LAS VEGAS – Strange winds blow through The Strip whenever a fight week of significance hits town, and so it is again with boxing’s biggest clash of 2018 fast approaching.
After a year to stew on their 2017 draw and plot lines aplenty having bruised their rivalry, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin have everything to fight for on Saturday night, their reputations, their pride and perhaps most of all, their respective countries.
Yet an unusual narrative has arisen. Mexico carries the heartbeat of boxing within its soul more than any other nation and cherishes its sporting sons with reverence. But on the most significant night of his athletic life, Alvarez must contend with the reality that a sizable portion of the Mexican fan base will throw its support behind Golovkin, the pounding puncher from Kazakhstan with a 38-0-1 record.
“You have a Mexican fighter up against a guy who fights like a true Mexican,” Golovkin’s trainer, Abel Sanchez, told USA TODAY Sports. “Mexican fans are loyal and patriotic, but more than anything they love and honor the sport. GGG holds true to Mexican fighting traditions more than anyone, even though he’s not from there.”
The controversial draw a year ago won Golovkin a new legion of fans as most neutral observers thought he won the fight. He moved forward relentlessly, backing his heavy fists to get the job done, while Alvarez deployed a cagey and intelligent counter-striking approach.
A different mind-set would likely have caused Alvarez to lose, but Mexico’s biggest boxing stars have been those who press forward with little thought of personal safety.
“People say I fight in the Mexican style and that is an honor,” Golovkin said. “I am grateful for the support of those people and they have shown me a lot of respect, even when I was fighting against a Mexican. They like the real sport, they like the real fighter.”
Las Vegas Boulevard and the open area outside of T-Mobile Arena were already awash with fight fans by Friday, many of them toting Mexico’s tricolor flag. Yet among them were plenty wearing Golovkin-themed T-shirts and unafraid to display their allegiance.
“Some people have told me I am a bad Mexican, or a bad Mexican-American, because I want Golovkin to win,” Tony Rodriguez, 41, a contractor from Los Angeles, said before Friday’s weigh-in. “But I don’t care. GGG is my favorite guy to watch, he always brings the entertainment and I’m not going to turn against him now.”
Alvarez has had issues in the lead-up. A stink was raised when judge Adalaide Byrd scandalously scored the first fight 118-110 in his favor, a ludicrous margin. Then the rematch was delayed from May until this weekend, after Alvarez tested positive for the banned substance Clenbuterol.
“Canelo has conducted himself like a diva,” Sanchez added. “Like someone who acts like he is better than his compatriots. Golovkin has always been that Mexican-style warrior who comes to fight. That’s what Mexican fans come for, we don’t make a lot of money, but we like our heroes to give us what they have always given us. Gennady is producing that.”
However, there is another school of thought that the concept of Mexicans turning against Alvarez is a fallacy backed by the GGG camp.
“Don’t worry,” said Alvarez’s promoter, Oscar De La Hoya. “You will see the full force of the Mexican boxing community on Saturday. Everything Mexicans love about fighting and the warrior spirit will be thrown behind Canelo and you will see it power him to victory.”
Alvarez has been circumspect with his prefight chatter and was unwilling to wade into the debate surrounding the makeup of the crowd’s preferences. Yet he made it perfectly clear that a nationalistic streak is part of him, when asked why he wants this victory so badly.
“For Mexico,” he said.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno.
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