Elliot Worsell sets the scene for the fascinating Canelo Alvarez vs Billy Joe Saunders showdown
ONE of the many perks of being boxing’s headmaster is that you get to control your classroom and, by extension, the register, the lesson plan, and, if needed, the method of punishment. You tell everybody where to sit and when to stand up. You get everything you want when you want it and you teach your pupils to react to your voice – your dismissal – and not the sound of the bell.
Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, having grown from the lessons taught to him by Floyd Mayweather in 2013, has used this position of power to good effect in his career, particularly of late. The Mexican, by far the biggest star in the sport, is currently in the midst of a pandemic masterclass – backed by DAZN, who will throw him whatever he wants – and is enjoying the luxury of having everything on his terms and everybody bowing to his every demand.
So far, as part of this masterclass, he has disciplined Callum Smith and Avni Yildirim, two pupils who presented varying levels of difficulty but ended up going the same way. Smith, after being dominated over 12 rounds, surrendered his WBA super-middleweight title, while Yildirim, as close to a free period as Canelo could hope to have, was expelled inside three. (So straightforward were these assignments, they took place within three months of one another and Alvarez, despite hardly taking a punch, made millions just turning up.)
Next, Canelo invites Billy Joe Saunders, the WBO titlist, to Arlington, Texas, where he will encourage him to stand and, like the rest, speak when he is told to speak, do as he is told, and eventually give Alvarez his gift. Or so Alvarez hopes.
This May 8 fight is a fight Saunders has been chasing for a while, though it has taken its time to materialise and materialises at a time when uncertainty, in general terms, is still rife and Canelo enjoys the activity Saunders has for so long lacked. The timing, alas, is far from ideal. Then again, that’s the whole point. Canelo says when. Canelo says where. Canelo says why. For him, the timing couldn’t be better and that’s all that matters.
Starved of momentum, Saunders has stayed relevant in recent years due more to his questionable social media activity than anything produced inside the ring. It is therefore a good time to fight him. It is a good time to fight him because the Hatfield man is a boxer who is at his best when busy and firing and in his groove. It is a good time to fight him because it has been many years since Billy Joe Saunders has been anywhere near his groove.
Indeed, it was some three-and-a-half years ago now that Saunders dazzled for every second of the 12 rounds he spent teasing David Lemieux in Quebec, Canada, and seemed on his way to fighting – and troubling – the world’s best middleweights. That, at the time, was a breakout performance, or should have been, and it convinced those who believed he would be out of his depth against the likes of Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin to rethink their opinions.
But unfortunately, since defeating Lemieux, Saunders’ level of opposition and career, rather than soar, has done little more than sour. He has been blighted by injuries, as well as a failed performance-enhancing drug test in September 2018 (oxilofrine), and has boxed just four times in the last three-and-a-half years. During that period, he defeated Charles Adamu, Shefat Isufi, Marcelo Esteban Coceres and Martin Murray, a fellow Brit who, at 38, conceded he was past his prime and unable to pull the trigger. Across those four fights, Saunders, 30-0 (14), didn’t dazzle once yet somehow managed to both add a second sanctioning body belt to his collection and go backwards at the same time (such is the shoddy infrastructure of the sport from which he makes a living). If arguing this, consider the opposition Saunders faced before beating Lemieux, when still campaigning as a WBO middleweight champion. Back then, Saunders was beating decent operators like Andy Lee, Willie Monroe Jnr, and Chris Eubank Jnr, the best opponents Saunders has faced as a pro, and showing the potential, in these fights, to progress beyond that level.
Sadly, though, that never happened. Instead, Saunders blamed on a common decongestant on the test failure that cancelled a proposed 2018 fight against Demetrius Andrade, vacated his middleweight title, and eventually decided to flee to the 168-pound division. Shortly after that, and without doing much at all, he became a WBO champion again.
As for his subsequent reign, a term used lightly, it would be tolerable – well, almost – if Saunders happened to be an inexperienced young fighter who wound up in a position to win a world title ahead of time and was now easing himself in gently. But that is not the case here. Saunders, in fact, can, with a straight face, call himself a two-weight ‘world’ champion, having previously ‘reigned’ at middleweight, and has been a professional for some 12 years. He is 31 years of age, a year older than Alvarez. He is also, when the mood takes him, very, very good.
It’s that – the fact he is very good – which makes Saunders’ latest ‘world’ title reign, and the meandering nature of his career, so frustrating. More gifted than most, at times you watch Saunders perform and see a world-class talent blessed with the skills and poise, certainly as a middleweight, capable of at least unsettling the likes of Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin. But then you are forced to remind yourself that these skills have been demonstrated only in brief cameos against fighters nowhere near that kind of elite level. Then you start to wonder why this is the case. Then you start to ask why his day of reckoning has taken so long.
