- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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When Hall of Fame matchmaker and promoter Don Chargin speaks, people in boxing listen. So when Chargin, a beloved figure, gushes about the bright future he sees for junior middleweight Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, it's best that you pay attention.
"I like that he's developed that hook to the liver, that famous Mexican punch. And as he goes on he's getting to be more and more of a body puncher. He's a terrific body puncher," said Chargin, who has seen them all during a career in boxing that has spanned some 60 years.
Then come the words to really pay attention to.
"If there's no hiccups along the way and he does things the right way, this kid, believe me, in a year's time, is going to be the biggest thing that ever came out of Mexico," Chargin said.
When Golden Boy promoter Oscar De La Hoya, who works closely with Chargin, signed Alvarez in January, he called it "a historical day for Golden Boy."
That is the kind of potential that Mexico's red-headed, freckle-faced Alvarez, just 20, possesses. He also has the desire to be great.
Rafael's prospects of the year
"It's something that's within me," Alvarez said through translator and Golden Boy matchmaker Eric Gomez. "It's natural. I was born with it. I'm someone who is very focused, and when I want something, I focus on that and I get it."
With his exciting style, Alvarez already is a major star in Mexico. De La Hoya recounted a story from early December when he was in Veracruz for Alvarez's most recent fight, a lopsided decision against former junior welterweight titlist Lovemore N'Dou.
"This kid has a rock star following. It's unbelievable," De La Hoya said. "We had the weigh-in, jam-packed outdoors, and for the first time ever I realized I'm retired and that nobody cares about me anymore. When all the little girls were following [Alvarez] and I was left behind, I was getting trampled. It was like, 'Wow, this kid is the next guy.'
"I was talking to many fans in Mexico on why they follow him. Why? He's not a world champion yet. They said he's our hope, that's why we follow him. The Mexican boxing fans, they are no dummies. They know talent when they see it. When I heard that, I was like, 'Wow, that's very powerful.' They're hoping for a representative, an icon, a hero. And he's the one."
Alvarez's popularity is beginning to grow in the United States, especially with Mexican-Americans. When he faced former welterweight champ Carlos Baldomir at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on a September undercard, it was the charismatic Alvarez who sold most of the tickets.
Alvarez (35-0-1, 26 KOs) turned pro at 15 with no amateur experience and learned on the job, fighting numerous novice-level opponents while building his record.
After a standout 2010 in which he won five bouts (including four by knockout) while ratcheting up his competition, he's just beginning to come into his own. Among his victories was a ninth-round knockout of Jose Cotto in a fight in which Alvarez rebounded from early adversity; a sensational one-punch, sixth-round knockout of Baldomir; and the win against N'Dou. With power, poise and loads of potential, Alvarez is the 2010 ESPN.com prospect of the year.
"This kid is doing things I would never dream of doing, that Julio Cesar Chavez would have never dreamed of doing [at 20]," De La Hoya said. "The moves he is doing now at 20, the feints, the ring generalship, he's not just your typical face-first type of fighter and 'I have power and a good chin.' No. He's a very smart fighter. He thinks.
"I really do see him as a mix of Chavez and me. He has the courage, he has the desire, he's a proud Mexican and he's smart. He's a good-looking kid. He has a following. So it's like a mix of Chavez and I. There's so much room for improvement and the great thing is, he knows it. His team knows there's a lot to be learned. And he's willing to learn. He wants to learn."
Maybe De La Hoya is laying it on a bit thick, but he made his point. Alvarez, who counts Chavez and De La Hoya among his boxing heroes, has all the potential in the world to become a major force.
But Alvarez, who dropped out of school in the Mexican equivalent of about eighth grade to box, is humble and doesn't seem overwhelmed by the expectations.
"It motivates me not only to be like them, but to surpass them and make my own name," Alvarez said. "I'm in a learning stage right now. I still feel that I have a lot more to learn. I'm a few steps away from the bigger fights. I'm very happy with the progress. Each time, I'm taking a step toward where I want to be."
Said De La Hoya: "It doesn't surprise me the composure he has and the way he handles himself. He's a very mature 20-year-old. I never experienced anything like it. At 20, he can handle everything. That's why we feel he's a special fighter. It's a matter of getting him the right fights and getting him the experience to one day throw him in with the lions. That's what he wants."
