon-colored hair and fair, freckled face as if Brad Pitt had just walked into the room. The men were no better, only more interested in what he does with his fists than his boyish charms. He was adored by everyone in attendance and he seemed to know it.

Canelo is calm and relaxed on the stage. He doesn’t even turn his head when his opponent, Austin Trout, enters the fray. The man who just went into hell and beat the devil (as Paulie Malignaggi described fighting Miguel Cotto at MSG) seems different than Canelo. He’s nervous, even agitated at times. Sometimes, he just stares off into space smiling. Other times, he’s distracted by the colored pixels on the slick little device he carries around in his pocket.

Both men are stylishly dressed, each carrying a far away intensity in their eyes, but the photographers in attendance only seem interested in capturing the Mexican’s. Canelo is stoic. His green WBC belt rests in front of him as he sits with a slight slouch next to Golden Boy Promotions’ head honcho and namesake, Oscar de la Hoya. Trout is on the other side, the podium acting as a barricade to the men who will intend much harm to each other April 20th in San Antonio. Trout’s WBA strap is conspicuously absent, but no matter. Those in attendance know the fight means more than those trivial titles can offer. Each man is top of his class, primed and ready for the pinnacle of their careers.

The crowd has quieted a bit now, perhaps in awe of the spectacle. San Antonio’s mayor pro tem, Ed Gonzalez, is here. He has made the 200-mile trip over to represent the host city. He steps to the center of the stage and admonishes the fans for being subdued. They respond in full force with chants of CA-NE-LO, CA-NE-LO, CA-NE-LO.

Their fervor heightens as De La Hoya takes the mic.

“We have a very special event between Austin Trout and Canelo Alvarez,” says De La Hoya. “Not in Las Vegas…not on PPV…it will be a memorable event in Texas!”

De La Hoya tells the crowd what they already know. It’s a great matchup between two young, undefeated titlists at the top of their games. It’s the kind of fight that gets made way less often than it should in boxing.

“The future is right here,” says Oscar. “Boxing is alive and well. Boxing is strong!”

San Antonio’s top promotional team, Mike Battah and Jesse James Leija, agree. Leija-Battah Promotions is a fast rising force in the state of Texas, where more and more fights seem to get made every year. Over the past two years, the company has become the premier local promotional company of the Lone Star state.

“We pushed to have it in Texas,” says Battah. “We fought for it! This is where the fight fans are!”

“We’ve been fighting so hard to bring a big time fight to Texas,” Leija confirms. Then, with a mischievous smile he adds: “I told Oscar to bring a big event to Texas or else we’re going to get back in the ring for a rematch!”

Austin Trout is the first of the combatants to come to the podium. He is greeted by a polite applause.

“That song that was playing when I came up,” Trout says. “Drake said it best: started from the bottom now we’re here…started from the bottom, now my whole team is here!”

Trout calls Alvarez a true champion. He thanks him for taking the fight and says boxing is in such a state today that Alvarez could have easily taken any fight he wanted. He didn’t have to take the toughest fight he could find, but did. The two men nod in respect as he speaks.

“They think boxing is dying,” he says to the fans. “But it’s never going to be dead when we have fans like ya’ll!”

The crowd is pleased.

Next comes their star, Canelo. The roar of the crowd is deafening. The chanting begins again. It is Canelo mania in full force. CA-NE-LO! CA-NE-LO! CA-NE-LO! The crowd is screaming and chanting. CA-NE-LO!! CA-NE-LO!! CA-NE-LO!!  It is louder than ever. The throng of onlookers pushes forward now. Even the writers and media members are bumping elbows now.

There is a gleam in his eye. These people love him. Love. And his smile says he may very well love them, too. He’s trying to quiet them down so he can talk, but he can’t seem to help himself. He soaks as much of it in as he can before getting out but out a few words in his native Spanish.

“I am very well prepared. It will be a difficult fight but I’m ready,” he says in Spanish with a smile. “I’m ready.”

And so, it would seem, were the people in Houston last Thursday. We are ready, they say, for a great fight on April 20, ready to witness yet another of their rising Herculean labors, ready to bask in the glory of the presence of the next great Mexican boxing champion. He is here, they say within their hearts. He is here. Our hero has arrived. Canelo Alvarez is here.