It is entirely possible Saunders comes alive against the world’s best, but it would have been nice to have found out before 2021. Similarly, it would have been nice if Saunders had landed a fight against Canelo on merit and with momentum rather than by simply setting down his latest WBO trinket between his legs and shooting the Mexican, this sucker for leather, a come-hither look.
In an ideal world, Saunders would, when on the cusp of fighting Alvarez, be a bit more active, have been beating better opposition, and still be a middleweight. Yet, as it stands, Saunders will show up on Saturday as a ‘world super-middleweight champion’ in name only. He is not so much defending a belt as delivering one and, with no noteworthy wins at 168, carries none of the energy one would expect from a world champion set to face a fellow world champion in a so-called unification fight.
Again, that’s not meant as a knock on Saunders’ mindset or ability, both of which are proven. It is merely a consequence of Canelo being big business, and a testament to how Canelo goes about his business relative to how Saunders goes about his. One is all business; the other temporarily out of business.
That said, it could be argued that the very thing that makes Billy Joe Saunders such a liability is also the thing that makes him a threat, especially in this fight. His lack of discipline, so harmful to his reputation away from the ring, comes with an ignorance and unpredictability Canelo Alvarez won’t have seen too often and there is perhaps danger in that. Saunders is carefree and unusually – maybe unrealistically – confident, which, in turn, can lead to a brand of composure few are fortunate enough to possess. As well as this, Saunders is rebellious, a law unto himself, and is unlikely to yield to Canelo’s wishes and accept when he is out of his depth. Such belief, for better or worse, makes Saunders both a danger to himself and others.
In other words, any perceived lack of form and momentum won’t matter a jot if Saunders can convince himself he is a better fighter than Alvarez and use this belief as fuel. Easier said than done, of course, and arguably an irrational thought, yet the beauty of Billy Joe Saunders is that he doesn’t think like a rational human being. He is instead cocksure and delusional in the best – and most threatening – way possible.
Whether that’s enough, no one can say, but there is definitely something about Saunders, this slacker who somehow still gets good grades, which intrigues, never more so than before a fight like this: a test. It’s apparently all he has ever needed and wanted, to be tested, and now it’s happening. Now it’s up to him. He has had ample time to revise, which is not to say he has used this time wisely, and has the smarts to be better and do better. He will also be aware that it is no longer cool to slack off, or pull pranks, or underachieve, and has hopefully learnt from his mistakes. If not, Canelo will be on hand to punish him.
Canelo, like most disciplinarians, has both the power to bring out the best in Saunders and the power to destroy him – his hubris, his plans, his dreams. He can motivate Saunders and he can force the Brit to raise his game and use every ounce of his talent. But he can also be the person to make Saunders realise he isn’t as good as he thinks he is.
Canelo, it should be said, is far from perfect himself. Hard to believe, I know, what with the ease with which he is soaring through divisions and cutting through opponents, but there are flaws, there has been a defeat, and there have also been mistakes. In March 2018, for example, six months before beating Gennady Golovkin, it was announced Alvarez had failed a performance-enhancing drug test (clenbuterol), for which he served a measly six-month ban.
Both a black mark and a crime he denied, the Alvarez redemption has since been seamless and, in many ways, impressive. The route he has taken – staying busy, going from one weight class to the next – is clever and courageous and will remain clever and courageous until the day he cherry-picks the wrong opponent or suddenly finds himself undersized. Which is to say, dominance has as much to do with maintaining power and control as anything else.
Luckily, Canelo, 55-1-2 (37), has those two things – power and control – in spades. Not only that, he has, thanks to his commercial appeal, all the momentum fighters like Billy Joe Saunders, considerably less commercially appealing, currently lack. (This will be Alvarez’s third fight in five months.) Give him another year, plus the freedom to do whatever he likes, and Alvarez could conceivably clean out the divisions around him and run out of opponents. Give him too much respect, meanwhile, both in the ring and elsewhere, and the chance of him ever experiencing another defeat gets smaller and smaller.
The good news here, though, is that, in Billy Joe Saunders, he faces one of the least respectful characters in the sport and that factor alone should make things interesting; interesting because, on Saturday, Canelo will find an opponent unwilling to sit down when told to sit down and reluctant to be quiet when told to be quiet; interesting because he will stare at an opponent and see in their eyes mischief in place of fear; interesting because he will then wait and see how this mischief manifests when the bell rings.
At that point Saunders could come undone, with his attitude and approach not only backfiring but going some way to explaining why he has never fulfilled his potential. Or, conversely, this attitude and approach could be exactly what is required to upset the status quo and have Canelo Alvarez, a champion who capitalises on an opponent’s insecurities, for once struggling to formulate an adequate lesson plan – then complaining that all future plans have been eaten by a dog.