Sport

Canelo Alvarez is boxing’s largest celebrity and primed to make Callum Smith his SIXTH English sufferer

Come 2am in Manchester, a blue moon pierced the darkness and the Hitman stepped into the light.

Five thousand miles away, amid the falls and Mexican farmland of Juanacatlan, two teenage eyes tuned in.

‘When I was little, it was Ricky Hatton who I saw fight a few times,’ Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez tells Sportsmail.

Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez will hope to remind people of his quality when he fights on Saturday night

Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez will hope to remind people of his quality when he fights on Saturday night

Alvarez (pictured in September 2017) will be facing Callum Smith

Smith (pictured in November 2019) will have the height and reach advantage over Alvarez

Alvarez will be facing Callum Smith (right) in Texas in a super middleweight title showdown

‘He was a warrior. A very strong, very difficult fighter.’

Prince Naseem Hamed was another childhood favourite and among the nights to leave a mark? That early-morning earthquake in June 2005, when Hatton captured the IBF light-welterweight title from Kostya Tszyu after 11 rounds of meticulous, merciless aggression.

For a 14-year-old Canelo, it was a chance to marvel. And to cram. Only four months later, he would make his own professional debut and begin the long slog up the mountain. Fifteen years and 56 fights on, he sits alone as the biggest name in the sport.

There have been blemishes on the way – a sole defeat by Floyd Mayweather, whose crown he later inherited. And a six-month doping ban in 2018, when clenbuterol was found in his system. The Mexican blamed contaminated meat; this Saturday night offers no time for excuses.

In Texas, the 30-year-old Mexican faces Liverpool’s Callum Smith, eyeing yet another world title and yet another English victim. Smith will be the sixth fighter from these shores to land a shot at boxing’s biggest star.

Growing up in Mexico, Alvarez remembers Ricky Hatton's (right) win over Kostya Tszyu in 2005

Growing up in Mexico, Alvarez remembers Ricky Hatton’s (right) win over Kostya Tszyu in 2005

Ryan Rhodes (12th round), Amir Khan (sixth), Rocky Fielding (third) and Smith’s older brother Liam (ninth) have all fallen. The first – and only one left standing – was Hatton’s younger brother, Matthew. Six years after watching the Hitman conquer Tszyu, Canelo picked up his own maiden world title with a one-sided beating.

Since then he’s become something of an English assassin.

‘No, no, no, nothing like that,’ Canelo laughs. ‘As a matter of fact, I feel privileged that I’ve fought several English boxers. They’re great boxers – strong, smart and once again, another one against Callum Smith I have the opportunity to do it.’

Smith, also 30, is unbeaten in 27 fights. He is the WBA champion and considered by Canelo to be the world’s best 168-pounder. The youngest of Liverpool’s four fighting brothers has been picking the brains of Liam, 32, following his own painful night in 2016.

Alvarez has fought five English fighters - including Matthew Hatton who he beat in March 2011

Alvarez has fought five English fighters – including Matthew Hatton who he beat in March 2011

Five years later, Alvarez fought Smith's older brother Liam and beat him inside nine rounds

Five years later, Alvarez fought Smith’s older brother Liam and beat him inside nine rounds

Canelo is the baby of seven boxing brothers who all fought professionally – once on the same bill. But what can he learn from beating Smith the elder? 

‘They’re totally different, totally different,’ he says. ‘I’m preparing 100 per cent for Callum Smith. I know that he comes with some sense of revenge for his brother.’

Come fight night, Smith will tower over the Mexican. He is six inches taller and boasts similar advantage in reach. Few believe that head start will suffice. And should Smith succumb like the rest, Canelo will find other English dance partners waiting in line.

Billy Joe Saunders was on the cusp of securing his shot before Covid struck.

‘As a person, it’s not my position to say anything,’ Canelo says of the controversial Saunders. ‘But as a fighter, he’s very smart, he knows how to use distance, how to use that left guard very well.

‘I’ve always thought about the idea of fighting in the UK. I love that idea so people could enjoy a great fight over there.

‘Boxing fans in the UK are very dedicated.’

That was among the lessons Tszyu learned in Manchester. Several more modern greats have since followed him here, including Gennady Golovkin and Wladimir Klitschko. With that pastel skin and fire-red hair, Canelo would blend right in.

‘There might have been an Irish grandfather somewhere in my past,’ Canelo is quoted as saying. As a child who sold ice cream with his family, ginger hair was a blessing and a curse. Alvarez attracted bullies but that proved the start of his fighting education.

Alvarez looked destined to fight another Brit in Billy Joe Saunders (right) before Covid struck

Alvarez looked destined to fight another Brit in Billy Joe Saunders (right) before Covid struck

Trusted trainer Chepo Reynoso soon christened him with a more palatable nickname – ‘Canelo’, cinnamon in Spanish.

These days Canelo speaks and understands English but prefers not to. It’s a quirk that adds to the Mexican’s mystery and menace.

Forbes estimate that in the year up to June 2020, he pocketed £27.7million. Not bad, but not a patch on his favourite footballers – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

‘I played soccer and I played really well but I never wanted to be a player,’ Canelo says. ‘By then, I had found boxing.’

The 30-year-old is estimated by Forbes that in the year up to June 2020, he pocketed £27.7m

The 30-year-old is estimated by Forbes that in the year up to June 2020, he pocketed £27.7m 

Even among the fight game’s richest men, he struggles to compete with Mayweather who, even at 43, still can’t pass up an easy cheque. Mayweather recently announced yet another exhibition, this time against YouTuber Logan Paul.

Canelo-Smith provides a nice antidote to that sham. A mouth-watering trilogy with Golovkin remains on the horizon, too. But how much more can we expect from a fighter who has now spent half of his life in a professional ring?

He says: ‘I really don’t know, whatever my body responds to. I want to fight until I’m about 35 or 36 years old. I feel really well. From the age of 29 until now I’ve felt at my best.’

So we won’t see him back in his fifties, like Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jnr? ‘No,’ Canelo laughs. ‘Well I really don’t know. Never say never as they say!’

Alvarez is only 30 but has fought 56 times already and doesn't have plans to retire just yet

Alvarez is only 30 but has fought 56 times already and doesn’t have plans to retire just yet

First, though, a date with reality. For Canelo, it’s also a first outing since his protracted split with promoter Oscar De La Hoya.

It seems only the messy machinations of boxing could rob English fans of another mega-fight.

Canelo was ringside when Anthony Joshua regained his heavyweight titles with victory in the desert and boxing’s biggest names will be scrambling for a ticket should AJ and Tyson Fury meet for the undisputed crown.

‘Both of them are very good fighters, very strong fighters,’ Canelo says. ‘Tyson Fury is very smart, he knows how to move around the ring. Joshua is a big, strong fighter so it’s very difficult to say who would win. But it would be a great fight to watch.’

Mexican fans will hope Canelo is more decisive when faced with another English boxing puzzle this weekend – he has had enough practice. 

Canelo v Smith is live on DAZN in the early hours of Sunday in the UK for £1.99 a month, and more than 200 countries around the world after the platform’s global launch earlier this month.

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