Saturday night was supposed to be the night boxing ate itself. The night the sport shot itself in the groin. The night when boxing finally crumbled under the weight of steroid suspensions, inexplicable judging fiascos, and self-serving promoters more interested in protecting their stars' records than giving sports fans the matchups they've been waiting years to see. None of those abuses are particularly new to the sport, but there was a feeling that Top Rank and Golden Boy — boxing's two most powerful promotional companies — dropped a piano on the camel's back when they crammed two major events in direct conflict with each other on the same night, both in Las Vegas, both aimed at the same Mexican and Mexican American fans who would be in town to celebrate Mexican Independence Day.
To capture the scene at boxing's apocalypse turned bonanza, Grantland sent Jay Caspian Kang and Rafe Bartholomew to Las Vegas to cover Sergio Martinez v. Julio César Chávez Jr. and Saul "Canelo" Alvarez vs. Josesito Lopez. This is a chronicle of their weekend.
Friday, 2 p.m.: The Canelo Weigh-in
Kang: When we first learned of boxing's cannibal night, Rafe and I decided to both fly to Las Vegas, stay in the same hotel room, and go about our business as if we had been assigned completely separate stories. I picked the Canelo vs. Josesito fight because I wanted the following scene — me, alone on press row in a half-empty MGM Grand Garden Arena populated exclusively by bored teenagers from Mexico City and Guadalajaran narcos in Chicharito jerseys. I knew I was picking the dog, but I wanted to have a ringside seat on the night Top Rank and Golden Boy finally went Deer Hunter on one another.
Canelo's weigh-in provided the first clue that I had miscalculated somewhere along the way. Approximately 3,000 people crammed into one narrow section of the MGM Grand Garden Arena, wildly cheering at every appearance of the Mexican flag. For those who have never been, nothing much exciting ever happens at a weigh-in. The boxers walk up to the podium with their entourages, the boxers strip down to their underwear, the boxers make weight and then flex for the cameras. When the boxers don't make weight, they sometimes take off their underwear and step on the scale naked. Then there are some staged photos as the two half-naked men stand nose-to-nose. The crowd doesn't cheer as much as it makes jokes and takes iPhone photos of the old famous boxers who sometimes hang around these things.
Canelo last fought on the Floyd Mayweather vs. Miguel Cotto undercard. I was at that weigh-in and was struck by just how many people had come to watch Canelo strip. At Canelo's very own weigh-in on Friday, 90 percent of the crowd was Mexican and not one of those Mexican fight fans had shown up to cheer on Josesito Lopez, Canelo's Mexican American opponent. As each boxer made his way to the scale to do his tired, macho dance, the crowd cheered on every "true Mexican" fighter and booed the rest. When Canelo and his posse arrived in red tracksuits like Ari and Uzi Tenenbaum, the women stood and cheered lustily. Every boxing writer has his own very strong opinion on whether Canelo is actually good, or if Canelo has the potential to be good, and just how much Canelo's red hair and freckles contribute to his perceived goodness, but this much is clear: Save Floyd and Manny, no one has a higher Q rating than Canelo Alvarez. Maybe it is just the hair. Superstars have been created on less.
Friday, 3:30 p.m.: The Sergio Martinez vs. Julio César Chávez Jr. Weigh-in
Kang: If you want a quick education on the beautiful people of Mexico but don't feel like crossing the border, I suggest you go to a fight on Mexican Independence Day weekend when the posh casinos fill up with the women who would make even the most fervent minuteman reconsider his convictions. In the lobby of the Wynn, a meanie in three-inch heels caught me staring at the hemline of her dress. The flimsy thing ended somewhere between "lower crotch" and "upper, upper thigh," and because I was in Las Vegas on journalistic duty, I felt compelled to accurately report every detail. Who had made this amazing thing? How much did it cost? Would it disintegrate upon contact with a substance as corrosive as, say, bottled water? The woman wrinkled up her nose and whispered something in Spanish to a nearby friend. I understood nothing, but knew she was right. My ribs hurt, my hair had not been washed for three days, my legs ached. Just 10 hours before, I had woken up on Rafe's couch in lower Manhattan with a ringing hangover. For the third straight day, I was wearing a black T-shirt with an eagle flying by the moon. What right did I have to even be in the perfectly lit, heavy-on-the-marble, florally explosive lobby of the Wynn?
As it turned out, not much. Unlike the Canelo weigh-in, which had been open to the public, anyone who wanted to watch Sergio and Julio César Chávez Jr.'s strip show had to have a ticket. Rafe had a press pass. I did not. Feeling a bit deflated, I went and played roulette with three dudes from Culiacán who were betting the numbers of their favorite players on the Mexican national soccer team.
