‘I organized Canelo’s first-ever fight’

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Rigoberto Alvarez, the brother of Tapatio boxing world champion Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, as told to Stephen Woodman.

I was born in Guadalajara in 1978, but we didn’t stay long. My family would travel from town to town as my father tried his luck setting up an ice cream business. After years of moving, we finally settled in the tiny town of Juanacatlán. It was a nice childhood. I have six brothers and a sister and I am the oldest sibling. After school, we all worked selling ice pops and ice creams. Me and my brothers would play-fight all the time, sparring each other in the bedrooms and the patio. To us, the whole house was a boxing ring. 

In 2000, I started boxing professionally. After a few successful fights I set off for Tijuana, hoping to kick-start my career. I soon found out that it wouldn’t be that easy. I didn’t have the right promotion and I couldn’t support myself.

At this point, I wanted to quit boxing. I drove back to Juanacatlán. It is a 30-hour journey, so I was exhausted by the time I arrived. As soon as I got home, my brother Saúl asked me for the gift I had promised. “Where are the gloves and helmets you told me you were going to bring?” he said.

“They’re in the car,” I answered and threw him the keys so I go inside to speak to my family.

Some 20 minutes later, he arrived with about ten kids he’d got together from the neighborhood. 

“We want to put the gloves on and box,” he said.

I helped him and another kid, who was a bit bigger, put the gloves and helmets on. At that point, I had no idea what I was about to see. Without ever having boxed before, Saúl started throwing accurate, powerful punches. Within seconds, the bigger kid was in tears. I stepped in to stop them, but the kid said no, he wanted to carry on. Saúl was only 11 at the time and a kid of that age shouldn’t be able to punch like that. He had this look of pure concentration on his face, he could block shots and he had the right idea. It completely surprised me.

“God this is a great gift that you’ve given us,” I remember saying.

After the fight, I asked Saúl If he really wanted to box.

 “Yes, I want to be like you,” he said. 

“No” I said, “If you start training every night you won’t be like me, you’ll be much better than me.”   

Every day after that, we would train in the street and punch a heavy bag in the ice cream shop. 

After a few amateur fights, I took him to the Julián Magdaleno gym in Guadalajara, which had already produced three world champions. It was there that we met Chepo Reynoso and his son Eddy, who gave Saúl his nickname “Canelo” (from the Spanish word for cinnamon). Eventually they became his full-time trainers.

In Guadalajara, we turned up for a qualifying tournament for the Junior National Championships. None of the officials had even heard of Juanacatlán. They wouldn’t even look at Canelo. Three times we asked, and three times we were turned away.

On the fourth visit, a commissioner took pity on us and finally gave us a chance. “Let us fight the best in his weight class, we’ll win and we’ll leave,” I told him. 

The opening bell rang and Canelo surged forward. He forced his opponent onto the ropes and delivered a string of stinging blows. In the second round, Saúl connected with a powerful uppercut and his opponent crumpled to the floor. The gym was silent as the referee stopped the fight. No one applauded. Who was this redhead from a town nobody had heard of?

In the street outside, the commissioner stopped us and signed Canelo for the championships. He won silver on his first try and gold on his second. Canelo turned professional at just 15 years of age. 

Since then, he has gone on to beat some of the world’s best boxers: Shane Mosley, Miguel Cotto and Amir Khan. 

When I’m asked if I’m surprised that Canelo has reached these heights, I always say no. 

The Las Vegas fights, the belts and the fame. I saw it all in that little fight in the street outside my house. The officials who dismissed us for being from a small town never imagined what I now know. Talent is found everywhere, including where you least expect it. 

I myself became world champion in 2010 but I retired the following year so I could focus on training. At the moment I’m running a gym in Tlaquepaque. It’s great for young people to train hard with me instead of wasting their lives on the street or in gangs. And who knows? One of these kids might become the next Canelo.

 Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

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