Thursday, July 10, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Every superstar boxer must identify and overcome a foil.
It’s practically the sport’s coming-of-age ritual, a rite of passage that Saul “Canelo” Alvarez will try to get through Saturday at MGM Grand Garden Arena. For the first time since rising to international prominence, the 23-year-old Alvarez is rankled going into a fight.
Erislandy Lara, a 31-year-old Cuban defector, has flustered his Mexican rival.
“He offended me, Mexico and our boxing,” Alvarez said through a translator after arriving. “The fight was done for those reasons. He pressed the wrong buttons.”
Lara (19-1-2) will look to knock Alvarez (43-1-1) off his pay-per-view perch in the junior-middleweight bout he’s sought for a couple of years. The two have circled each other in terms of common competition, as they’ve each beaten Austin Trout and Alfredo Angulo since the start of 2013.
Alvarez smashed Angulo but struggled with Trout. Lara obliterated Trout but got dropped twice by Angulo. Alvarez’s only loss came against the best fighter in the world, Floyd Mayweather Jr. Lara’s only loss was the result of an inexplicable decision in a fight everyone believed he actually won against Paul Williams.
Although their exceptional résumés are responsible for creating an intriguing bout, the tension between Alvarez and Lara is what’s elevated the showdown. Fans at the MGM Grand lobby for Tuesday’s arrival got a taste when Lara crept toward Alvarez’s face for a tense staredown.
“I can’t laugh with my enemy,” Lara explained through a translator of his own. “Right now, he’s my enemy. It’s war now.”
Lara isn’t saying anything much more inflammatory than that anymore, but Alvarez considers the damage already done. The feud began after Alvarez’s victory over Angulo in March when Lara crashed the post-fight press conference.
“It upset me,” Alvarez said. “Many fighters do that, but not all and not me.”
Alvarez initially turned Lara away and looked likely to find his next opponent elsewhere. But Lara kept at it, chirping away at Alvarez until something struck a nerve.
He began trumpeting the rigid-training regimen his Cuban heritage taught him as the best background possible for a fighter.
“I take every fighter to Cuban school,” Lara said, “and that’s the same on Saturday.”
Alvarez began to interpret all the pro-Cuba talk as a slam against Mexico.
“They have very good fighters,” Alvarez said of Cuba, “But I’ll tell you right now: I’m being very sincere, without a doubt: Mexico boxing is superior.”
Alvarez developed a yearning to prove as much against Lara. The problem was his promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, didn’t like the Lara fight.
Sensing it was too dangerous — oddsmakers have Alvarez as just a small minus-140 (risking $1.40 to win $1) favorite — De La Hoya advised Alvarez to consider other opponents. Alvarez had to convince the predecessor of his throne as Mexico’s most popular boxer that his reasons extended beyond the trash talk.
Alvarez wanted to prove he would fight, and beat, the toughest challengers.
“I’m not going to get into his games,” Alvarez said of Lara. “If I didn’t want the fight, the fight wouldn’t be happening. The fight is here because I wanted the fight.”
Some have criticized De La Hoya not for being against the fight, but because of how he’s appeared to place the interests of Alvarez above those of Lara. As the president and founder of Golden Boy Promotions, after all, he’s in a position of power with Lara’s career too.
Lara, for one, doesn’t seem concerned.
“The person who is going to fight me is Canelo, not Oscar,” Lara said. “If Oscar wants to fight me, then I’ll bust him in the mouth too.”
Lara issuing a threat to his boss, albeit a lighthearted one, exemplifies the type of brashness Alvarez can’t get behind. He’s savoring the shot to put an end to it this weekend.
“Him talking helped make the fight, but we also know he’s one of the most dangerous, interesting fighters in the division,” Alvarez said. “If he would have talked and had no talent or ability, then we wouldn’t be here.”