Bartholomew: Jay neglects to mention that he was wearing male capri pants that day. This alone seems like a good enough reason for his exclusion. But fans and hungover, uncredentialed journalists were turned away from the Martinez-Chávez weigh-in as a matter of necessity, not prejudice. The event was being held in the Encore Theater, an intimate 1,500-seat venue where Garth Brooks melts hearts like butter on steak a few times each month, and as such the free tickets had all been nabbed by 10 a.m.
The weigh-in crowd contained few crotch-hugging hemlines, only Martinez promoter Lou DiBella dancing onstage to Spanish hip-hop in front of a disinterested jumble of boxing bloggers and the fighters' extended posses. DiBella's enthusiasm might have drawn an eyeroll from more seasoned Vegas promoter Bob Arum, whose Top Rank company handles Chávez, but it was easy to understand DiBella's joyous mood on this occasion. Despite Martinez being considered one of the top fighters in boxing for the past few years, he had yet to join the ranks of the sport's top earners. His recent fights had been in places like New York and Atlantic City and the big Indian casinos in Connecticut – not exactly the Revere (Massachusetts) Events Center and Lions Club, but also not Vegas. An HBO pay-per-view fight against one of boxing's most bankable stars on Mexican Independence Day weekend would give DiBella and Martinez the biggest stage and the biggest payday of their career together.
When the fighters came out and the sweatsuits came off, there was one surprise. Chávez, the oversize middleweight WBC titleholder who struggles to make the division's 160-pound weight limit almost every time he fights, weighed in at 158 pounds, lighter than Martinez, who came in at 159. Within 24 hours, Chávez would balloon up to somewhere between 175 and 180, like he normally does, and Martinez would linger somewhere closer to the middleweight limit. Despite Chávez's size advantage, Martinez — the faster, slicker, more versatile boxer — promised to rip Chávez's head off while the two fighters jawed at each other during the weigh-in.
Friday, 5:30 p.m.: Wynn Casino Floor
Bartholomew: I found Jay playing Culiacán-style roulette, only instead of Chicharito and Francisco Javier Rodríguez, he was laying out chips on the numbers of UNC basketball players: 32 for Rashad McCants, 24 for Marvin Williams, 5 for Ed Cota. (If the wheel went up to 45, he would have bet his whole stack on Serge Zwikker.) A few minutes later we found ourselves cradling tumblers of Hennessy at a blackjack table with two boxing fans who had traveled from New Mexico to see the weekend's fights. "Have you seen Leo Santa Cruz fight?" they asked, referring to a bantamweight champion fighting deep on the Canelo-Josesito undercard. "He's the truth." They said they already had tickets and hotel reservations to watch the December 1 junior middleweight bout between Miguel Cotto and Austin Trout at Madison Square Garden. They assured us Cotto had no chance against Trout, and I looked at Jay as if to say, Who are these guys? The average sports fan would probably struggle to name more than three active boxers. I could probably convince half of the Grantland office that "Canelo" is a grapefruit-like tropical citrus or an animal similar to an alpaca. Yet here we were talking to a couple twentysomething college students who spoke about boxing with as much authority as Larry Merchant. For this weekend, at least, boxing seemed not like a dying sport but the only sport that mattered.
Saturday, 5:15 p.m.: The Undercards
Kang: Earlier in the day, Oscar De La Hoya had created some controversy when he tweeted out that the Canelo fight had been sold out. Soon thereafter, Kevin Iole of Yahoo! heard that fans had been able to go on Ticketmaster and find available ticket packages. The implication, of course, was that Oscar De La Hoya had been lying and that my dream of watching the fight with Canelo's family and 12 teenagers was about to come true. I began thinking of funny ways to photograph myself at the fight. Should I lie down across four empty seats? Should I strike a deal with Golden Boy and say, "I am the only reporter here. Do you mind if I put on a red tracksuit and walk in with Canelo?"
My troll dreams would not come true. Sixteen thousand Mexicans crowded into the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday night, sang along to ranchera and chanted "¡Sí, se puede!" every time one of their fighters got in trouble. The beautiful girls showed up, too, mostly in dresses that only make sense in Vegas and the Costa del Sol. It's never occurred to me to sew sequins on leopard print. This is my loss — had I been the first to synthesize those two things, I would have made a killing as an immigrant dress designer in D.F. Between fights, a man wearing a skull mask with blue glowing eyes stood on the ropes and waved around the Mexican flag. In the crowd, I saw two middle-age men wearing bright-orange wigs. For a bad minute, I felt a nagging, irrational terror. Not the full-fledged terror where your reason fears the man in the orange wig, but rather the fear born purely out of associations. I knew the men wore the orange wigs as homage to Canelo, but I suppose there's just no way — at least not yet — to see bright-orange hair in a crowd and not feel the slightest shiver of death.
