LAS VEGAS — As Oscar De La Hoya stepped to the podium for the final news conference before Saturday’s fight between Canelo Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., he smiled as he looked around the room and said he first had to address the crowd in Spanish given the upcoming Cinco de Mayo holiday.
“May 5, 1862, is remembered as the Battle of Puebla,” he said in Spanish. “It is where the army of Mexico defeated the much larger army of France. One hundred and fifty-five years have passed since that epic and historic battle, and remembering that very important moment, we will celebrate it with the much anticipated match between Canelo Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.”
Full coverage: Canelo vs. Chavez Jr.
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The latest manifestation of Mexico’s enduring love affair with “boxeo” takes place this Saturday night, when native sons Canelo Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. battle in Las Vegas.
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There is a chance some in the room may have discovered what Cinco de Mayo actually represented at that very moment.
While Cinco de Mayo is celebrated as if it were Mexican Independence Day in the United States, it isn’t. Día de la Independencia is celebrated on Sept. 16. Cinco de Mayo is actually not even a national holiday in Mexico. It is far more popular in the United States, where it has become an excuse to drink Coronas and eat carnitas, than it is in Mexico, where it is just another day on the calendar for most.
Boxing, however, has made Cinco de Mayo weekend a more popular holiday in Mexico than any ad campaign in the United States ever could. While Cinco de Mayo will never be as big in Mexico as it is in the United States, boxing fans in Mexico now recognize that the best fights of the year will take place during Cinco de Mayo weekend and Mexican Independence Day weekend.
The Mexican Independence Day fight tradition can be traced back to Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., who helped make it an annual event from 1991 to ’95 with fights against Lonnie Smith, Hector Camacho, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor and David Kamou. He passed the torch to De La Hoya, who fought six times on Mexican Independence Day weekend from 1997 to 2004, including beating Chavez in 1998. By the time Bernard Hopkins beat De La Hoya in 2004, it was a staple on the boxing calendar.
While there had been the occasional Cinco de Mayo weekend fight, De La Hoya helped make it an annual tradition in 2003 when he fought Mexican boxer Yori Boy Campas for his WBA (super), WBC, The Ring and lineal light middleweight titles in Las Vegas. De La Hoya would fight three more times during Cinco de Mayo weekend before retiring in 2008, and he has gone on to promote three other Cinco de Mayo cards as part of Golden Boy Promotions.
“To be honest, my hope was for it to become what it has become,” De La Hoya told ESPN.com. “I wanted to make it a celebration. I wanted it to be a party and an excuse for boxing fans and non-boxing fans to come out to Vegas and enjoy a great fight and enjoy a great weekend with your friends or family and celebrate.”
Every major Cinco de Mayo fight since 2003 has been held at an MGM property in Las Vegas. It has now become a weekend that many within MGM resorts simply circle on their calendar, along with the opening of the NCAA tournament and the Super Bowl, without knowing who is fighting.
“If you look at the calendar of sports here in the United States, it doesn’t interfere with any of the other sports, it actually fits in perfectly,” Eric Gomez, the president of Golden Boy Promotions, told ESPN.com. “You usually have the Kentucky Derby earlier in the day. You might have Game 2 or 3 of a second-round NBA or NHL playoff series, but it’s not the finals yet. Baseball is just getting started. Football is in hibernation. It’s just perfect timing. Everybody can turn their attention to boxing on that Saturday night.”
De La Hoya understands Cinco de Mayo’s place in the pecking order of holidays in Mexico, but he also understands that people don’t necessarily need to have their arm twisted to make a trip out to Las Vegas for a weekend of boxing and beer.
“I just figured we have St. Patrick’s Day where everyone wears green and drinks beer, and we have the Fourth of July in the United States where everyone barbecues and drinks beer,” De La Hoya said. “So why not have a Cinco de Mayo celebration in the United States where everyone can watch a great fight and drink beer. It’s a holiday you can celebrate if you’re Mexican, American, white, black, purple or green. Everybody flies out from all over the country for this weekend. I see friends and family I don’t see all year, but I see them here in Vegas for this one weekend. Everybody here in Las Vegas prepares to celebrate a great weekend of boxing and a celebration of a nationality. That’s what really excites me.”
Mayweather and Conor McGregor takes place, the date being rumored is Sept. 16, which falls on a Saturday this year. Of course, Golden Boy Promotions is also eyeing that date for a fight between Canelo and Gennady Golovkin should Canelo beat Chavez on Saturday.
“Floyd knew what he was doing,” De La Hoya said. “If you looked at Floyd’s opponents during that time, many were of Hispanic descent, and he knew how important those two holidays were. But when you have a Mexican fighter and especially two Mexican fighters in the fight on that day, like we’ll see Saturday, it just makes it that much bigger.”