Stadium boxing returns with a bang on Saturday night in Arlington, Texas, as Britain’s Billy Joe Saunders looks to write his name into boxing folklore by toppling Mexico’s pound-for-pound king Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez in an intriguing super-middleweight unification contest.
Around 70,000 spectators are expected to flock to the AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, for what is undoubtedly the biggest boxing event since the Covid-19 pandemic began early last year.
Joe Markowski, EVP of DAZN, the streaming service who are broadcasting the fight in more than 200 territories around the world, argues that “if this isn’t the biggest sports event in the world since the start of last year then it’s one of the top three”.
“The atmosphere is going to be incredible,” Markowski told Boxing Social. “I mean, the atmosphere was incredible for Canelo in Miami against [Avni] Yildirim [in February] and there were 14,000 or 15,000 there for that, so 70,000 in Cowboys stadium in a very Mexican-American hub on Cinco de Mayo weekend… it’s going to be off the charts! We’re very excited about it.
“Whenever we’ve done any shows with a limited crowd – and we’ve had three or four now – we’ve seen there’s a pent-up demand for live sport events. That’s great for [promoter] Eddie [Hearn] who is selling lots of tickets.
“There has been a huge flow of sales. We’ve been north of 60,000 for several weeks now and there’ll still be some walk-ups this week so we’ll be at full capacity in terms of what we’re allowed to sell, which is fantastic and speaks to the fact that people want to get on with life now.”
Canelo vs Saunders was originally meant to take place in May last year, and was being framed as the launch contest for DAZN’s ambitious move into the global streaming market.
However, the pandemic put paid to those plans, as well as – ultimately – the 11-fight deal worth a reported $365m, which Canelo had inked with DAZN in October 2018.
Nevertheless, after agreeing a two-fight deal with promoter Eddie Hearn, Canelo has stuck with DAZN on a fight-by-fight basis, and has looked mightily impressive in the process, having fought twice since December, when the company also launched themselves as a global platform, seven months later than they originally planned.
First the Mexican ruthlessly dissected and dismantled Callum Smith over 12 dominant rounds to add the WBC title to his WBA crown at 168lbs, and then he defended those titles by stopping his hopelessly overmatched WBC mandatory Avni Yildirim in three in late February.
Now Saunders – the 30-0 (14 KOs) WBO super-middleweight champion – gets his chance at glory and his opportunity to finally fulfil the rich prophesies that have often surrounded his career without ever being fulfilled.
It will prove a stern assignment. Right now Canelo (55-1-2 with 37 KOs, and a four-weight world titlist to boot) is seemingly at the peak of his powers.
The Mexican possesses a confidence and self-assurance that Saunders’ attempts at mind games will surely not disturb, although the Briton has tried his best this week by wrangling over the size of the ring and by taunting Canelo about “Mexican beef” – a reference to a 2018 positive drugs test for clenbuterol which the Guadalajara native blamed on contaminated meat – at the first public head-to-head between the two men on Wednesday.
For his part Canelo has shrugged off Saunders’ histrionics in the manner of a giant squashing a gnat. “Nothing frustrates me,” he said. “I am just focused on winning on Saturday. He has to fight me on Saturday, that has to happen, it’s not a problem.
“I don’t care about anything; I am just going to go in there and do my job. Saunders has come up with other excuses, he’s had plenty of excuses, but I am just going to go in there and do what I have to do.”
Aside from Canelo’s brilliance, several other factors are also stacked against Saunders. For starters he will be fighting on what amounts to Canelo’s home territory.
The overwhelming majority of the 70,000 fans in attendance are expected to comprise Canelo’s fanatical Mexican-American support base, who will be further fired by the fact the contest is taking place on the ‘Cinco de Mayo’ weekend, a major Mexican public holiday which celebrates the country’s 1862 victory against France at the Battle of Puebla.
Furthermore, the disparity between the two men’s resumes is stark. Saunders – whose most significant wins came against Chris Eubank Jr, Andy Lee and David Lemieux – has admitted that the level of opposition he has faced in his career is a “million miles” away from Canelo, whose roll call of victims includes Shane Mosley, Austin Trout, Erislandy Lara, James Kirkland, Miguel Cotto, Amir Khan, Liam Smith, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, Gennadiy Golovkin, Daniel Jacobs and Callum Smith.
Given Canelo’s pedigree and the widespread technical improvements he has made since being schooled by Floyd Mayweather in 2013, is it possible to construct a case for Saunders – a 5-1 outsider – prevailing?
Perhaps. Undefeated since his pro debut in 2009, the 31-year-old Romany gypsy is a tricky and elusive southpaw with sharp boxing skills, and possesses abundant self-confidence which suggests he will not ‘freeze’ on the night in front of the huge crowd as some other fighters might.
