AS boxing fans inside the Lobby at the MGM Grand this afternoon used two hands to hold aloft their phones like Rafiki presenting Simba on Pride Rock, it became abundantly clear Saúl ‘Canelo’ Álvarez had lost none of his appeal in the eyes of fans despite losing his last fight in May.

Furthermore, a second realisation was this: Álvarez, having made his MGM Grand arrival ten or so minutes after Gennadiy Golovkin, is by far the bigger attraction of the two and the more popular fighter going into Saturday’s (September 17) fight at the T-Mobile Arena.

This should come as no surprise, of course, yet the tangible sense of anticipation that surrounded the entrance of Álvarez, soundtracked by the trumpets and violins of a mariachi band, left no doubt as to which of the two fighters’ career and profile had skyrocketed off the back of their first encounter in September 2017. That fight, a draw, naturally set up the rematch the following year, which Álvarez won, and now, four years later, the pair not only meet for a third time but do so as entirely differently propositions.

Golovkin, for all his achievements, and for all the trouble he gave Álvarez previously, remains a boxer adored only by the hardcore, whereas Álvarez, currently the man with bragging rights, is boxing’s premier name and cash cow in 2022 – a statement unaffected by him losing against Dmitry Bivol in May (at light-heavyweight).

Perhaps such a thing would be deemed a moot point if boxing, historically, was not a sport prone to becoming a popularity contest in its most crucial moments. Yet, unfortunately, it is, and indeed this week in Vegas there is a sense the popularity of two evenly matched fighters could again, at some point, become as relevant as it was in 2017 and, to a lesser extent, 2018.

The hope is that it doesn’t, granted, and that a more conclusive finish removes the need for anyone to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, but it would be shortsighted to not take into account the power of Álvarez, especially here in Vegas, the same town in which he has twice fought Golovkin already.

Here, in Vegas, where girls lined the entrance to the Lobby in anticipation of his arrival, then sang the lyrics to the song that accompanied it, he is big news; powerful enough to draw hordes of Mexicans to Sin City ahead of their Independence weekend and famous enough to attract the casual sports fans and tourists wandering through the MGM Grand on a Tuesday afternoon. He is also currently outselling Golovkin at the Grand and Co. shop, where both have merchandise on sale, and where I caught up with one of its employees, Jodi, who, she says, has been working there “too long to remember and long enough to remember them all (the great boxers).”

Watching the commotion from afar, Jodi told me, “Canelo sells more by quite a distance and always outsells his opponents whenever he fights here.” She then reacted with shock when I had the audacity to mention Álvarez and Floyd Mayweather, an old Canelo opponent, in the same sentence. “Oh, come on,” she said. “Mayweather was much more popular. Him against (Manny) Pacquiao (in 2015)?” She rolled her eyes and made a whooshing sound with her mouth. “That was like nothing else. But, of course, they’re both retired now and we miss them. Canelo is the next best thing.”

Floyd Mayweather how to box
Mayweather beats Pacquiao in 2015

At 1.15 pm, The Next Best Thing entered the MGM Grand Lobby and the crowd, which had been building and building for the best part of an hour, rushed to get the best view possible. Interesting to note, too, that among this congregation were as many females as males, with one, a Mexican, screaming at the top of her lungs when later she secured a picture with the super-middleweight champion from Guadalajara.

“You can always tell the difference between people who are here to see a fight and people who are just walking through and want to see what’s going on,” said Robert Diaz of Golden Boy Promotions. “The people who just want to see what’s going on will usually walk away, whereas the ones here today are all staying. The crowd here started very big and it just keeps getting and bigger. That’s a good indication.”  

Diaz added: “It’s Mexican Independence Day on Friday (September 16) and it’s a weekend Mexicans traditionally come in to see their favourite singers, fighters, and see all the shows. They have a fighter like Canelo who just brings out that enthusiasm a bit more.”

No stranger to big fights in Vegas, nor big Canelo fights in Vegas, Diaz is someone who has been close to the 32-year-old throughout his career and has, from this enviable position, been able to chart and assess his progress. It has, he says, been both gradual and quick, with Canelo’s overall journey a long, gruelling one but his newfound superstardom something that almost feels like it happened overnight.

“I’d be lying if I said yes,” Diaz said when I asked him if he saw this all coming. “You never envisage it like that. You envisage a world championship and a couple of them if they’re a bit special. But you never envisage them getting to the level Canelo has reached.

“For a Mexican to have gained success in the divisions where normally you would never find a Mexican is another big thing people don’t talk about enough. He’s fighting at light-heavyweight and super-middleweight and is fighting guys he shouldn’t be fighting given the weight, but his skill level and determination is so great he can manage it.”

When later I refer to Canelo, 57-2-2 (39), as “the next best thing”, stealing a phrase coined by Jodi in the Grand and Co. shop, Diaz nods his head and accepts it, knowing few will ever be able to match Mayweather, particularly here in Vegas. “That should be a good message to young fighters: that with hard work, dreams are possible,” he said. “Canelo turned pro at 15 and was making very little money back then. Now he is the current face of boxing.”