Bartholomew: When I left the MGM Grand to catch a taxi to Thomas & Mack for Chávez-Martinez, the lobby was packed like the main concourse of Grand Central Station on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Half the people wore red ribbons tied around their foreheads in the style made legendary by Julio César Chávez and now carried on by his son. The other half wobbled along on six-inch heels. A round heap of a man wearing a serape in the colors of the Mexican flag and an umbrella-size sombrero shouted "¡Viva Mexico!" and the people in the lobby responded with deafening cheers and whistles.
Throughout the undercard fights, pockets of Argentine fans treated the event like a World Cup match, hopping up and down, chanting supporter songs, and unveiling light-blue-and-white flags decorated with the names of their home provinces and towns like "Burzaco" and "Chaco." One flag had a giant baby bottle painted across its center, with "CHÁVEZ Jr." written on its side — a reference to the common gripe among boxing fans that Julio César Chávez Jr. coasted to fame on his namesake's legacy, that the 27-year-old champion had been coddled and protected from dangerous opponents throughout his career, that he was the walking embodiment of the boxing business's worst anti-meritocratic tendencies. During the first couple undercard bouts, the Mexican crowd, who outnumbered the Argentines by thousands, mostly tolerated their rivals' merrymaking. For a while, they let the pro-Argentina chants pass without interruption, but as the rounds passed and the main event approached, the songs from Buenos Aires and Chaco and Dolores were quickly met and drowned out by booming cries of "ME-XI-CO! ME-XI-CO!"
Saturday, 8:12 p.m.: Canelo-Josesito Main Event
Kang: I'll admit it — Canelo Alvarez is a handsome brute. He combs that red hair down over his forehead because his forehead is enormous and protrudes over his small, piggish eyes. The rest of his skull is made up of hard angles — a squared-off chin, a squared-off chin-behind-the-chin, high cheekbones, and a thin, expressionless mouth. From certain angles, he looks like a hulky Josh Hartnett. From others, he looks like a child who woke up one day in Dwight Howard's body.
In the ring, Canelo holds his hands up high and sticks out his bottom lip in a pouty look of concentration. He does not dance, he does not bob and weave. On occasion, he will throw three or four punches in succession, but rarely with rhythm or coherence. Mostly, Canelo stalks his opponent around the ring. Once he catches up, he unleashes a series of vicious body shots. A series of quick stoppages has limited the public's ability to gauge the real extent of Canelo's power, but when you're sitting ringside, his punches sound like they're doing more damage than your average junior middleweight — or even middleweight. This might be meaningful or it might simply just be one of those things that old writers say when they run out of ways to describe an athlete — boxing's version of "in batting practice, Andres Gallaraga's bat has the sharpest crack I've ever heard!"
At 8:22 p.m., the ringside announcer yelled, "It's time for Canelo-Lopez!" Josesito Lopez walked up the tunnel to ranchera music in a green, blue, and white robe with both the Mexican and American flags stitched onto the back. The crowd booed throughout his entrance and mocked his one sad attempt to raise his fist to greet them. What a strange walk — a young Mexican American kid from Riverside, California, who probably has identified himself as "Mexican" his entire life, pelted by jeers from his parents' countrymen. Oscar De La Hoya, who stood just a few feet away, dealt with the same fucked-up identity problems when Mexican and Mexican American fight fans alike couldn't quite swallow the thought of a "warrior" (their term, not mine) who would film commercials, record cheesy songs, and then run for the last four rounds of a fight against Felix Trinidad. But if the former champ felt any tenderness toward Josesito, he did not show it. Instead, Oscar grinned from ear to ear at the boos and clapped his hands enthusiastically. And why shouldn't he? Despite everything that was going on at the Thomas & Mack Center, he had managed to sell out the MGM and stock it with bloodthirsty, screaming fans.
Canelo walked out to his usual ranchera music. For a guy who sometimes reads robotic, he seemed to be enjoying the moment. He smiled throughout his entrance and when he climbed inside the ropes, he went to each corner and raised a fist in preemptive victory. The crowd obliged Canelo, and as he brushed past Josesito, Henry Ramirez, Lopez's longtime trainer, whispered encouragement into his fighter's ear.
But before the opening bell rang, the muffin top gave it away. When Josesito Lopez took off his robe, two rolls of fat spilled out from the top of his trunks. Josesito's last two fights have required him to move up in weight. He's probably most comfortable at 140 pounds. On Friday, Josesito weighed in at 154 pounds, the same as Canelo. But while Canelo's weight is mostly strung out across his broad shoulders and his thick trunk, Josesito's weight had pooled around his belly. He looked, sorry to say, a bit like Al Pacino at the end of Scarface.
