Billy Joe Saunders was a stop along the way for the best fighter and biggest star in boxing, Canelo Alvarez, writes Thomas Hauser
BOXING is going through a difficult time. Fights between elite fighters are few and far between. Bogus “world championship” belts have devalued the sport. Contests involving social media influencers and exhibitions by long-past-their-prime former champions often get more media attention and fan support than legitimate fights. The negotiations to make Tyson Fury vs. Anthony Joshua (or fail to make it) have been an exercise in frustration. In the midst of all this, Canelo Alvarez gives boxing fans something to hold onto.
Canelo’s credentials are a matter of record. His red hair was a much-publicised marketing tool early in his career. And because of that, some people were slow to give him his due as a fighter. But with victories over Gennady Golovkin, Sergey Kovalev, Danny Jacobs, Miguel Cotto, Shane Mosley, Erislandy Lara and, now, Billy Joe Saunders en route to compiling a 56-1-2 (38) ring record, the 30-year-old Alvarez has established himself as boxing’s brightest star. Yes, he was outboxed by Floyd Mayweather seven years ago. But he was a young man then, still learning his trade.
Alvarez’s quest for greatness continued unimpeded on May 8 against Saunders at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Saunders, age 31, hails from Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom and, prior to facing Canelo, had compiled a 30-0 record with 14 knockouts. He won the WBO 160-pound belt in 2015 by majority decision over Andy Lee and vacated the title after testing positive for oxilofrine (a banned perfiormance enhancing drug) prior to a scheduled 2018 title defense against Demetrius Andrade. One year later, he claimed WBO 168-pound honours by decisioning unheralded Shefat Isufi and followed with victories over the equally unheralded Marcelo Esteban Coceres and 38-year-old Martin Murray.
There are times when Saunders gets more attention for his conduct outside the ring than for fighting in it. In 2018, the Daily Mail posted a video that showed him promising a woman 150 pounds (currency, not weight) worth of crack if she performed a sex act on one of his friends and punched an innocent passerby. The punch was captured on video. The sex act was not. In 2020, his boxing license was temporarily suspended by the British Boxing Board of Control after he posted a video online in which he demonstrated ways a man could beat his domestic partner while locked down during the pandemic.
Then, in February of this year, Panorama (the BBC version of 60 Minutes) ran a long feature on the ties between MTK Global (which advises Saunders) and Daniel Kinahan (alleged to be the leader of a $1 billion drug trafficking empire). Former world champion and Irish icon Barry McGuigan was one of the few people willing to go on camera and talk openly about Kinahan. Thereafter, Saunders attacked McGuigan on social media, likening him to a rat and appearing to taunt McGuigan about the 2019 death of his daughter from cancer.
“Billy should just delete social media,” his current promoter Eddie Hearn says. “Something happens and he tries to explain it and it gets worse and you’re like, ‘Ah, Billy, just leave it.’ I can’t babysit him. The stage of me holding his hand and trying to guide him through how to behave on social media and how not to behave has gone. It’s too far for that now. He is what he is.”
Canelo had won sanctioning body world titles at weights ranging from 154 to 175 pounds. Most recently, he’d seized the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association super-middleweight belts. Now he’s on a mission to unify the four major 168-pound titles. Saunders was in the right place at the right time to get a big payday.
Canelo is a private person. But prior to fighting Saunders, he opened up to Graham Bensinger in a wide-ranging interview for Bensinger’s YouTube channel. In addition to giving Bensinger a tour of his elaborately appointed mansion and collection of luxury cars in Guadalajara, Canelo talked about a wide range of personal issues including the difficult decision to separate from the mother of his oldest daughter, the 2018 kidnapping of one of his brothers, and the apparently unfounded accusation that another of his brothers had committed murder.
On a more positive note, Canelo acknowledged, “I always dreamed about [being] the best. Aways. But I never imagined the magnitude of what was coming, to be so famous. I’ve never liked cameras. I’ve never liked giving interviews. None of that. I have always been kind of shy.”
There was the usual pre-fight sniping during the build-up to Canelo-Saunders, most of it from the Saunders camp. Tom Saunders (Billy Joe’s father) complained to Boxing Social that Hearn was siding with Canelo in the promotion and that there was “no loyalty” and “no trust” between the Saunders camp and the promoter. But promoters usually side with the fighter who’s generating the big money for them. And let’s not forget; Saunders left promoter Frank Warren in his rear-view mirror when the siren call of Matchroom and DAZN sounded.
Tom Saunders also complained about the size of the ring (he wanted 24 feet squared inside the ropes rather than the standard 20). He even suggested that his son might pull out of the fight if he didn’t get the ring he wanted. No one took that threat seriously. But Canelo agreed to a 22-feet-squared enclosure. According to Hearn, that was the largest ring Saunders had ever boxed in as a pro.
“I don’t care, really,” Canelo said. “I’m pretty sure he’s never fought in a 24-foot ring. But if he wants all of the Cowboys Stadium, okay, I’ll give it to him. Don’t worry.”
