Somewhere in the memory banks, wedged between a 7,000-piece Millennium Falcon LEGO set and a fuzzy “Best of Christy Canyon” VHS tape, you’ll find a yellowed paperback copy of “The Sun Also Rises” — a remnant from Mrs. Nelson’s eighth-grade English Lit class. The novel, published in 1926, chronicles a very particular time and place, and is written by a singularly complicated author.
Depending on who you ask — and, perhaps more importantly, when you ask them — Ernest Hemingway was either a tortured artist plumbing the depths of courage, guilt and despair in seminally sparse prose or a drunken hack with Three Mile Island masculinity issues. The son of a musician in a well-to-do family, he was hellbent on proving his worth, as measured by the hard-boiled traditional standards of his time. Hemingway was a sportsman who boxed, hunted, fished and, notably, holds the unofficial record for photographs posed for bare-chested in the pre-Instagram era. Poor eyesight led to his being turned away after he enlisted to fight in the Great War, but he stubbornly pushed his way to the Italian Front as an ambulance driver. Hemingway would go on to write short stories featuring boxing as a central theme, attempt to turn the poet Ezra Pound into a fighter, and open “The Sun Also Rises” — which was initially met with mixed reviews — with exposition of a boxer’s bona fides. He built a ring behind his Key West estate, hosted exhibitions among friends and acquaintances, and sometimes officiated bouts. “My writing is nothing,” he once said. “My boxing is everything.”
Hemingway had the ability to deftly craft the details of his “exploits” in the ring, but the truth is, he was a shit fighter. The opposite problem plagues one of boxing’s finest contemporary artists: Saul “Canelo” Alvarez is a skilled craftsman with a Hall of Fame resume and a wonky personal narrative — which, when left in the hands of others, often paints him as a promoter-created paper tiger. That characterization isn’t entirely off-base, but you’ll find far more red herrings than red flags sprinkled through arguments about Canelo’s career. In 2019 alone, Alvarez, who began his career at junior welterweight, decisioned a prime, top-three middleweight in Daniel Jacobs, then leapt a division to destroy a resurgent former unified light heavyweight titlist in Sergey Kovalev. Are there nits to be picked there? You bet. (And we’ll get to them.) But we don’t bitch that the Mona Lisa is no Charlize Theron. We recognize mastery of form when we see it — even when it wears a crooked-ass smile — and that’s why Canelo is The Queensberry Rules’ 2019 Fighter of the Year.
Want to rage against Alvarez’s past choices in opponents? It’s your prerogative. Just know that Bobby Brown, too, was a known smoker of crack. Canelo won his first title against Luciano Leonel Cuello, an Argentine who lost every semi-significant professional fight in which he participated. Alvarez, it should be noted, did this at age 19. He feasted on the washed versions of Carlos Baldomir, Lovemore Ndou and Kermit Cintron, a lesser Hatton brother and some dude named Ryan Rhodes — all before turning 22. Canelo then beat a fading Shane Mosley, slipped by the then-undefeated Austin Trout and, at age 23, attempted a quantum leap by challenging a prime Floyd Mayweather. He fell short (as has every fighter who stepped in the ring with Floyd), but Alvarez would go on to face six single-loss or undefeated fighters, across three divisions, over his next 10 bouts — including two against middleweight boogeyman Gennady Golovkin — and win all but one (a draw with GGG). For a prospect who turned pro at 15, Canelo didn’t follow an unusual or remarkably favorable early path. And when put-up-or-shut-up time arrived, he has pushed himself — either to new divisions or against stiffer competition — more often than not.
Some of those aforementioned nits:
Fugazis. Some of Canelo’s shiniest pelts are faux fur. Mosley, Miguel Cotto, and Amir Khan already had a foot in the old folks’ home. Liam Smith and Rocky Fielding were two of the Kingdom’s finest, which, by definition, made them a pair of easy marks. And Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.? Jesus, take the wheel.
Home cooking. Alvarez has been the house fighter and an untouchable cash cow for a half-decade. You could argue that both fights against Golovkin, in which Canelo went 1-0-1, should have been marked as defeats on the Mexican’s record. You could say he got away with one against Erislandy Lara.
Tainted beef. No defense offered. Your boy got popped. Frankly, Canelo hasn’t paid enough of a public relations price for this. But in this sport, on this front, today’s fighters are all but guilty until proven innocent. From Manny Pacquiao to Anthony Joshua, there’s simply too much anecdotal evidence of rampant PED use in boxing to pearl-clutch over Alvarez’s positive test. Go ahead and brand Canelo with a scarlet letter (the “C” stands for clenbuterol), but drop the righteous indignation, nerds.
Argue, if you must, that Alvarez avoids prime opponents the way Hemingway did adjectives. But cram it for 2019. Toppling both Jacobs and Kovalev, coming off tooth-and-nail battles with Golovkin, was an objectively greater feat than anything the other candidates pulled off in the past 12 months. Teofimo Lopez? He fought often and fought well, but little-known Masayoshi Nakatani was a puzzle he almost failed to solve. Pacquiao? Props for outpointing Keith Thurman, but no bonus points for de-pantsing Adrien Broner. Josh Taylor? Great win over Regis Prograis. Less so against Ivan Baranchyk. Canelo’s closest competition for the award, Naoya Inoue, dismantled an undefeated beltholder (Emmanuel Rodriguez) and outslugged a legend (Nonito Donaire). My retort: horseshoes and hand grenades. A mortal performance against a 37-year-old bantamweight opponent simply isn’t the stuff Fighter of the Year campaigns are made of. Canelo isn’t Teflon. And we don’t yet know exactly how history will remember him. But in 2019, Alvarez offered the best account of anyone in the game.
A blustery, hard-boozing man of many frailties, Hemingway has been accused by critics over the years of producing work that reflected anti-Semitic and misogynistic leanings. There was a time I considered the author a coward for living a life so relentless in its estimation against a false ideal of male fortitude — and then ultimately taking it. But perspective is hard-won, and time tells the sharpest story. “The Sun Also Rises” is now considered a literary classic. “The Torrents of Spring,” also published in 1926, was panned at the time for its satirical take on the affectations of other writers. None other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, though, hailed it as a masterpiece. Beauty will always exist in the eye of the beholder, and a legacy — whether it belongs to Hemingway or Alvarez — will always be a thorny proposition. But say this for both the author and the fighter: For one year, no one balled out harder.
(Nov. 2, 2019; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Canelo Alvarez (blue/green trunks) knocks out Sergey Kovalev (black/white/red trunks) during their light heavyweight title bout at MGM Grand Garden Arena. Alvarez won via 11th round TKO. Photo by Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)