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Khan, Canelo, California: Blood Sport Under the Sun

Fightland Blog

By Gabe Oppenheim

Photos by Gabe Oppenheim

Los Angeles. Oscar De La Hoya is launching his own version of Tinder.

I'm in his wood-paneled, leather-adorned office, which has a marked Abercrombie-for-adults vibe, in Golden Boy Promotions' headquarters in downtown LA. We've spent the last 45 minutes discussing his May 7 pay-per-view in Vegas: England's speedy, former 140-lb. titleholder Amir Khan, 29, versus Mexican bruiser Saúl "Canelo" Alvarez, 25, for the lineal middleweight championship of the world.

But for a moment, I've dropped the subject, and mentioned how many techie-filled flights I've taken within California in the past weeks to embed myself in the fighters' camps in the Bay Area and SoCal. It just got to me, I say. What if there were software that matched boxers the way hookup programs do single people?

De La Hoya's publicist, Stefan Friedman, eyes me with what appears to be a smirk. "Maybe that's a stupid idea," I say, backtracking.

But it wasn't a smirk—I apparently hit on a concept and product they've been developing for a long time and keeping under wraps. For now, I can mention just one thing further: This program will be revealed soon. You'll want to hear the details when it is. As the boxing world's most despised krill-colored bloviator might put it, "it's gonna be yuge."

So, the fight.

"Expect a Canelo who's gonna come at him like a Mack truck," De La Hoya says. "I'm betting knockout within seven rounds."

That was the prediction De La Hoya made to me in November, before Canelo beat then-middleweight champ Miguel Cotto in a lopsided but unglamorous decision. No KO, not even close.

"What happened?" I ask De La Hoya. And how's your big boy, Canelo, the Mexican kid with looks and bucks, going to rebound from that?

San Diego. I wake up in a bedroom with floor to ceiling windows that overlook a pool. Airbnb has hooked me up, and I'm amid a posh sprawl of mansions, minutes from the beach. The trouble is that it's 5:30 am, and I have an hour to prep my body before I join Canelo for his morning run. My idea.

For very sound health-related reasons, I don't run regularly. In prep for this morning, I've hit a Lifecycle a couple of times and took a spin on one hotel treadmill. Canelo doesn't know that. I figure this is a way to earn some trust. I'm laying my body out there—6'5", 220, belly and all—to show him I'm not a basement-blogging, opinion-popping keyboard jockey who's never felt what it is to burn.

There's a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf at the shopping center where I was told we'd meet, and it's open (hell, yes, California). I still have a half hour, so I duck inside. Nothing I scan seems pre-workout-appropriate, but I buy a bagel for the carbs. Then his team rolls up in a Escalade to a horse trail behind the mall. I'm met by Raúl, my contact in the entourage, a young guy with transfixing teal eyes and more or less fluent English. (Canelo is working on it, knowing a mastery of American media is key to expanding his celebrity)

The others pile out of the SUV: manager Chepo Reynoso, an aging former butcher who has molded Canelo since the boxer was 10 and has composed 30 folksongs about his charge's deeds; Eddy Reynoso, Canelo's trainer and Chepo's son; Horacio García, an undefeated 122-pounder whom Alvarez promotes, despite their being the same age; and Canelo himself, the SUV's breadwinner, bundled head-to-toe in Under Armour winter gear. (I suggest he should be in a commercial with fellow UA endorsers Steph Curry and Cam Newton, if only for the phonics, but CEO Kevin Plank, through an assistant, dismisses the idea.)

Canelo wears a beanie lowered to just above his eyebrows. He already has his earbuds in, already wears that pinched look of his, a kind of peevish stare into the distance that signals he's more than primed—he's past due. He nods at me, and I back at him, and then he just dashes off, Horacio by his side, without a word. I stand there, watching him gallop.

"Go!" someone shouts behind me. I look back for a moment, then ahead at Horacio and Canelo, already somewhat in the distance. Don't I get a moment to summon the will? And then I'm running, too, keenly aware of my shaking weight, knowing only that Canelo's ahead, his team's behind, and I can't stop in view of the entourage.