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The final pre-fight press conference began with a video of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones reading a statement off a teleprompter in which he assured listeners that “fans who cannot be there can enjoy the fight live on D-A-Zone.” The rest of the press conference was largely pro forma.
Saunders was undefeated in the professional ranks. But the odds were 6/1 in favour of the proposition that Canelo would change that. The six Brits that Alvarez had faced in the past – like most of his opponents – fared poorly against him. Matthew Hatton (L12), Ryan Rhodes (KO by 12), Amir Khan (KO by 6), Liam Smith KO by 9), Rocky Fielding (KO by 3), and Callum Smith (L12) were all convincingly defeated.
Against that backdrop, Saunders (a southpaw who prides himself on being elusive in the ring) was expected to try to frustrate Canelo into making mistakes and avoid confrontations as much as possible.
Billy Joe put a bold face on things, saying, “You have to dare to be great. I believe I am the only one with the footwork, knowhow, skillset, mindset and brain to unlock that door in Canelo. Brain over brawn here. Brain wins this. Technical thinking wins this. I don’t give a s**t about Canelo Alvarez. Not two s**ts. I don’t think Alvarez has faced a man with as much heart and determination to win as me. I’ve come here to take all of these titles and take them by storm. This will be the biggest upset in boxing history in certainly the last twenty years. I believe this is meant to be.”
Mark Tibbs (who trains Saunders) cast a more measured light on Billy Joe’s fight plan, saying, “We’ve got to slide and glide and not get drawn in to what Canelo does and that’s what it’s all about with Billy Joe. It’s about him being disciplined in what he’s got to do and not locking horns and planting his feet because it won’t work in our favor if we do that.”
Meanwhile, Canelo spoke to the battle ahead, saying, “His style is very difficult. He is a lefty so that makes it even more difficult. But I am a fighter who has fought against all kinds of styles. I am ready for any style. I just have to work. It is a matter of having patience.”
Demetrius Andrade was less diplomatic, telling writer Keith Idec, “Saunders looked like s**t when he fought Martin Murray. He couldn’t do anything. He really didn’t dominate him in the way that he should have, the way somebody supposedly that good, that talented, should have done against Martin Murray. I just don’t think Billy Joe has the steam to keep Canelo off him.”
Still, Canelo-Saunders was a prizefight; Saunders has skills; and nothing is certain in boxing.
Canelo-Saunders was the sixth fight card contested at AT&T Stadium. Previous events had been headlined by Manny Pacquiao (twice), Errol Spence (twice), and Canelo. Ticket prices started at $40 and worked their way up from there.
The turnout on fight night was a tribute to Canelo’s star power. The announced attendance was 73,126. That made it the largest crowd to attend a sporting event in the United States since the pandemic began in March 2020. More significantly, it was the largest indoor crowd ever for a boxing match in the United States, surpassing the 63,352 fans who attended the rematch between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks in the New Orleans Superdome on September 15, 1978.
The great majority of fans in attendance were unmasked, giving rise to concern that Canelo-Saunders might become a super-spreader event. The crowd was loud and overwhelmingly pro-Canelo.
In recent years, Eddy Reynoso has been Alvarez’s lead trainer. Chepo Reynoso (Eddy’s father and patriarch of the Reynoso clan) has been absent from Canelo’s corner in recent fights. Chepo was hospitalized twice for COVID-19 last year. And discretion is the better part of valour.
Once the bell rang, it was a champion versus a beltholder. My round by round notes follow:
Round one: Canelo likes to counterpunch. And Saunders isn’t throwing anything for Canelo to counter, only stay-away-from-me jabs. Canelo working the body when he can.
Round two: Saunders using his jab a bit more aggressively. Canelo getting inside from time to time and landing to the body.
Round three: Saunders keeping Canelo at bay with his footwork and jab. Canelo comes on strong in the last thirty seconds of the round.
Round four: Saunders looking for a formula that might win the fight, and he can’t find it. Canelo fighting patiently, landing to the body when he closes the gap. Good left uppercut by Canelo. He’s been looking for that punch.
Round five: Saunders starts the round well, fades late. But he won the round.
Round six: Saunders attacking a bit more.
Round seven: Saunders fighting as well as he can, but it’s not good enough.
Round eight: Canelo landing hard body shots. Well-placed uppercut closes Saunders’ right eye. The crowd is roaring. Canelo urges them on with a wave of his arm. Twice. Saunders in survival mode. He’s getting beaten up.
After the eighth round, citing damage to Billy Joe’s right eye, Saunders’ corner stopped the fight. The judges had Canelo ahead 78-74, 78-74, 77-75 at the time of the stoppage. This writer gave Saunders the fifth and sixth rounds for a 78-74 margin in Canelo’s favour.
More importantly, Saunders was clearly tiring. Canelo’s body shots were taking a toll. With or without his damaged left eye, the rest of the fight was going to be ugly for Billy Joe.
