The story of Santos Saul Alvarez Barragan is still being written. And though the man himself has done a fine job in ignoring it, he's never quite been in control of his own narrative no matter how many belts he won. From 154 to 160 to 168 pounds, the multi-division champion and pound-for-pound beast has become both super and a star. But Canelo Alvarez has always been something less than an all-time superstar-- even in the eyes of his own countrymen.
And that's a problem. Boxing, after all, is adjacent to religion in Mexico. And the patient, disciplined, tactically precise Canelo Alvarez has spent just about none of his career reminding Mexican fight fans of aggressive, brawling national heroes like Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. or Juan Manuel Marquez.
That's why Saturday's light heavyweight title fight against Sergey Kovalev -- his career debut at 175 pounds -- actually pits him against a far tougher opponent than the aging Russian in the opposite corner. He's fighting against you, me, and Mexico. He's fighting against the ingrained perceptions of legions of boxing fans.
And whether he really wants to win that battle more than anything else in the world is fully up to him.
I don't mean to be uncharitable here, of course. There are significant portions of fight fans in Mexico that adore Canelo, recognizing rightly that he's one of the best all-around boxers on earth and easily the best the country has to offer (and besides, it's not like Americans are in any hurry to give Terence Crawford, Deontay Wilder, or Errol Spence the adoration they've duly earned). But Canelo's career, which includes wins over Shane Mosley, Miguel Cotto, Amir Khan, Gennadiy Golovkin (controversy aside) and Daniel Jacobs before even turning 30, is already one for the history books. His only loss was to Floyd Mayweather, of all people.
But the particular brilliance of Julio Cesar Chavez transcended his win-loss record.
El Cesar del Boxeo wasn't just fighter-first-boxer-second; he was a freaking samurai warrior ready to die out there. He would never have dreamed of cultivating the counterpuncher's reputation that Canelo has spent years trying to slough off; at a certain point, it may be impossible for Canelo to flip the script and truly dictate his own epic for the first time.
Perhaps Alvarez is simply a victim of the patent unfairness of the social media era or the dumb rules of the IBF. Perhaps he should have ditched Oscar De La Hoya as his promoter (he still might!). Perhaps he shouldn't have mumbled his way through those Tecate commercials. Justly or not, the man has downed just about every opponent to date, championship belts increasingly draping off him like moss from a tree. But his toughest enemy was never a man; it was a narrative. That he was "defense-first." That he didn't fight "Mexican enough." That he was more a boxer than a fighter.
And even if he downs Kovalev Saturday in Las Vegas and adds a 175-pound feather to his cap, that long war is quite likely to rage on.