Canelo Alvarez, Gennady Golovkin still fighting to reach casual fans

GGG, Canelo too friendly to put on an electrifying fight? (1:56)

Dan Rafael is predicting fireworks between Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez in the later rounds of their bout. (1:56)

LAS VEGAS -- The barista at the Starbucks on the casino floor of the MGM Grand was just trying to make conversation as she likely does with most customers taking a coffee break from losing their savings on the craps tables lining the floor in front of her.

"What brings you to Vegas?" she asked me.

"Canelo-GGG," I said.

"Oh, what's that?" she inquired.

"You know, the fight," I explained.

"Oh, right, the fight," she said. "That should be fun."

"You don't know Canelo Alvarez or Gennady Golovkin?" I asked her.

"No," she said. "But I'm not a boxing fan."

This isn't the first time I've covered a fight involving Alvarez or Golovkin where I've had a similar conversation with a friend or stranger who isn't a boxing fan.

The fact is that the two most popular active boxers and two of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world today aren't yet transcendent stars. In other words, if you're a boxing fan, their fight on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena is a dream match you've been waiting years to see. If you're not a boxing fan, there's a good chance you don't know who these guys are or why it's a big deal.

The chasm that exists between boxing fans and casual fans with these fighters and this fight is one of the biggest reasons the best boxing matchup in years likely will draw a third of the pay-per-view audience that Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor's fight did last month.

If Mayweather-McGregor pulled in a record 4.7 million pay-per-view buys, as some have projected, Canelo-Golovkin pulling a third of that number would be about 1.4 million. It would still represent the largest pay-per-view number either fighter has drawn, outside of the 2.2 million that Mayweather and Alvarez drew four years ago, and would be justifiably viewed as a success by all parties involved.

It would also drive home the fact that both fighters need to do a better job of marketing themselves outside of the ring in order to become the stars their promoters want them to be.

There's no doubt Alvarez, who recently turned 27, is a rising star. His fight against Mayweather in 2013 was the second-biggest pay-per-view fight at the time, falling just short of Mayweather's fight against Oscar De La Hoya in 2007, which did 2.4 million. His last fight against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. drew 1.2 million and showed he could attract a big number when facing a big name, albeit not a great boxer.

The problem is most of his fights in between failed to move the needle. His fight last year with Liam Smith drew 300,000 and his fight before that against Amir Khan did 600,000. Then again, those are pay-per-view numbers Golovkin would love to have. His last fight against Daniel Jacobs in March did 170,000 and his fight against David Lemieux did just 150,000.

Those aren't numbers that a superstar draws, but then again, that's a reality for boxers right now when you look at the rest of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. The much-anticipated match between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev, two of the top five pound-for-pound fighters, last year did 165,000. Their rematch in June drew just 125,000.

So what do Alvarez and Golovkin have to do to break through to casual fans and seep into the consciousness of the Starbucks barista working across the street from where the fight is taking place?

"I don't know, I don't have the answer," Alvarez told me through a translator. "What I do is I concentrate on doing my thing and working hard. I'm giving the fight fans the fights they want to see. Fights like this, to attract the boxing fans, to attract Canelo fans and to attract people that love boxing. But outside of that, to attract the casual fans, I don't know what we have to do."

That's an understandable answer to have 72 hours before a fight, but it doesn't address Alvarez's ceiling as a star domestically. While he understands English and can speak a few phrases, such as telling Sylvester Stallone to "Be bolder!" in a Tecate beer commercial, he still conducts his English interviews through a translator.

When I talked to De La Hoya, who signed Alvarez to a contract with Golden Boy Promotions in 2010, about Alvarez six years ago, which was three years after his first fight in the United States, he told me, "He can speak English but he's just shy. Remember [Julio Cesar] Chavez when they would ask him something in English? He could speak it but wouldn't. [Alvarez] can speak it but he's just shy. He just has to get more confidence. Hopefully he'll master it soon enough."

He hasn't, which hasn't hurt his stock with his strong Latino fan base, but it's hard to grow that fan base and become a megastar when De La Hoya is still making the rounds on television and radio shows promoting Alvarez and his fights instead of Alvarez doing it himself. Golovkin, who is from Kazakhstan, has been working on his English since moving to the United States five years ago. It's still a work in progress and he still has a translator by his side in case he needs a question repeated in Russian, but for the most part he powers through interviews as best as he can in English.

"I know I need to learn English," Golovkin told me on Wednesday. "I feel comfortable. Of course not 100 percent but you understand my emotion. If you want more, just bring a translator, but I can give you 10 percent, like my emotion. I feel perfect, my body is perfect, everything is good, I'm very excited. I think you understand." Golovkin's trainer, Abel Sanchez, has made it an unwritten rule that Golovkin and his other fighters can speak only English when they're in his gym. Not only because he wants them to communicate with him and understand what he's saying, but because he believes it's important for the fighters themselves, not their trainers or promoters, to be doing television and radio interviews.

"I try every day to make sure I don't hear Russian in my gym," Sanchez said. "I try to make sure that they speak the language. I ask them questions about cars or their families just so they can talk to me because I think it's important for them [to do the interviews], not me. It's unfortunate Canelo's not learning; he should be learning more. It's unfortunate Golovkin's not learning; he should be learning more, but it's their choice. That's the way they are. They're quiet."

Being "quiet" doesn't normally sell fighters or fights, but if Alvarez and Golovkin are able to put on a fight that lives up to the hype on Saturday and leads toward an even more hyped rematch next year, perhaps that will help them become the transcendent stars they have the potential to become outside of the ring. Until then they will continue to captivate fight fans while leaving casual fans wondering who they are.