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Jan. 29, 1994: A Stunning Upset Animates the Debut of Boxing at the MGM Grand

Arne K. Lang

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Twenty-six years have elapsed since the first boxing card at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. The inaugural show took place on Jan. 29, 1994, the eve of Super Bowl XXVII.

A little background: The MGM Grand opened on Dec. 17, 1993. With its 5,005 rooms, it was the largest hotel in the world. The MGM Grand Garden arena, effectively the municipal auditorium of the self-styled “City of Entertainment,” was christened on New Years Eve with a concert by Barbara Streisand. Twenty-nine days later, the bill of fare was an 11-fight boxing card promoted by Don King.

Looking back, seven of the participants – boxers Julio Cesar Chavez, Felix Trinidad, Hector Camacho, Thomas Hearns, and Christy Martin and referees Richard Steele and Joe Cortez – would go on to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Hearns, who was nearing the end of his career, having grown into a cruiserweight, was matched soft, as was Christy Martin who was making her Las Vegas debut and was then looked upon as a sideshow novelty act. Two other notables, heavyweight Razor Ruddock and welterweight Meldrick Taylor, were likewise deployed in stay-busy fights. The undercards of Don King’s major promotions typically took this tack – big names in little fights.

Topping the bill were three world title fights. WBC 154-pound title-holder Simon Brown opposed Troy Waters. Trinidad defended his IBF welterweight title against Camacho. And in the grand finale, the great Chavez, who held a junior welterweight title, was matched against Frankie Randall.

Simon Brown had a more difficult time than expected against Troy Waters, a teak-tough Australian, but prevailed on a majority decision. Trinidad, at age 21 the younger man by 10 years, chased Camacho all over the ring en route to winning a unanimous decision. And Chavez….

The MGM Grand Garden was scaled to hold 15,200, but there were a lot of empty seats; the announced attendance was 12,777. One would have expected a sellout as Las Vegas is chock-full of revelers on a Super Bowl weekend, but there was an extenuating circumstance.

Twelve days before the fight, at 4:30 am on Jan. 17, Southern California was struck by an earthquake. Centered in the San Fernando Valley, about 20 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, the Northridge Earthquake damaged buildings as far as 85 miles away. It buckled portions of some heavily-traveled freeways, forcing their closure and repairs were hindered by a scattered series of aftershocks that lasted the better part of two weeks.

Visitors from Southern California are the backbone of the Las Vegas tourism industry. Most arrive by car. The earthquake had the effect of reducing hotel occupancy as many Southern Californians cancelled their reservations and that assuredly spilled over into the fight, hurting attendance. But those that were there witnessed a memorable main event.

Frankie Randall, nicknamed the Surgeon, hailed from Morristown, Tennessee. He had an excellent record (48-2-1, 39 KOs), but Julio Cesar Chavez, who owned the most eye-catching record in boxing (officially 89-0-1), was so highly regarded that he was listed as a 17/1 favorite in the MGM sports book.

Randall started strong, an indication that he would be a hard nut to crack. But the middle rounds belonged to Chavez with his patented body attack. In round seven, one of those body punches strayed too low and Richard Steele deducted a point.

In round 11, Steele deducted another point for the same infraction and, worse for Chavez, he was knocked down for the first time in his career. It was a straight right hand that did the damage, a clean punch, and although Chavez was up at the count of “three,” it was a 10-8 round for Randall.

During the early rounds, shouts of “May-hee-co, May-hee-co” reverberated through the arena. Late in the fight, when one could sense that an upset was brewing, shouts of “USA, USA” punctuated the din.

The 11th round proved decisive. When the scores were read, the Mexican judge favored Chavez 114-113, but he was overruled by the Puerto Rican judge (114-113) and the Las Vegas judge (116-111). If not for those two points deducted by referee Richard Steele – the same referee who had controversially stopped Chavez’s fight with Meldrick Taylor with one second remaining on the clock in the final round – Julio Cesar Chavez would have retained his title — and his undefeated record — on a split decision.

Chavez did not take losing very well. He bellyached that he was robbed, an opinion that found few sympathizers. A fast rematch was arranged which took place at the MGM Grand on Cinco de Mayo weekend. In this fight, an accidental clash of heads late in round eight left Chavez with a bad gash on his forehead and the fight was stopped. By rule, it went to the scorecards where Chavez emerged the winner by split decision, a very controversial denouement (and a story for another day). There would be a rubber match in Mexico City when both gladiators were in their 40’s, a dull 10-round affair scored in favor of Chavez.