An Olympian at welterweight in 2008, Saunders has been boxing since he was five and advanced the ‘old fashioned’ route to world level, via Southern Area, British, European and Commonwealth middleweight titles prior to annexing Andy Lee’s WBO 160lbs crown in December 2015 and winning the vacant WBO 168lbs title against Shefat Isufi in May 2019.
However, periods of inactivity due to injury and a positive drugs test for oxilofrine in 2018 have seen Saunders fight just nine times in five years.
When he has appeared in the ring during this period his performances have been inconsistent – by his own admission he was “flat” against unheralded Artur Akavov in December 2016, in a contest some thought he lost, while a year later he looked reborn and boxed beautifully to rout David Lemieux on points in Canada.
Of more concern to Saunders backers is the fact that in his November 2019 contest against the limited Marcelo Esteban Coceres, he looked out of sorts and was behind on one of the three judges’ scorecards before forcing an eleventh-round stoppage. Saunders was more assured in his wide points victory against Martin Murray in December last year, but the shopworn Murray offered little credible threat.
Given that the Canelo fight represents the opportunity of a lifetime for the Hatfield man, one must assume that Saunders – who has on occasion blown up to around 14 stone in between previous contests – will enter the ring in peak physical and mental shape.
If so, then his career best performance against Lemieux must serve as our benchmark when considering his prospects of victory. Versus the Canadian banger, the southpaw Briton’s nimble footwork and assured ringcraft made Lemieux swing and miss with regularity, before Saunders punished him with sharp counter-punches.
To have any chance against Canelo, Saunders must box in a similar fashion and hope to accumulate enough points to secure the win as, by his own admission, he is not the biggest of punchers (14 stoppages in his 30 victories further attests to this fact), while Canelo’s chin is seemingly composed of granite, the Mexican having never tasted the canvas in 417 professional rounds of boxing spread over nearly 16 years and 58 bouts. (The nearest Canelo has ever come to taking a count came in a 2010 super-welterweight contest when a Jose Cotto left hook sent him reeling into the ropes, referee Tony Weeks electing not to score it as a knockdown).
Saunders will certainly draw encouragement from the difficulties Canelo had against Trout and Lara, fellow southpaws whose ring smarts and elusive awkwardness bear at least superficial resemblance to Saunders. Both men caused the Mexican difficulties in extending him the full 12 rounds in 2013 and 2014 respectively, with Cuban stylist Lara winning on one judge’s card at the MGM Grand.
However, the bottom line is that for all the problems he had in those fights, Canelo still found a way to win. Furthermore, the 30-year-old has improved virtually every facet of his own pugilistic skill-set since – from defence and head movement to power-punching, counter-punching and footwork.
The educated pressure that Canelo can bring to bear is likely to hold the key to victory for him. Although Saunders has negotiated the 12-round distance on 12 occasions, question marks remain about his stamina when put under sustained and effective pressure. He looked drained in the latter rounds against Chris Eubank Jr in 2014 and also surrendered late rounds to Andy Lee a year later.
It is one thing to box and move for 12 rounds against a limited and increasingly demoralised foe who can’t lay leather on you – such as Lemieux – but quite another to last 12 gruelling rounds against an elite talent such as Canelo.
A Saunders victory would represent probably the biggest upset victory for a British boxer since Lloyd Honeyghan’s stunning win against Donald Curry in 1986 for the world welterweight championship.
However, Canelo’s record against UK boxers in the past provides little encouragement for Saunders – the Mexican having previously defeated Matthew Hatton, Ryan Rhodes, Amir Khan, Liam Smith, Rocky Fielding and Callum Smith in ‘world’ title contests, with only Hatton and the youngest Smith brother making it to the final bell.
Saunders maintains that it will be a case of seventh time unlucky for Canelo but I am not so sure.
It is conceivable, of course, that Canelo may have an off-night and be drawn into the sort of low-tempo, chess match of a contest that would suit the technically gifted Saunders and enable him to nick a tight decision.
“This fight is all about the brain,” Saunders emphasised this week. “Not about power, muscle or skill, it’s the brain and the game plan, and being able to execute that game plan. I’ve been the underdog before, I’ve been the away fighter before, it’s not a new position, but I’m just in with a better opponent this time.”
For all Saunders’ confidence and ability, however, I do not think he has what it takes to topple Canelo. I believe that the Mexican will look to move to his left in order to successfully cut off the ring and pressurise Saunders on to the back foot, before working him to the body, particularly with his left hook.
Canelo’s work to Saunders’ body should slow the Briton down sufficiently to enable the Mexican to also score and hurt him to the head. If he can do this, Canelo should prevail, probably via a late stoppage, or a conclusive points victory with Saunders hanging grimly on during the championship rounds.
Main image: Ed Mulholland/Matchroom Boxing.