I huff the whole way, never close to catching the fighter, having to walk certain parts, sprinting the last yards just to impress his camp, unsure Canelo even notices me on his tail. The horse trail passes stables, naturally, then ducks beneath a bridge lined with bats; it rings a lake, in which the reflected sun, as it rises over San Diego, resembles an oozing egg yolk.

Canelo says "Thank you" to me at the end of the course, and then the Caddy drives off.

Canelo naps between his morning runs and afternoon workouts. Yesterday was a sparring day. Today, he faces me and a digital recorder before pad work. We're inside his private gym, a converted garage in an anonymous industrial park with a halfway decent bodega for sustenance.

It's 84 degrees outside, who knows what within; there are two unhelpful skylights concentrating the sun like magnifying glasses. My Samsung Galaxy, hot as the rocker panel of a Dodge Viper, enters an automatic "cooldown mode" I've never seen.

Canleo, sitting on the ring apron, answers each question politely but in brief. Khan might be a little faster than Mayweather. I focus on Khan's strengths rather than his weaknesses (translation: I'm not going to tell you our plan). Quiero retirar como una leyenda.

The brevity is either an experienced athlete's intentional boilerplate (you can let the media in only so much) or a sign of the 25-year-old's youth.

So I break the spell. I tell him if he truly wants to be a leyenda he should take the match with knockout king Gennady Golovkin, whom he has demanded drop five pounds from the middleweight limit of 160. His tone changes swiftly.

I made weight sacrifices on the way up, he says. Golovkin draws no PPV viewers. This is true so far—Golovkin's next viewership test is against the little-known yet undefeated Dominic Wade, on April 23. Pacquiao and Floyd waited five years and look how much money they made.

And how terrible their bout was for the sport, I counter. The public wants this.

Which public? he asks, eyeing me.

And so we argue for a hot minute, though the exchange is moot. Canelo's weight demands are his way of buying time. Truth is, De La Hoya doesn't want him to face GGG till 2017, so the bout can gain momentum—in part so it has a tiny shot at reaching the casual fans that Pacman and Money alienated.

"I'll tell you one thing," De La Hoya will tell me in L.A. days later. "Guaranteed, on record. When Canelo fights Golovkin, Canelo's gonna knock him out. I believe that. I believe that 100 percent."

Back in the gym, Canelo lets his hands go far more than his lips, smashing Eddy's pads with percussive hooks and uppercuts (it's really the same punch thrown at different arm angles—think of a pitcher who can successfully alter his slot to target hitters' weak spots). Ramiro Gonzalez, the first scout whom Oscar sent to Guadalajara to check out Canelo, turns to me and says, "It's like ciegos (blind men) at Shea when Tom Seaver pitched." I turn to him with a quizzical look—Ramiro and I have spoken mostly Spanish to each other, and he has no idea I'm a New York Mets fan.

He continues: They could hear his fastball hit the catcher's mitt and know who was on the mound. My take? Each Canleo shot has the thudding bass of a football tackle and the treble of shattered wood. The sound of Bo Jackson flooring a linebacker and smacking a long-ball.

Then there's the visual. Canleo torques his compact frame into coiled, Tyson-esque balls of energy and then lets himself unspool. It's textbook, which is perhaps his only weakness.

So why did Canelo fail to fulfill Oscar's prediction of a knockout against Cotto?

Canelo explained it this way to his promotional boss: "I was trying to be too perfect."

For all the warrior talk, Canelo does indeed play it conservatively. He pins his gloves to the side of his head when he must. De La Hoya assures me that going forward Canelo will be "sloppy," and in a flurry that perhaps violates several cardinal fight principles, he'll land the haymaker. HBO Boxing broadcaster Jim Lampley similarly mentions Canelo needing to walk opponents into unseen shots.

Chepo hobbles with me to a corner. The night before Canelo's bout, the entourage's paterfamilias will turn 63, but the folds beneath his eyes and lumbering gait belong to a man who has been worn down beyond his years.

I ask him whether Canelo possesses a counterintuitive move, such as giving space only to take it back with a reflexive check shot. Chepo pantomimes a right counter to the solar plexus followed by a left hook. It's a fine combo—and, well executed, could do damage–but it isn't the tool I've envisioned.