By the way, on the day following the debut of boxing at the MGM Grand, the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Buffalo Bills 30-13 at Atlanta. As Super Bowls go, this one didn’t attract all that much buzz. The same teams had met in the Super Bowl the previous year and Dallas had won by “35.”

By all indications, the forthcoming Super Bowl will be a doozy. Enjoy the game.

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Introducing Top Prospect Raeese Aleem, the Pride of Muskegon

Arne K. Lang

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At age 29, Raeese Aleem has yet to appear in a 10-round fight, but that will almost assuredly happen this year. The undefeated (15-0, 9 KOs) super bantamweight from Muskegon, Michigan, takes another step in that direction on Friday, Feb. 14, when he opposes San Antonio’s Adam Lopez (16-3-2) at Philadelphia in a bout that will air on “ShoBox,” the long-running SHOWTIME series that’s been a springboard for 81 fighters who went on to win world titles.

Aleem earned a black belt in karate before taking up boxing and becoming a four-time Michigan Golden Gloves champion. As an amateur, he and his coach Terry Markowski did a considerable amount of traveling between meets to find good sparring. Grand Rapids, an amateur boxing hotbed, was just down the road, but Detroit and Chicago were a good three hours away and on occasion they went on an even longer excursion into Ohio.

Aleem turned pro in 2011 and had his first 10 fights on the Midwest circuit, venturing as far north as Green Bay and as far south as Cincinnati. At the time, he worked in the produce department of Meijer’s, a regional rival of Walmart. His bosses, he notes, were generous in letting him juggle his work schedule around his boxing assignments.

For a boxer with designs on winning a world title, the Midwest circuit is like a bicycle with training wheels. Aleem had to shake free of it to see how far he could go. Besides, getting fights was getting tougher and tougher. There’s a 28-month gap in his pro timeline that includes all of 2013. He had several fights fall out during this frustrating quiescence.

If you’re an aspiring film actor, you go to Hollywood. If you’re an aspiring boxing champion, you go to Las Vegas. Not a week goes by without a young fellow turning up here to test his mettle in one of the many local gyms with the hope of attracting the eye of one of the major promotional firms.

“When I came to Las Vegas,” says Aleem who has a daughter back in Michigan, “I had no family here, no friends.” He was directed to Barry’s boxing gym, run by ex-boxer Pat Barry and his wife Dawn, retired Las Vegas police officers, and started training under their son-in-law Augie Sanchez. But Sanchez, the last man to defeat Floyd Mayweather Jr (accomplished when they were amateurs), had other priorities. He is an assistant coach with Team USA which obligates him to spend a good deal of his time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Things started looking up for Aleem when he joined the Prince Ranch stable under the management of Greg Hannley. At the Prince Ranch Gym, where the head trainer is Bones Adams, he has sparred with such notables as Nonito Donaire and former WBO 122-pound champion Jessie Magdaleno.

Aleem doesn’t miss the weather in Muskegon, a lakefront city where sub-freezing temperatures are the norm in the dead of winter and snow is forecast for all of next week. But he still has one foot in his hometown, as evident by his unbroken bond with Terry Markowski. In an era when some boxers appear to change trainers as often as they change their underwear, Aleem has remained loyal to Markowski who has been in his corner for all of his pro fights and will be there again on Feb. 14.

Markowski, who teaches boxing at the Muskegon Rec Center, is a protégé of Muskegon’s most esteemed boxer, the late Kenny Lane. The epitome of a crafty southpaw, Lane, a lightweight and junior welterweight, was a three-time world title challenger during a 100-fight career that began in 1953.

The relationship between Raeese Aleem and Terry Markowski dates back to 2003 when Aleem resided in the nearby village of Ravenna, where Aleem’s father, the patriarch of a large blended family, planted Raeese and his siblings to get them away from the temptations of Muskegon which has several blighted areas. “It was a culture shock for me when I started going to school in Ravenna,” says Aleem, looking back, as none of his schoolmates looked like him.

This will be Aleem’s fifth fight in Pennsylvania where he has made four of his last five starts. The connecting thread is Reading, Pennsylvania gym operator-turned-promoter Marshall Kauffman who has been credited with keeping boxing vibrant in the Keystone State.

