King versus court jester, Billy Joe Saunders seeks boxing immortality

Make no bones about it, if Billy Joe Saunders beats Saul Canelo Alzarez it will be the greatest performance by a British boxer overseas in the history of the sport.

In Canelo, boxing’s biggest star has become so by removing the “what ifs”, stripping politics out of a sport normally consumed by it and fighting anyone and everyone who has the temerity to challenge his supremacy. His resume is a graveyard for world class boxers.

Julio Cesar Chavez Jr humiliated, Segey Kovalev knocked out by a man four inches shorter, Callum Smith utterly outclassed. Daniel Jacobs, Liam Smith, Miguel Cotto, the list goes on. It is one which Gennady Golovkin joins, some say falsely imprisoned by the ink of two judges scorecards.

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World Champion at 154, 160, 168 and even 175 pounds it is at Super-Middleweight (168) where he has reached his zenith and it is here that he seeks to become undisputed. Callum Smith relinquished his WBC title, Avni Yildirim never looked like stopping him claiming the WBA. On Sunday morning (UK time) Canelo will add the WBO and then Caleb Plant will try in vain to protect the IBF a few months down the line. That’s the simple script and it is one which continues to make Canelo millions, though far less than he could.

The Spanish newspaper AS reported that Alvarez was to earn up to $30m for his fight with Yildirim, one that he couldn’t really lose. It is likely it was far less but the Athletic’s Mike Coppinger still confirms it was an eight figure pay packet. Canelo’s deal with DAZN, signed in 2018, promised the Mexican $365 million across eleven fights (just over $33m per fight). The deal lasted three, Rocky Fielding, Daniel Jacobs and Sergey Kovalev, before Canelo sought his exit, citing Golden Boy Promotions and DAZN’s failure to meet the terms of the agreement.

The negotiations cost Canelo a year out the ring and he’s since been making up for lost time. Smith, Yildirim and Saunders, all in the space of less than six months. It is a sequence the highest level of boxing simply does not see. Only Julio Cesar Chavez Sr can compare and that was in the early 90s. Boxing fans like that and with good reason. This is a fighter who lives the life and has fought fifty-eight times as a professional, all before the age of thirty-one. He avoids the talking and leaves it in the ring.

Billy Joe Saunders sits in a different camp. A world champion since defeating Andy Lee in 2015 for the WBO Middleweight title he has fought seven times since and only a couple truly at the top table. Effective against Willie Monroe Jr, scintillating against Lemieux there isn’t a fighter on his record that could fit anywhere within Canelo’s top five opponents. Ballooning in weight between camps, though not to the same extent in recent years, this is a boxer with undoubted talent but who requires the carrot of a confirmed big ticket fight.

Add in a suspension from the WBO in 2018 for a failed drugs test and and one by the British Boxing Board of Control in March 2020 for an ill-judged video which showed men how to hit their partners and you have a boxer whose faults outside the ring are well pressed on the public record.

But the reality is there is still plenty we are yet to learn about Saunders and there are indications he could cause problems. Like Alvarez, Saunders was once his country’s next great hope. As an amateur he was part of the programme training boxers for London 2012 but impressed so much in his first year as a senior that he was fast-tracked to Bejing. Winning his first forty-nine fights at senior level he was just eighteen when he travelled to China and did so having already won the 2007 Commonwealth Championships. He would lose in the second round and that would be his most recent defeat.

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Six months later he turned pro, besting a series of fighters over the years who have all gone on to have distinguished careers, Gary O’Sullivan, John Ryder and Chris Eubank Jr. In Andy Lee he did enough, something for which he perhaps did not receive the credit he should have and that theme has continued more or less ever since, the domination of Lemieux so impressive in a large part due to its departure from the norm.

Doing just enough is precisely that, enough. In travelling to the USA and to the Dallas Cowboys stadium with it’s 60,000 fans doing enough, however, will be a wholly different challenge and it is perhaps this which represents the biggest question mark for Saunders. Winning the contest on points, and many expect that to be the only way he can, then the margin may have to be wider the eventual scorecards may attest. Though two champions facing off you get the impression it will be Saunders who will need to take the belts off Canelo and not vice versa.

On Canelo’s record there is one significant blip, albeit one now almost seven years in the past. Alvarez does not face southpaws like Saunders often. Indeed the last time he did was James Kirkland in 2015. That evening he ended the contest in three but Kirkland has hardly fought since. A better comparison to Saunders is Erislandy Lara, someone many believe beat Canelo in their 2014 contest. Like Saunders the Guatemalan was a great counter-puncher, one who likes to make his opponents miss, capitalise and move away out of trouble. In their contest such a tactic beat the guard of Canelo and did make him pay, to such an extent that Jerry Roth judged him the victor but it was one which failed to truly hurt the Mexican.

Saunders carries a bigger frame (5ft 11) and has at times demonstrated a power for which he is not often credited, most aptly displayed by the two times he dropped Andy Lee.

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To beat Canelo, Saunders has to use Lara’s blueprint but do it better. He must also contend with a hysteria around Canelo that has only multiplied since then, a Canelo who has honed his craft over six further years with opponents of the highest level and one who is not facing the same challenges of making weight as a Super Welterweight. Despite his size, 5ft 8, Canelo has displayed his ability to carry his power through the divisions, no more shown than in his crushing finish to end Kovalev’s reign at light-heavyweight.

On Saturday night the odds couldn’t be more stacked in the king of boxing’s favour, a hostile crowd, an aura of invincibility and an opponent fans love to hate. For Saunders there is no greater test but there is no greater reward either. A place at the top table, rubbing shoulders with the powers of boxing, no matter how much it would be to their dismay.

Featured image “Canelo Alvarez Boxing Workout (2013)” by TheDailySportsHerald is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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