On the other hand, why would Chepo reveal anything? The man once lived in, and survived, the violent Guadalajara neighborhood La Penal—the Penitentiary. He entered the fight game because he enjoyed watching it, without any pedigree other than a brief amateur career. Canelo is his fourth champion.

So Chepo plays his cards close and heads to the speed bag, where he displays incredibly quick hands for a man of any age. Then Canelo knocks the apparatus into its wooden platform with such unremitting velocity, I regret not having earplugs. So this is what it's like to have a SWAT team bang down your doors.

On the jab bag, suspended tautly between cables connected to ceiling and floor, which flies back at a fighter with each shot, Canelo unloads his full arsenal, while slipping the return. He never misses the target and is never pegged in response.

When the workout nears its end, I bend over to Canelo, who's resting on the ring's canvas and tell him how much I respect him. He nods with neither a smile nor frown. Is he calculating or just young?

Yes.

I wish his camp "adios" and head through the gym's door.

Oakland. Another industrial park, this one set atop government-protected marshes, like an eco-friendly, West Coast version of the Jersey Meadowlands. In the lot, there's a van bearing super middleweight champ Andre Ward's name and likeness, which promotes the fight he just won days earlier in Oracle Arena (home of the Golden State Warriors, whose colors adorn the heavy bags Ward used in training; Khan has replaced them with bags the color of the Pakistani flag).

From inside, you can hear faint hip-hop. Someone has beaten Amir here.

Simon Fathers, a red-headed strength coach from New Zealand, unlocks the door.

And there, in a garage space with a big ring, heavy bags, treadmills, and mysterious pieces of equipment made by Keiser, is Andre Berto, the former welterweight title-holder and Olympian. He appears as muscular as ever, his left-arm striped with black fitness tape like a fearsome barber's pole. It was his music I heard—his smartphone plays "Hotline Bling" through a nearby speaker.

A coach works with Berto to increase his flexibility, but he still appears too much like his UFC-competitor dad: his pecs impede his shots, while his lats keep them wide. Later, I ask the physical therapist whether anyone has ever told Berto to reshape his figure. The late trainer Emanuel Steward railed against such Venice Beach bodies. Not to his knowledge, the therapist says.

Khan, a quicksilver former 140-pound champ, has an easier assignment: his last defeat came against the slower Danny Garcia; Khan so dominated the early rounds that in pursuing a KO, he was caught himself. His mission now is to protect a questionable chin with Ward-esque defense while maintaining the electric speed that gave Manny Pacquiao fits in sparring years back.

(The consensus opinion is that when Khan began getting the better of some sessions, they were abruptly ended. Khan was told he might get to face Manny in a paid bout. In reality, he was avoided by Pacquiao and Mayweather—"jerked around," insiders say—despite signing with Mayweather's adviser, Al Haymon.)

After their own SUV arrives, Amir's father-manager, Shah, enters the gym. At 54, he is perhaps slightly heavier, his face more lined, his hair whiter, than contemporaries whose sons don't box for a living. But he has a bounce in his step as he greets Berto and the coaches and me. And he smiles widely, never mind the gap between his front teeth (which seems to have narrowed over the years).

Shah says Amir is being interviewed on the phone by ESPN UK, so he offers instead stories of his other son, a 24-year-old, 5-0 bantamweight. Harry has an incongruous fear of needles and medical equipment, so much so that he fainted when undoing his bandage after a successful shoulder procedure. Shah mimes going bowlegged and toppling. We laugh. I notice Shah's smartphone case features the Canelo-Khan poster.

Amir enters wearing an eggplant-colored shirt with two sponsors' logos in white and his own, personal "AK" emblem in gold. He has been paid to wear certain items since winning a silver medal in Athens at the age of 17. This T-shirt is rather innocuous, but his team regrets the early contract he signed with Reebok that mandated he wear their gloves (otherwise absent from boxing). They were like pillows, Amir and his team now rue—who knows what his hands might've done in Everlasts or Reyeses?

Amir has the rangy physique that eludes Berto—he's somewhere below 6 feet (every tale of the tape differs on exactly how far below, and I didn't bring a ruler) with a 71-inch reach and no discernible architecture beneath his togs. He stretches his groin and thigh muscles on a medicine ball, as Berto cries out—that fitness tape won't come off without some hair and skin, so Berto repairs to the men's room.