This being Aleem’s national television debut, it’s important that he make a good showing. His Las Vegas trainer Bones Adams, a former world champion in Aleem’s weight division, expects nothing less. “I’m confident he will be a world champion someday,” says Adams.

Photo credit: Mario Serrano / Prince Ranch Boxing

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A Bouquet for Danny Garcia in This Week’s Edition of HITS and MISSES

Kelsey McCarson

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Two-division champion Danny Garcia had the spotlight all to himself over the weekend in a stay-busy fight against Ivan Redkach on Saturday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It was the main event of a Showtime Championship Boxing tripleheader that had the odd privilege these days of not being counterprogrammed by a Top Rank show on ESPN or any other kind of boxing card on DAZN.

So Garcia, 31, from Philadelphia, had the chance to remind people how excellent a fighter he is in full force, which would help him greatly in his effort to secure an unlikely bout against WBA champ Manny Pacquiao or remain first in line to face WBC and IBF champ Errol Spence whenever the Texan recovers from the injuries he sustained in a car accident in October.

But did Garcia pull it off? Here’s the latest edition of HITS and MISSES.

HIT – Danny Garcia’s Pristine and Precise Technique 

The best parts about Garcia were on full display against Redkach. That was made easier by Redkach’s lack of anything that might have given Garcia any real problems, but nonetheless Garcia was able to show the lovely footwork and balanced countering ability that made him so formidable at junior welterweight. There’s just something special about seeing Garcia fight. The economy of his movement inside a boxing ring is something that is just plain different than just about any other world-class fighter in the world today. In a fight that most people probably would have preferred he just skipped, and one that didn’t turn out to be any different than everyone expected, at least Garcia’s beautiful boxing was on display.

MISS – Showtime Sparring Sessions

In addition to Garcia-Redkach, Showtime rounded out its tripleheader with undefeated junior featherweight Stephen Fulton taking on former Muay Thai fighter Arnold Khegai and former unified junior middleweight champion Jarrett Hurd taking on career welterweight Francisco Santana. While Fulton’s fight against Khegai seemed like a legitimate prizefight, there was something about the other two bouts that screamed sparring sessions. That was especially the case for Hurd’s bout. Not only was Hurd in there with a middling welterweight, but he also used the rounds of the fight to work on vastly different boxing techniques than what made him so popular in the first place. Showtime might not have the pull they once had with the people over at the PBC offices, but they for sure need to get more involved in vetting matchups if they hope to remain afloat within the competitive boxing landscape of today.

HIT – Stephon Fulton’s Title Chances at 122 Pounds

Fulton is a very solid boxer who digs to the body and has a fast, clean jab. Khegai was the perfect kind of opponent for the 25-year-old. He was very game and never stopped trying to win. Additionally, his background in Muay Thai offered some different looks to Fulton that should help him on his way toward world title contention. In the end, Fulton outworked Khegai to hand the tough 27-year-old the first loss of his career. Now let’s hope Fulton is off to bigger and better things such as challenging for a world title. He’s ready right now.

MISS – Andy Ruiz’s Continued Soap Opera

The best thing former unified champion Andy Ruiz could have done after blowing the rematch against Anthony Joshua in December is getting right back to work in the gym. What better way to show trainer Manny Robles that he was taking responsibility for his actions than to get right back to work with the same team he had just let down so badly? Instead, Ruiz fired Robles and is considering other trainers. That would make more sense if there had been some sort of tactical error in the fight. But Ruiz already admitted he simply didn’t train for arguably the biggest fight of his life, and that’s not anyone’s fault but his own.

HIT – Former Middleweight Titleholder Andy Lee’s Second Act

It appears former WBO middleweight champion Andy Lee found his second act in life as a trainer, which makes a ton of sense if you followed Lee’s career under the tutelage of the late Emanuel Steward. Lee, 39, left Ireland after his amateur days to live with Steward in Detroit and train at Kronk. The two had a very close personal relationship and that experience ultimately helped Lee win the world title in 2014 two years after Steward’s passing. Now, Lee is passing on what he knows in the same way Steward did with him to other fighters. He trains and manages Irish upstart Paddy Donovan, is guiding Jason Quigley back to contention and even helped orchestrate distant cousin Tyson Fury bringing on Javan “SugarHill” Steward for the heavyweight’s upcoming rematch against Deontay Wilder.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott

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