The small, bold font at the bottom of a full-page spread in the Feb. 2 edition of Fanatik, a daily sports newspaper in Turkey, posed a simple question: “So who is Canelo Alvarez?”
The query was accompanied by a short paragraph and an unremarkable, expressionless headshot of the Mexican fighter. It accurately described Canelo as a four-division champion and the world’s most successful active boxer and noted his 54-1-2 record.
At the top of the page was a giant oversized headline featuring a quote from Avni Yildirim: “I want to shock the world.”
Coverage like this for Saturday’s fight at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami is an outlier. That ratio is reversed in almost all other media, if Yildirim is acknowledged at all. Many in the boxing world are already looking past Yildirim to Alvarez’s summer unification fight against Billy Joe Saunders, which has already been announced.
Those same people would also fairly justify this stance by saying that Yildirim, the mandatory challenger to Alvarez’s WBC super middleweight title, has struggled against opponents whom Alvarez, ESPN’s No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter, would seemingly have no problem dominating. Yildirim lost the two biggest fights of his career against Chris Eubank Jr. and Anthony Dirrell.
But in Turkey and among Turkish expatriates, Yildirim has ascended to celebrity status, with the chance to become a sports icon among his people by accomplishing the seemingly impossible: upsetting Alvarez to become a world champion.
Even securing this fight is a landmark moment for sports in the country. Turkey’s athletic success has largely been found in wrestling and weightlifting at the Olympics. Perhaps the largest triumph on a global stage thus far has been the Turkish national men’s soccer team’s third-place effort at the 2002 World Cup.
In combat sports, Gokhan Saki is a kickboxing legend, multiple-time champion and current UFC fighter, and Volkan Oezdemir challenged Daniel Cormier for the UFC light heavyweight title in a co-main event at UFC 220 in 2018. In boxing, there have been a handful of amateur Turkish world champions, primarily on the women’s side — most recently Busenaz Surmeneli in 2019 — and only a couple of professional Turkish boxers have previously challenged for a world title.
The most notable boxer in Turkish history is the late Sinan Samil Sam, who once fought former heavyweight world champion Oliver McCall and inspired a generation of Turkish boxers, including Yildirim — so much so that Yildirim has said that he would like to bring the championship belts to Sam’s grave as a show of respect, if he wins.
Yildirim and his team clearly understand the significance of what he’s stepping into against Canelo, and why it’s bigger than him.
“This is a special fight. This is unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” Yildirim’s promoter, Ahmet Oner, said at a news conference on Feb. 11. “This would be like [Turkish soccer club and perennial underdog] Sivasspor facing Barcelona in a Champions League final.
“[Yildirim] says he will shock the world, but for him to even get to this point, he has already shocked the world. Because on the other side, it’s Canelo Alvarez. It’s like facing Ronaldo or Messi in soccer. For a Turkish boxer to appear on a stage like this, understand that he is talented. In Turkish sports, we have never been able to get to a position like this.”
Born in Sivas, near the geographic center of Turkey, the 29-year-old Yildirim developed a keen interest in boxing as a teenager.
“I fell in love with boxing at 13 years old,” Yildirim told ESPN. “My hero was Sinan Samil Sam. My father and I watched one of his fights in 2004 and I instantly became hooked. The next day I knew I wanted to become a boxer.”
Yildirim would rise through the ranks, eventually becoming a national champion and representing Turkey at the amateur level. There, he discovered the sense of pride that came with competing on behalf of his nation.
He made his professional debut in March 2014, and he’s also fought in Germany and the United States in an effort to build his name on a global scale.
He’ll get that opportunity on Saturday — an introduction to the masses. But it won’t be an introduction to Alvarez, who brought Yildirim in as a sparring partner in the lead-up to his 2018 rematch with Gennady Golovkin.
Yildirim said that the similarity in styles between him and Golovkin was one of the main reasons he was asked to join Canelo’s training camp, and that both fighters had a good rapport at the time. “But we are opponents now,” he stressed.
Yildirim is nicknamed “Mr. Robot,” a nod to his come-forward style in the ring. With the dynamic challenges presented by Alvarez, Yildirim has enlisted the services of world-class trainer Joel Diaz.
“When Avni came to me for the first time, I was surprised [by] his boxing ability,” Diaz said.
“He had no defense whatsoever — he was a straightforward fighter, taking punches to give punches. We dedicated time to him to teach him more defense, more offense, more movement. … [But] I noticed that he was willing to learn. He never complains in the gym. I put him through some of the most extreme exercises and he never says no, he never complains. He’s mentally focused. He knows, in front of us we have a tough task. With group preparation, we can become victorious. I am with him 100% from beginning to end.”
Yildirim is a massive underdog going into the fight. At Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill, Canelo was listed as a 40-1 favorite as of Monday evening. By comparison, Mike Tyson was a 42-1 favorite to beat Buster Douglas before Douglas pulled off the most famous upset in boxing history. Anthony Joshua was favored 24-1 to best Andy Ruiz Jr. in their first clash, before Ruiz shocked the boxing world.
Many will likely look at this matchup and proclaim that Yildirim would need to find lightning in a bottle in order to even stand a chance against Canelo.
A proud Turkish fan would likely respond, “It’s a good thing, then, that Yildirim translates to ‘lightning’ in English.”
“Nobody is giving a chance to a Turkish boxer, but we will stick it in their faces,” Yildirim said. “All together, we will live this joy and this triumph. We put a lot of hard work into preparing for this fight, a lot of struggle, and hopefully the next time we meet, I’ll be wearing gold.”