Editor's note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
For the most part, professional boxers wear their scars and other visible evidence of their brutal trade as badges of honor, much like soldiers proudly display their medals and campaign ribbons on their uniforms. The ultimate fighter’s face belonged to the late, great Carmen Basilio, whose misshapen nose and scar-tissued countenance announced him as a fighter more than if he had always gone around in public wearing padded gloves and a satin robe with his name stitched onto the back.
Basilio was a former welterweight and middleweight champion, a participant in The Ring magazine’s Fight of the Year for five consecutive years (1955-59) so he came by his altered features honestly. “Handsome” and “fighter” are not words that are used much in unison, and when they are, those who more closely resemble a Basilio, Gene Fullmer or Joey Giardello are apt to resent anyone whose mug is more that of matinee idol than typical main-event veteran. There is a palpable prejudice toward those participants who, at least temporarily, bear the stigma of being labeled a “pretty boy.”
All of which makes the association of promoter Oscar De La Hoya and his most prominent fighter, Canelo Alvarez, so intriguing. When he was a fighter, good enough to win an Olympic gold medal in 1992 and 10 world titles in six weight classes as a pro, De La Hoya, a 2014 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, somehow was able to make it through his entire ring career without sustaining any permanent marking-up of a face that made him vastly popular with a different kind of fan base. Women of all ages swooned over De La Hoya, now 43, as if he were the sexy lead singer for a chart-topping rock group. That ran counter to the tastes of crusty ringside regulars, almost exclusively male, who by and large prefer their favorite fighters to have taken the requisite number of stitches as proof of their toughness and dedication to their craft.
It might be a slight stretch to suggest that the 25-year-old Alvarez is as classically handsome or has as devoted a female following as the “Golden Boy,” but with his fair skin and shock of red hair, he looks like a muscular Richie Cunningham from the TV show “Happy Days,” but one that attracts more honeys than The Fonz and, if it came to that, could knock the leather-jacketed icon out if hands needed to be thrown.
This Saturday, Alvarez (45-1-1, 32 KOs), a former WBC and WBA super welterweight champion, challenges WBC middleweight titlist Miguel Cotto (40-4, 33 KOs) in the second-most-anticipated matchup of 2015, behind only the megafight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao on March 2. De La Hoya is predicting that the HBO Pay-Per-View telecast originating from Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay will top 1.5 million subscriptions and, not only that, will deliver much more bang for the buck than did May-Pac, which from an action standpoint mostly disappointed its record 4.4 million purchasers.
“He continues to captivate the fans all around the world with his action-packed fighting style, his charisma and his willingness to take on the toughest challenges,” De La Hoya said of his guy, Alvarez.
Truth be told, there is much about Cotto-Alvarez that merits widespread interest. It is a pairing of a Puerto Rican (Cotto) and a Mexican (Alvarez), a rivalry that, historically, has produced more than its share of memorable bouts. Win or lose, Cotto—the only Puerto Rican fighter to have won world titles in four weight classes—already is assured of eventual enshrinement in the IBHOF, and Alvarez is making a strong case for his someday making it to Canastota, N.Y., on merit. The two fighters have combined for 65 KOs in 87 fights, which strongly hints at one or the other winning inside the distance.
But there is another element at play here, which hasn’t really been a topic of discussion since De La Hoya was having hot babes throw their underwear, and sometimes their hotel keys, at him. It is the same factor that has made MMA superstar Ronda Rousey, who is not hard on the eyes, so highly marketable, maybe even as much as her near-total dominance in the octagon. (Rousey was upset by former boxer Holly Holm this past weekend in Australia.)
It’s called sex appeal.
One of the more curious questions posed during Alvarez’s recent teleconference with the international media came from one alleged reporter who felt the need to tell him that “my mother is 78 years old and thinks you’re gorgeous” before asking him if he had a girlfriend.
That bit of inanity framed Saturday’s big fight as a battle between the more traditionally visual fighter—Cotto, who is heavily tattooed, with a shaved head and a face that tilts slightly more toward Basilio than De La Hoya—against a guy, Alvarez, who knows what it is like to be dismissed or underrated simply because he does not appear to have endured enough character-testing punishment inside the ropes.
Cotto’s trainer, Freddie Roach, always picks his fighters to win by knockout, so it is no surprise that he looks for Cotto to not only take Canelo out before the outcome goes to the judges, but to have him exit looking far worse than he did while coming in. And that shouldn’t be too terribly difficult, according to Roach, who said that Alvarez’s choirboy visage is and always has been something of a mirage.
“I feel that this guy gets hit too much, and I think Miguel will knock him out somewhere along the way,” Roach said of Alvarez. “I think (Cotto) is the best fighter he’s ever fought, and I think he’s hand-picked opponents. Mayweather (who scored a majority decision over Alvarez on Sept. 14, 2013) was a tough fighter, but not a big puncher. This is the first heavy puncher he’s going against.”
It is a subtle form of bias, which in some quarters holds fighters with reasonably appealing looks to be somehow less worthy of respect than those who have visibly taken a licking and kept on ticking. Boxing is about pain and sacrifice, and how much of a sacrifice can any fighter have made if his nose hasn’t been flattened or made to look like a ski slope? An unscarred face is a face not sufficiently subjected to trial by fire.
De La Hoya surely understands the sting of such subtle digs. Consider these disparaging comments from then-WBC welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker, who was to put his title on the line against De La Hoya on April 12, 1997.
“I got him. He’s mine. He’s scared to death,” Whitaker said after he got nose-to-nose with De La Hoya for a photo op at a press conference to announce the bout. “The kid hasn’t been in a fight where he has to suck it up. There’s not a hard portion on the kid. There’s something in his eyes that says he’s soft.”
De La Hoya went on to win a 12-round unanimous decision, one of the more impressive victories of his career considering the esteem in which Whitaker, one of the finest defensive fighters ever, was widely held.
There are different ways to win a prizefight, and different ways to lose, too. It just might be that Alvarez is taken to hell and back by Cotto, who has the experience and the tools to render him as bloody and as lumped up as the proud Puerto Rican has left any number of his previous opponents. But if Canelo gives as good as he gets, and particularly if he emerges victorious, it might not be such a bad thing if he leaves the ring with a swollen eye or busted lip.
To more than a few fighters and fight fans who value toughness above all else, purplish or blood-red splotches are beauty marks that would finally qualify Alvarez for full membership in a club that only admits those who have paid for the privilege in an obvious manner.
Bernard Fernandez, a five-term president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, received the Nat Fleischer Award from the BWAA in April 1999 for lifetime achievement and was inducted into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame in 2005, as well as the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame in 2013. The New Orleans-born sports writer has worked in the industry since 1969 and pens a weekly column on the Sweet Science for Sherdog.com.
« Previous Boxing Full Fight Download: Watch Miguel Cotto Flatten Daniel Geale Next Cotto-Canelo Final Press Conference Stream »