For the next half-hour, Canelo Alvarez rearranged that belly fat in pretty much every way possible. He smashed Josesito with left hooks to the body that dropped him in the second, third, and fourth rounds. Josesito finished his last bout by breaking Victor Ortiz's jaw with a looping punch that's too ugly to call a hook and too short to call a haymaker. After feeling Canelo's first real punch to the gut, Josesito went straight back to the strategy of trying to win a fight by landing one huge lucky shot. Outside of one small flurry in the second round, when a Josesito uppercut snapped back Canelo's head, the fight followed the same pattern. Canelo would back Josesito into the ropes. Josesito would swing wildly. Canelo would calmly eat those punches or block them with his mitts. Then, with a disinterested look on his face, Canelo would go back to pounding Josesito's liver. Referee Joe Cortez stopped the fight in the fifth and I suppose there are some core dudes who would argue that Lopez could have taken more beating, but that's all it would have been — more beating to satisfy the mob.
Once the crowd dispersed and Canelo hugged his mother and Josesito staggered back to his dressing room to piss blood and wonder about what comes next, I texted Rafe to check in on his fight. When I didn't hear back from him, I put on a stream of the fight and watched with a couple other boxing writers. We watched Sergio eat a couple big shots in the 11th but still stay in complete control.
Then, in the 12th, the unthinkable happened
Saturday, 8:32 p.m.: Martinez-Chávez Main Event
Bartholomew: In the opening seconds of Martinez-Chávez, when the bell rang and the crowd stood chanting Chávez's name and the fighters advanced toward each other for the first time, I felt my chest tighten. Martinez was one of my favorite fighters and I was worried about him. Chávez hulked over Martinez in the ring. HBO didn't report how many pounds the fighters had gained since the weigh-in, and in reality Chávez was probably only about 15 pounds heavier than Martinez, but if someone told me it was 30 I wouldn't have had a hard time believing it.
After a minute of that first round, however, the visceral fear that comes from seeing one man invite violence from a significantly larger man was already fading. Chávez had hardly thrown a punch, and Martinez was galloping circles around him, stopping when it pleased him to shoot right jabs and straight lefts through Chávez's guard. The younger, bigger, stronger fighter's head jerked back with each pop from Martinez's glove. Round-by-round punch statistics weren't available inside the arena, but I wondered if Chávez had thrown more than five punches in the first.
As the fight went on, the wipeout continued. Chávez couldn't get his punches off in the middle of the ring. When he jabbed, Martinez dodged and countered with hard, straight lefts. When Chávez played defense and held his gloves high, Martinez punched under, around, and through them. Some of Martinez's shots came so fast that Chávez looked surprised when he got hit, like he'd been blindsided by a brick hurled from a fourth-story window. On the few occasions when Chávez managed to back Martinez into the ropes or the corners, he rarely got off more than two or three body punches before Martinez hooked an arm around Chávez's back and pushed off, spinning back into the center of the ring. There were rounds when Chávez seemed unable to do anything, when he'd just stand tall and cover his face while Martinez battered him and forced him to backpedal from corner to corner until they'd completed a full lap around the ring. Martinez spent much of a triumphant ninth round in front of Chávez, bouncing on his tiptoes with his fists down by his waist and his chest muscles bobbing. Then — and Chávez must have known it was coming, just not when it was coming — Martinez would plant his feet and spring forward with a right-left combination that made Chávez's floppy black hair jump. The Argentine crowd was chanting "¡Olé olé olé Sergio, Sergio!" and the Mexican majority had no reason to stop them.
But Chávez Jr. has what appears to be the best chin in boxing, just like his father had. Through 11 rounds he'd absorbed worse punishment than either of Martinez's previous two opponents — Darren Barker and Matthew Macklin — and both of them got knocked out. Yet Chávez came forward in the 12th round, after finally tagging Martinez's jaw with a couple powerful blows in the 11th, and looked for the same kind of miracle, last-minute knockout as the one that saved his father from a sure loss to Meldrick Taylor in 1990.
As everyone knows by now, Chávez Jr. almost Meldrick Taylor–ed Sergio Martinez. Martinez, who fights with the over-the-top pride of a guy who looks and dresses like the boxing Zoolander and who has earned his place atop the sport with little help from boxing's most powerful promoters, sanctioning bodies, and television networks, decided to make a statement in the final round. He would stand in front of Chávez, trade blows with him, and knock him out.
Well, those grand ambitions were promptly flattened by a Chávez right hand, and then a left hook that nearly knocked Martinez through the ropes, and then another, crushing left hook that finally dropped Martinez. The Thomas & Mack Jumbotron didn't show how much time was left in the round, and it's hard to recall precise details from the remaining 90-plus seconds of the fight. I know that Martinez struggled to his feet, stumbled again to the mat, and then traded woozy punches with Chávez until the final bell rang. But I mostly remember a blur of adrenaline and disbelief that lasted less than two minutes and felt like two eternities. After the bell, Martinez survived and won the runaway decision he deserved, while Chávez earned the respect of Martinez and every boxing fan who ever accused him of riding nepotism's easy glide to the top.