Simon's deputy, Josh, demonstrates the first exercise, a Handwalk: Amir must bend at the waist, touch his toes, then crawl with his fingers so that his upper body worms away from its unmoving base. Josh performs it without effort. Amir struggles at first, before gaining a measure of stability. His brain can coax his body to adjust its output by small degrees, as though it were some external instrument—say, central heating.

Next, Amir heads to the Keiser machines. Forget Billy Bob Thornton's opening monologue in Sling Blade or the end of The Usual Suspects. This is the Keiser in real life: A machine that applies resistance not with static weights or Pilates-like coils but with copper tanks of pneumatic pressure that resemble "Fast and Furious" canisters of nitrous. Wiring links the tanks to an electronic interface, through which resistance can be dialed up in minor gradations and, god forbid, down in similar measure (the decrease makes the hissing sound of cabin air escaping a plane's overhead twist-blowers).

Each machine has been modified—Simon and Josh bolt down certain parts—and retails for about $5K. All of Amir's results are logged in a spreadsheet in an open laptop. Amir has never used these before—not with Alex Ariza in the Wild Card Gym, in L.A., nor back in England.

And so it begins: at a resistance of 276, Amir must burst into runs on an elliptical-like sledding Keiser, his hips locked so that certain muscles can be targeted without help from others. Burst then rest. Burst then rest. Next he squats in upward explosions against a Keiser. He twists his core and reaches upward against a band from an Infinity Keiser (it has adjustable arms, like the free cable machine in your gym).

Amir pumps out chest press reps with a steel bar held back on either side by the Keiser. He performs pikes on the floor—lowering one arm against the raised knee on the opposite side of his body—with his hand tied to a Keiser. Diamond arm raises and push-ups, restrained by a Keiser. An angled chest press while taking a knee on the floor against the force of a Keiser. Wiping the floor with a towel under his foot—using his abductors, it appears—with his ankle tied to a Keiser. Sitting on a nothing but air, his knees bent, his core trembling, using his arms to row two cables of a Keiser.

When Amir finishes the circuit, he gets up and wordlessly moves toward a black bucket in the corner of the sparring ring. He spits. He sprays some water in his mouth. Then he hits the circuit again. Incredibly, he seems to perform better the second time, nailing the motions more precisely. Hitting the areas Josh and Simon target, as the physical therapist, Joey, examines every muscle to make sure it's appropriately aligned (they dub this pre-PT).

Oh, right: Each exercise that focuses on one muscle area is matched by one that works the opposing tissue. So you can take all of the above moves and double them—that's how much Amir took on. I should have been unsurprised to hear that tactical forces—paramilitary units—hire Simon to put soldiers through this routine.

If you see a guy lift more than you can, you think, Alright, there's a difference between us, but it's in degrees, not kind. You see Amir Khan burst not with mass but fast-twitch muscle fiber and you know he's a whole other animal.

Is Canelo the same breed? Could he survive this workout, much less thrive in it? Maybe yes, maybe no. It's not like Khan has donned gloves today, much less given his supporters migraines with his banging. There are fitness sessions and boxing sessions and they're never comparable.

After the torture, Khan's entourage piles into the SUV. Needle-wary Harry drives while texting. I'm graciously given the passenger seat in front of Amir, whose legs surely could use the space, but we're not far from an apartment Khan rents, redolent of spicy Middle Eastern food and adorned on one wall with devotional verses in calligraphic Arabic (I ask for a translation, but what appeared to be one line turns out to be three and I can't get it all down).

Two women show up, one with groceries and the other with her hands—she's the masseuse. She opens the massage table and removes a canister of cocoa butter. Khan discards his sweaty shirt and hikes up his shorts, revealing circular red bruises on his back, each the size of a baby's fist, from cupping treatment (other dubious medical interventions mentioned by Khan's camp, though these aren't practiced by him, include reiki, water fasts, and sucking the marrow out of animal bones).

The masseuse begins kneading his knotted muscles, and he groans like a cavity-covered kid at the dentist.

Why don't you interview Amir now? Shah suggests.

I can only see the back of Amir's head, which is buried face-down in the hemorrhoid pillow-like table extension.

Go ahead, he says, it's fine. So I hit record on my device, and speak to the back of a neck.