Up until the stoppage, DAZN’s commentators had been calling the bout as though they believed the pre-fight pro-Saunders hype. Now DAZN analyst Sergio Mora noted, “When the going got tough, Billy Joe Saunders didn’t get off his stool.”
“It was not as difficult as I expected,” Canelo said afterward.
Saunders has now been diagnosed as having suffered “multiple fractures to the orbital area.” He underwent surgery the day after the fight and will be out of action for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, following a 13-month layoff occasioned by the pandemic, Alvarez has now fought three times in less than five months. He’s already the undisputed 168-pound champion. He just doesn’t have all the belts yet. His current goal is to unify the four major 168-pound titles by defeating IBF beltholder Caleb Plant in Las Vegas in conjunction with Mexican Independence Day Weekend on September 18. Should that bout take place, Plant will come to fight. But he won’t win. After that, who knows? Jermall Charlo and David Benavidez have been mentioned as future opponents for Canelo. Like Plant, they’re in the Premier Boxing Champions orbit.
Canelo rose to stardom on Showtime and HBO. The DAZN platform has minimised his exposure in the United States. Canelo versus Plant (if it happens) might change that. Fighting Plant in an event supported by CBS-Showtime or FOX would elevate Alvarez’s profile in the United States beyond the audience he currently reaches. Should Canelo choose to stay with DAZN, Canelo-Golovkin III would be an attractive alternative.
Meanwhile, Canelo is the best, most marketable fighter that boxing has to offer at present and the antidote to the trashboxing that recently has gained a foothold in the United States. He loves the sweet science and the lifestyle of a hardworking fighter. He can box. He can punch. He’s not easy to hit. And he takes a good punch. He has done the heavy lifting to make himself a major star. Future opponents will try to cash in on that. But as Billy Joe Saunders found out, it won’t be easy.
The Verdict Canelo teaches Billy Joe some valuable lessons while proving he’s a class above.
STORY OF THE FIGHT
How Canelo Alvarez broke down Billy Joe Saunders
CANELO ALVAREZ began well, closing the distance easier and quicker than many expected. He regularly found Billy Joe Saunders’ midsection with sweeping left hands. The pattern continued through the first three rounds with Alvarez stepping inside, blocking anything that Saunders threw and firing up and down. In the third round, Saunders – stung more than once with blows to the head – was starting to flinch when Canelo got close.
Things got marginally better for Saunders in the fourth. He’d adjusted his feet to time Alvarez’s aggression and, for the first time, was throwing more than his opponent. In round five Saunders was the clear winner of a session for the first time. That jab was on target and Canelo, still chasing the KO, was off-target with his. Saunders boxed well again in the sixth, the confidence was growing from within as he unloaded fast combinations.
But the favourite never looked flustered. The seventh was a close round with Canelo now readjusting. This time, Saunders could not go with him. The eighth round was a painful one for the Brit. A right hand cannoned into Saunders as he moved his head down. Immediately, Saunders’ right eye was swollen and bruised. There was a visible dent in the side of his face. The underdog’s demeanor changed instantly. Alvarez threw his arms into the air before a right cross slammed into the injury. Saunders reeled back in pain but hung on to hear the bell.
Ben Davison, assisting in the corner, urged Mark Tibbs to stop the fight. Saunders, blinking and in distress, did not object. Canelo, in the opposite corner, had not taken a seat. Instead he waited for the surrender. When it came, he celebrated the victory. The painful stoppage win he’d promised beforehand was his.
Hard-fought win for Soto, a tame surrender from Aguilera and agony for Conway
ELWIN SOTO of Mexico retained his WBO light-flyweight strap for the second time with a ninth round stoppage of the lively veteran, Katsunari Takayama. The finish came at 2-44 in the round when referee Laurence Cole stepped in with the comebacking Japanese star under fire.
Soto was throwing big shots throughout but Takayama, 37, tirelessly brushed them off. The 24-year-old was regularly tagged during the bout but his punches carried more weight, wobbling Takayama in the sixth and seventh. Even so, the challenger – in only his second bout since 2016 – made it quite clear he was still good to go when the intervention came.
Nagy Aguilera went down from what was ruled an accidental foul blow from heavyweight Frank Sanchez in the sixth round then claimed he couldn’t continue. Replays appeared to show that the alleged right hand to the back of the head did not land. If Aguilera was hoping for a DQ win, his luck was out. Sanchez had dominated before the incident in the sixth and was awarded a unanimous technical decision win. The three judges scored the bout 60-54 in favour of the Miami-based Cuban.
Northampton’s Kieron Conway has vowed to learn lessons from his 10-round split decision loss to 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, Souleymane Cissokho. Conway, the underdog, was not out of his depth but failed to make a significant breakthrough until the ninth. A left uppercut made France’s Cissokho take a knee before rising and seeing out the round. The favourite recovered and had a good 10th, stinging Conway with an uppercut. The scores were 96-93, 95-94 for Cissokho and 97-92 for Conway.