May 27, 2024

Several times Wednesday, during the final news conference before his fight Saturday against Jermell Charlo, Canelo Álvarez was referred to as boxing’s biggest superstar. Not the best. Not the most electrifying. But its biggest active star. It’s a fact.

It’s a title Álvarez has held in the eight years since Floyd Mayweather Jr. last fought a boxer in a professional bout, cornering the Mexican and Mexican American markets while becoming the most mainstream name — non-YouTuber, exhibition fighter division — in the business.

He reached the pedestal with a distinct red look, a reserved manner, a well-calculated approach, and consistent success. He possesses the power to change lives simply by picking an opponent to collect a paycheck they wouldn’t see otherwise in the industry. It’s the underlying motivation for Charlo’s decision to jump two weight classes to fight Álvarez. The money, he determined, is more than worth the risk.

The question is how long will Álvarez remain as the sport’s reliable golden goose. Which leads to the next question: Who’s next in line for the mantle?

The questions derive from one of the themes percolating in the lead up to Saturday’s fight between undisputed champions at T-Mobile Arena: Whether Álvarez is on the downside of his career.

Álvarez, a professional boxer for 18 years, is an old 33 even by boxing standards. He’s four months younger than Charlo, but has 26 more career fights. He’s fought in 23 world title bouts and won titles in four weight classes. It’s not a matter of if he will reach an irreversible decline. It’s a matter of when. And based on his last three fights, many observers are wondering if he’s in the midst of the dreaded falloff.

Álvarez hasn’t looked particularly sharp since stopping Caleb Plant to become the undisputed super middleweight (168 pounds) champion almost two years ago. Since then, he’s lost to an undefeated Dmitry Bivol — though out of his comfort zone at light heavyweight (175 pounds) — and wasn’t impressive in wins over a 40-year-old Gennady Golovkin and journeyman John Ryder.

He’s acknowledged the subpar performances. He has emphasized he will be better Saturday nearly a year after undergoing surgery to repair a hand injury he suffered in camp ahead of the Plant victory. To avoid tiring in Saturday’s fight — a problem that first surfaced in his loss to Bivol — his camp moved from San Diego to Lake Tahoe to train in high altitude.

“Right now, I feel 100%,” Álvarez said. “It’s one of the best camps I’ve ever had.”

He’s a heavy favorite over Charlo — the undisputed junior middleweight (154 pounds) champion who hasn’t fought in 16 months — in the first of three fights he’s signed to deliver with Premier Boxing Champions. But uncertainty remains.

“You never need to prove yourself to people,” Álvarez said. “They always have something to say. I just want to prove to myself that I’m still at the top.”

Álvarez has said he wants to box until he’s 37. That timeline gives him another four years to cement his legacy and establish himself alongside Julio César Chavez and Salvador Sanchez as the greatest Mexican fighters ever.

If he beats Charlo on Saturday, he could next take on Charlo’s twin brother Jermall, David Benavidez or David Morell. There’s even speculation about Álvarez dropping in weight to fight Terence Crawford, the unquestioned pound-for-pound king coming off a thrashing of Errol Spence Jr.

All of those fights would be huge moneymakers. No one else in the sport combines elite skills with box office appeal better. And there isn’t an obvious choice to snatch the baton from Álvarez once his time is over.

Crawford is 36 and has never resonated with the masses as much as Álvarez. Ryan Garcia boasts a massive social media following, but his staying power is in question after he was knocked out by Tank Davis in April. For now, Jake Paul, a 26-year-old social media personality who made his boxing debut five years ago, is the sport’s biggest draw while Mexico’s next great headline fighter is a mystery.

“There’s going to be an ongoing organic transformation,” said Jim Lampley, the former longtime HBO boxing announcer now working for PPV.com. “The evidence is social media, the internet, new forms of communication have changed the sport. That’s what will guide us toward whatever the next version of boxing is.”

In a fractured media world, boxing’s place is shifting and its future is murky. HBO broadcast its final boxing event five years ago. The UFC has emerged as a threat to eat into its market share. This week reports emerged that Showtime, which is broadcasting Saturday’s fight on pay-per-view, could drop boxing after 2024.

Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza, who declined to comment on a report that his contract is expiring, did not shoot down the possibility of the network leaving boxing behind.

“There’s tremendous change going on in the media industry, including in the sports industry,” Espinoza said. “There’s tremendous change going on at Paramount. So, who knows what the future holds. But, for the time being, we are continuing to do the biggest fights in the sport.”

Espinoza this week said that Saturday’s fight will be the third Showtime bout to generate $20 million at the gate this year. He then made sure to highlight that the UFC has never accomplished that feat in its history. He thinks its proof that stars will continue breaking through in boxing as they always have.

“At the end of each of these eras, there’s always the question of who’s next,” Espinoza said. “Sometimes it’s asked with more concern and alarm. Sometimes it’s more curiosity. What we’ve seen over the time is that the vacuum will be filled and sometimes it’s filled by the guy you don’t see coming.”

The guy everyone will tune in to watch Saturday has been in the spotlight for over a decade, dutifully assuming the role of main attraction. His status was clear during Wednesday’s final press conference when Jimmy Lennon Jr., the esteemed boxing ring announcer, made a mistake.

Lennon introduced Álvarez, not Charlo, first to the stage and Álvarez refused to appear. Both are undisputed champions, but Charlo is the challenger and Álvarez is the star. He goes second. So Lennon quickly apologized and audibled to introduce Charlo.

“He may not need an introduction the world over, but we’re going to give him two introductions,” Lennon began.

The finale is coming, sooner or later.

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