Trained by Edison Reynoso and co-trained and managed by Edison's father, Jose "Chepo" Reynoso, Alvarez hopes to fight four times in 2011 -- three times in the U.S. -- including for a world title. He has been fighting between welterweight and junior middleweight, but hopes to first win a 147-pound belt before settling at junior middleweight. Golden Boy is working on his next fight for March 5 in Anaheim, Calif., possibly against Matthew Hatton or welterweight titlist Vyacheslav Senchenko.
"He wants to move to Los Angeles and learn English and get his career going in the States," De La Hoya said. "He wants to become a superstar. The way he has captured the Mexican hearts in his country, he wants to be something special here in the States. He has skills and he will continue to work on his skills. He's progressing and learning, so he's motivated. There's really no rush with him."
Sometimes young star athletes can let the fame and money go to their head. De La Hoya believes Alvarez will avoid those issues -- what Chargin called "hiccups."
"My advice would be: Don't do what I did. Don't chase the women, don't go out partying," he said. "That's my advice. It shaved four years out of my career, at least four years. Imagine if I didn't drink or go out partying? He's a very disciplined fighter. He knows what he wants. He knows he has the talent. And he knows he can go very far."
Alvarez said there will be no distractions on his way to the top.
"I'm working because I want to be the best," he said. "I feel that I was born for this. Even before I started boxing, I used to get into fights and I did very well. So I feel I was born for this."
The rest of the Super 25 (in alphabetical order with age, division, promoter and record):
Demetrius Andrade (22, junior middleweight, Banner Promotions/Star Boxing, 11-0, 8 KOs): Andrade, a southpaw from Providence, R.I., was a decorated amateur and has pound-for-pound list potential. He was a 2008 U.S. Olympian, won a world amateur championship, two U.S. national titles and two National Golden Gloves titles. He has fantastic speed, ring smarts and, at 6-foot-1, excellent size for his division. He's a dynamic prospect who just needs experience, although he wasn't as busy as he should have been in 2010, fighting just three times. Banner Promotions' Artie Pelullo said Andrade will fight six times in 2011, a busy slate that begins Jan. 7 on ESPN2.
Jose Benavidez Jr. (18, junior welterweight, Top Rank, 9-0, 9 KOs): Many view Benavidez, who grew up in Phoenix and began boxing at age 6, as a sure-fire champion. Considered a prodigy, he was given a special waiver by Nevada authorities to turn pro at 17, a few months before his 18th birthday (the usual requirement). Rather than gun for the 2012 Olympics, Benavidez turned pro in January after going 120-5 as a star amateur and winning a 2009 National Golden Gloves title at 16, the youngest ever to do so. He has huge upside, great size for a junior welterweight (5-foot-11), speed, power and a smooth, seemingly effortless style. He also easily switches between right-handed and southpaw stances. He was trained by Freddie Roach (still a co-manager), but difficulties between Roach and Benavidez's father, Jose Sr., led to their breakup.
Adrien Broner (21, lightweight, Golden Boy, 18-0, 15 KOs): Broner's nickname is "The Problem," and he's going to be one for opponents. A pro for just two years, Broner had an excellent amateur background, winning the Silver Gloves tournament in 2002 and 2003 and advancing to the semifinals of the 2005 Junior Olympics. The Cincinnati native is aggressive, with energy to burn, has a ton of speed and unmistakable swagger that makes him fun to watch. He just needs experience and maturity. He went 5-0 in 2010, winning each fight by knockout and could move quickly.
Rakhim Chakhkiev (27, cruiserweight, Universum, 8-0, 6 KOs): Although Chakhkiev is now based in Germany, he was a star amateur in his home country of Russia, going 160-20 and winning the 2008 Olympic heavyweight gold medal. He was also the 2007 world amateur championships silver medalist. As a pro, "The Machine" has looked outstanding since turning pro in late 2009. A southpaw with power and a strong overall game, he was 5-0 in 2010 and could move quickly given his wealth of experience.
James DeGale (24, super middleweight, Frank Warren, 9-0, 7 KOs): The English southpaw won a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics and is on the fast track. He loves the spotlight and is as cocky as they come, but so far he has backed up his brash talk with strong skills. In 2010, he went 4-0 and won each bout by knockout while also fighting his first scheduled 12-rounder in just his seventh fight. On Dec. 11, DeGale significantly stepped up in competition, stopping dangerous Paul Smith in the ninth round to win the British title. Nicknamed "Chunky," DeGale can bore the crowd by sometimes fighting too defensively, and he sometimes showboats, but he has a ton of talent. Warren is a master at maneuvering fighters, so it won't be a surprise if DeGale fights for some kind of world title in the next 18 months.