"Were you treated fairly when you were pursuing a fight with Floyd?"

From beneath the table:

"I don't think I was, no."

Los Angeles. Floyd, Pacquiao, Canelo—they aren't the only ones who dodge potentially brand-crushing bouts.

Khan, a top welterweight, should be facing English compatriot and current 147-pound title-holder Kell Brook in Wembley. Brook's camp floated a massive purse to Amir, but he claims the numbers were retracted as soon as the public got wind of the offer and pushed for him to take it (the old bait-and-switch). It's just as likely Khan bypassed a hugely risky fight for one without consequence. A loss to Brook, as Lampley told me, "would be calamitous, would knock the underpinning out of his platform, because Khan's platform is—look at The Ring magazine this month—he's the number one British fighter.

"If he loses to Canelo, who's a global figure, a larger guy—if he loses that fight, so what? He was supposed to lose that fight."

So Khan jumps to middleweight, instantly becomes an underdog, and Canelo wears the burden of his initial advantage—he must win decisively, maybe even spectacularly, to advance his career. I see him doing so, unless Khan can throw Ali-like lead rights in the first few rounds and stun Canelo with his power.

And he does have more pop than Canelo expects, if from his velocity and deception alone, not to mention Keiser conditioning. Canelo also has more speed than Khan might realize. Meanwhile, back in England, Kell Brook has just a single name on his resume of any repute—Shawn Porter—and therefore no legit beef with anyone.

De La Hoya makes no predictions for Canelo-Khan, in part, I think, because he genuinely likes Khan, whom he used to promote, whom he informed about this opportunity not only to serve his own interests or Canelo's, or to hurt Haymon's, though all three elements no doubt factored in the decision.

De La Hoya thinks back to 2010, and you can hear in his voice the sincere appreciation of Khan's ability, affection for it even. "Look at Maidana-Khan, I mean, oh, boy, that was ..."

He drifts off for a moment. Marcos Maidana was the Argentinian ruffian who destroyed Victor Ortiz and was supposed to do possibly worse to the ostensibly crystal-chinned Khan. De La Hoya continues to muse.

"And you know, Maidana was the bigger guy, the big puncher, and look at what Amir did ..."

Here's what he did: He landed a left hook to Maidana's liver in the first and put him down. He snatched the body and then targeted the head. And when he was through and had exhausted his energy, Maidana came back, until in the 10th, Maidana landed one last big shot, and Khan began to wobble.

"Will he hold?" Lampley shouted ringside. But Amir wouldn't. He slid and shuffled but wouldn't clinch. "Too much heart for Khan," Lampley decreed. Everyone at the Mandalay Bay, every viewer, agreed. But we were wrong.

Crimson-faced, jelly-legged Amir "King" Khan evaded some punches, ate others, but never fell. This was Khan's Raging Bull moment—only better because besides staying upright, he legitimately won.

De La Hoya remembers that fondly. Years later, he was in rehab when Al Haymon approached Khan. Khan tells me he tried to reach De La Hoya to discuss it but couldn't. That seems unfair in so many ways, but who knows exactly how things played out. Maybe Haymon would offer me a different timeline.

This I know for sure: To some degree, De La Hoya has put it behind him. So has Amir. And here's Canelo, waiting for both on the other side. If this fight plays out even somewhat like Khan-Maidana, we'll all be richly rewarded for their collective maturity. I don't mean in the currency Haymon seems to value most, not fans anyway, but in the sorts of memories that can still take hold of De La Hoya.

Which isn't to say Golden Boy, the company, isn't profit-driven, or imperfect, or that Haymon doesn't have feelings. Only that if he does, he keeps them hidden like everything else, and with them, that slice of humanity that can inexplicably still attach itself to an otherwise utterly base game.

Maybe it's an irredeemable pursuit, more honestly pursued for money alone. You can guess where I stand, however self-justifiably. What about you?

 

Check out these related stories:

Canelo Alvarez Says He’s Not a Middleweight; Amir Khan Thinks He Might Be

Gennady Golovkin Calls Alvarez/Khan ‘Bad for Boxing’

The WBC Defends Canelo Alvarez vs. Amir Khan Middleweight Title Fight

 

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