Danny Garcia (22, junior welterweight, Golden Boy, 19-0, 13 KOs): Garcia continues to make strides after a standout amateur career in which he went 107-13, won a 2006 U.S. national championship and just missed making the 2008 Olympic team. Professionally, the Philadelphia native has been developing slowly but surely. He oozes confidence and is a good counterpuncher. In 2010, he was 4-0 and gained valuable experience in a tough decision win against veteran Ashley Theophane in a fight in which Garcia had to dig down to pull it out. One of his other victims was Mike Arnaoutis, a former contender whom Garcia cut down in four rounds. A fight against a legitimate contender could be in the cards for 2011.
Miguel Angel "Mikey" Garcia (23, featherweight, Top Rank, 24-0, 20 KOs): Garcia has been nurtured well by Top Rank, which is king when it comes to developing prospects, and is now on the precipice of becoming a serious contender -- if he isn't already. The kid can really fight and has the look of a future champion. He had a strong but brief amateur career, going 58-7. He's fundamentally sound, has deceptive power and is poised and mature beyond his years, perhaps because he's from a boxing family. (Older brother and trainer, Robert Garcia, is a former titleholder.) He scored four knockouts in his five wins in 2010, including stoppages against quality opponents Cornelius Lock and Olivier Lontchi, which put Garcia in position for a possible title shot against Yuriorkis Gamboa. It shouldn't be long before you see him regularly on HBO or Showtime.
Frankie Gavin (25, junior welterweight, Frank Warren, 8-0, 7 KOs): In 2007, Gavin, a southpaw, became the first British world amateur champion. In 2008, he was a gold medal favorite at the Olympics, but he didn't compete in Beijing because he failed to make the lightweight limit and was disqualified. As a pro, Gavin has plowed through opponents, showing a fun style and good hand speed. In September, he claimed his first belt, the Irish title, and if all goes as planned, he hopes to challenge for a world title in 2012.
Frankie Gomez (18, junior welterweight, Golden Boy, 7-0, 6 KOs): East Los Angeles' Gomez was perhaps the most sought-after amateur in the country when he decided to go pro rather than remain an amateur and go for gold at the 2012 Olympics. At 17, he won a 2009 U.S. national championship at 141 pounds (defeating fellow uber-prospect Jose Benavidez in the final) and a silver medal at the world amateur championships (his first open tournament). He turned pro in April and stayed busy the rest of the year, displaying two-handed firepower. Instead of rushing to his opponent like so many youngsters, Gomez showed patience and maturity beyond his years.
Fernando Guerrero (24, middleweight, Prize Fight, 20-0, 16 KOs): Guerrero is a blue-chip prospect with strong amateur credentials that include junior Golden Gloves, international Junior Olympics, National Golden Gloves and U.S. national titles. And that's not all: He has charisma, power and is a big ticket seller in Salisbury, Md., where he has lived since childhood after moving from the Dominican Republic. With a growing fan base and improving skills, he could someday be a serious factor. He has gotten good gym work as a sparring partner for Paul Williams. A hand injury early in the year limited Guerrero to just three fights in 2010, but he won each, including the best win of his career: a decision against experienced Ishe Smith. He opens his 2011 campaign in Salisbury on Feb. 18 as the headliner on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."
Marcus Johnson (25, super middleweight, Lou DiBella/Antonio Leonard, 20-0, 15 KOs): Houston's Johnson is built like a truck, puts his punches together well and has solid power. He was a standout amateur who made it to the finals of the 2004 Olympic trials before losing to eventual Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward. Johnson's pro career stalled early on because promoter Don King buried him and got him virtually no exposure. But after sitting for almost a year waiting for the contract to expire, Johnson signed with DiBella, who got him fights more consistently and television exposure. But Johnson fought just twice in 2010. That was his own fault. After an April victory, he tested positive for marijuana and was suspended for six months, which cost him a fight. He has all the talent in the world, but it's up to him how seriously he's going to take his career.
Mike Jones (27, welterweight, Russell Peltz/Top Rank, 23-0, 18 KOs): Philadelphia's Jones learned to box in the gym of legendary heavyweight champ Joe Frazier and spent the past few years being groomed by Peltz on small shows in Philly because the television networks largely (and inexplicably) ignored him. But the lanky Jones, who has an appealing style, has been steadily building a fan base and stepping up his competition. Now that Peltz has teamed with Top Rank, Jones is primed for a breakout in 2011. He won all four of his 2010 bouts against an increasingly better grade of opponent, including a lopsided decision against Henry Bruseles, a knockout of Irving Garcia and a majority decision struggle against Jesus Soto-Karass on the Manny Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito undercard. It was a fight that was close enough to warrant a rematch, which will take place Feb. 19 on an HBO undercard.
Lateef Kayode (27, cruiserweight, Gary Shaw, 15-0, 14 KOs): His nickname says it all: "Power." Although trainer Freddie Roach is teaching him the finer points of boxing, Kayode is about brute strength. He's raw and needs experience, but his attitude in the ring is to go for the knockout. The Nigerian native had a good amateur career, winning various African tournaments, and turned pro in 2008 as a heavyweight. But he dropped to cruiserweight in 2010 and went 6-0, all wins by knockout. He capped his year with an impressive sixth-round knockout of Ed Perry (who had never been stopped in four previous defeats) on "ShoBox" on Dec. 3, the first time many had a chance to see Kayode.
Erislandy Lara (27, junior middleweight, Golden Boy/Blue Wave Group, 14-0, 9 KOs): Lara is as advanced as any prospect in boxing. The southpaw was a three-time Cuban national champion and a 2005 world amateur champion. He would have been a 2008 Olympics medal favorite, but he defected (his second attempt after being caught in 2007) and turned pro in July 2008. He has been on the fast track since and is on the verge of a meaningful fight. Talent-wise, he's probably ready to challenge for a world title now, but finding a top fighter willing to tangle with the technically gifted prospect is difficult. Lara racked up five wins (four by knockout) in 2010, including against the experienced Grady Brewer (the former "Contender" winner) and former title challenger Danny Perez.
David Lemieux (22, middleweight, Yvon Michel, 25-0, 24 KOs): The three-time Canadian amateur national champion surely would have made the 2008 Canadian Olympic team, but Lemieux instead had his eyes on professional glory and turned pro in 2007 at 18. Blessed with tremendous power, charisma and a growing fan base, he has moved quickly and is on the verge of fighting a world title eliminator in the first half of 2011. That follows a sensational 2010 in which Lemieux went 5-0 and knocked out four opponents inside two rounds, including modest steps up in competition against Hector Camacho Jr. and Elvin Ayala. Both were supposed to be tests. Both opponents went down in the first round. Trainer/manager Russ Anber, who has worked with Lemieux since he was 9, may have a very special fighter on his hands.
Roberto Marroquin (21, featherweight, Top Rank, 17-0, 13 KOs): A two-year pro, the 5-foot-8 Marroquin has good size for his division, not to mention a fan-friendly style and a strong left hook. He is being brought along steadily by Top Rank matchmaker Brad "Abdul" Goodman after a standout amateur career, in which Marroquin won the 2006 Junior Olympic nationals and made it to the finals at the 2007 U.S. Olympic trials as a teenager. In 2010, he went 6-0 and received outstanding exposure. The Dallas native boxed on both of Manny Pacquiao's undercards at Cowboys Stadium. Top Rank knows how to move its young fighters extremely well and Marroquin will benefit from that methodical approach. There's no need to rush him.
Seth Mitchell (28, heavyweight, Golden Boy, 20-0-1, 14 KOs): In the desert, it's nice to find an oasis. In the land of American heavyweight prospects, it's nice to find Mitchell, one of the few bona-fide, up-and-coming big men. Although he's 28, he started boxing late because he was busy playing college football at Michigan State before a knee injury derailed his NFL hopes. He has come a long way in his two-year career and is clearly the best American heavyweight prospect. The 6-foot-2, 243-pound Brandywine, Md., fighter is fundamentally sound and has shown improvement fight after fight. He's a hard worker with a good attitude and just needs rounds and experience. In 2010, he won all five of his bouts by knockout while facing experienced opponents such as Derek Bryant and Taurus Sykes.
Shawn Porter (23, welterweight, Prize Fight, 17-0, 13 KOs): Porter began boxing at age 8 and was a standout amateur as a 2007 National Golden Gloves champion and 2008 U.S. Olympic alternate. Fast with his punches, he has been steadily earning his pro stripes, including in 2009 as a key sparring partner for Manny Pacquiao. In 2010, the Cleveland resident continued building on his success with five victories, including a quality decision against previously undefeated prospect Ray Robinson. Although many considered Porter a significant prospect from the day he turned pro, he probably improved his career outlook in 2010 by dropping from junior middleweight (where he appeared a bit undersized) to welterweight, where he looks much stronger. He's set for his first 2011 fight Feb. 18 on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."
Ruslan Provodnikov (26, junior welterweight, Banner Promotions/German Titov Box Promotions, 17-0, 11 KOs): Hailing from the far reaches of Siberia in Russia, Provodnikov is a relentless pressure fighter with a style reminiscent of Hall of Fame former junior welterweight champ Kostya Tszyu. Provodnikov, who began boxing at 10, has good power, serious strength and loves to bang the body. As an amateur, he estimates his record was 130-20. While also attending college, he opened many eyes with some strong performances on ESPN2. In 2010, in which he went 3-0, he looked good on the network while stopping former lightweight titlist Javier Jauregui in the eighth round and Emanuel Augustus in the ninth round. You can get a look at Provodnikov on Jan. 7, when he headlines the 2011 "Friday Night Fights" season premier.
Rico Ramos (23, junior featherweight, Dan Goossen, 18-0, 10 KOs): Ramos, a quick and skilled southpaw from Pico Rivera, Calif., continued building his career in 2010, going 4-0 (3 KOs) while receiving excellent exposure as three of his bouts were televised on ESPN2. As an amateur, he was 97-17 and won an assortment of tournaments before turning pro in 2008 under the guidance of powerful adviser Al Haymon. Nicknamed "Suavecito," Ramos is starting to come into his own. He capped 2010 with the most impressive victory of his career, a sensational second-round knockout of battle-tested former title challenger Heriberto Ruiz in November. In four knockout losses, Ruiz had never been stopped that quickly.
Edwin Rodriguez (25, super middleweight, Lou DiBella, 17-0, 13 KOs): Born in the Dominican Republic, but living in Worcester, Mass., Rodriguez had an excellent year, going 4-0 and winning each fight by knockout as DiBella matchmaker Joe Quiambao gradually stepped up his competition. Rodriguez culminated his year by stopping the more experienced James McGirt Jr. in the ninth round on Showtime's "ShoBox." Perhaps more important than the fights was the outstanding experience Rodriguez gained in the gym as he traveled to England, Canada and Australia to serve as an important sparring partner for super middleweight titlist Carl Froch, light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal and middleweight contender Daniel Geale. As an amateur, Rodriguez had solid credentials, going 84-9 and winning the 2005 U.S. nationals and 2006 National Golden Gloves.
Gary Russell Jr. (22, featherweight, Golden Boy, 13-0, 9 KOs): Russell was a phenomenal amateur and the 2008 U.S. Olympic team bantamweight, but he didn't box in Beijing because he passed out on the eve of his first bout trying to make weight and was disqualified from the tournament. It was a bitter disappointment that he's trying to make up for as a pro featherweight. So far, so good. Russell has dynamic talent, perhaps the fastest set of hands in the sport and sound defense. The Capitol Heights, Md., southpaw went 7-0 in 2010 and probably would have had at least one more win, but it's hard to find opponents for him. (One fight fell out at the last minute.) It wouldn't be a surprise to see him on the pound-for-pound list in a few years.
Bastie Samir (24, middleweight, Golden Boy, 7-0, 7 KOs): As an amateur, Samir was 96-7 and fought for his native Ghana in the 2008 Olympics, where he displayed an exciting, aggressive style far better suited for pro boxing than the amateurs. (He even broke the headgear of an opponent in the Olympics with a powerful punch.) After the Games, Samir signed with manager Cameron Dunkin and co-promoters TKO and Top Rank, then relocated to Las Vegas. After three quick wins, he visited Ghana and wound up mired in a 20-month layoff because of visa problems. When Samir finally returned to the U.S., Dunkin secured his release from financially troubled TKO, as well as Top Rank, and took him to Golden Boy. Trained by Kenny Adams, Samir resumed boxing in August and reeled off four wins in four months. With pure strength and an outstanding body attack, Samir will be fun to watch develop.
Dominic Wade (20, super middleweight, Prize Fight, 9-0, 7 KOs): Wade, who turned pro in March 2009, was a standout amateur, having won four consecutive Silver Gloves national titles. He has all the tools, especially an exciting style and outstanding power that he has used to turn out the lights on opponents. The Largo, Md., product took up boxing at age 9 and is one of those prospects who managers and promoters talk about wishing they could work with, which says something in a sport in which competitors rarely give somebody else's fighter credit. The only knock on Wade has been a bit of immaturity and a work ethic that hasn't always been stellar. If he can button that down, the sky's the limit.
Also coming: awards for round and fight of the year.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
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