Only three things in life are certain: taxes, death and Saul Alvarez (56-1-2, 38 KOs) posting a win over a British fighter before taking on bigger fights.
Saturday night was no different as Billy Joe Saunders (now 30-1, 14 stoppages) retired after eight rounds of action. It meant that Alvarez added the British boxer’s WBO super-middleweight belt to his WBC and WBA Super world titles. Canelo is now eyeing the IBF crown held by Caleb Plant to become the first Mexican to hold all of the four, major super-middleweight titles.
The right uppercut Alvarez landed in round eight was a peach of a shot and caused multiple injuries. You could see the damage to Saunders’ right eye kicking in immediately and it is no wonder that trainer Mark Tibbs decided to draw a line under the fight. If Saunders had come out for more, the pain may have been so unbearable that he would have been forced to drop to a knee and see out the count, something he heavily criticised Daniel Dubois for doing when the heavyweight contender took a knee against Joe Joyce in round 10 back in November.
People often cry out and quit when it comes to eye injuries. Dubois realised the damage was done, tried one last throw of the dice and then did what was best for the rest of his career. In technical terms, and if you look at it semantically, Saunders also quit, yet he had no choice and Tibbs realised that his fighter was in the same position.
Nigel Benn suffered terrible swelling to his left eye when he lost his WBO middleweight title to Chris Eubank in November 1990. When talking about the effect the injury had on him, Benn said that every subsequent punch felt like: “Being hit in the eye with a fistful of needles.” That was a swelling, imagine what multiple fractures must feel like.
Some British pundits and fans felt that Saunders was well in the fight, even arguing that it was even before that fateful punch. If Saunders was in it, and his team felt the same, there is every chance we might have seen him go out again for one last attempt to land a bingo shot. The reality is that, one or two rounds aside, Alvarez was in complete control and was working Saunders over to the body and head.
Ricky Hatton’s former trainer Billy Graham once told me that sometimes fighters have to give everything they’ve got to win a round. They must be physically and mentally on point to get that 10-9. The problem with this is that few fighters can do this every single round. If you pour all of your concentration and nervous energy into winning a round you are bound to lose the next one.
On the flipside, some fighters are so much better than their opponent that they can win a round at a canter or give up a round knowing they will win the next few. Canelo was in this position on Saturday night. Yes, Saunders was in the fight, but saying he was competitive all the way throughout it is akin to arguing that the Labour Party are a genuine opposition party. They aren’t. They are there, they exist as an option, but they don’t really compete. This has been a long-standing problem when it comes to British fighters on the world stage.
Sure, we have had our moments. They are simply that, moments. We have had periods where we have had multiple titlists, and the likes of Carl Froch, Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury have genuinely competed on the world stage, with both Joshua and Fury approaching elite level, a level one of them can only meet if they fight each other, but, and to go against the grain, in the main we are nowhere near where we need to be in order to produce a Canelo or a Floyd Mayweather.
Fighting Canelo is like trying to scale Mount Everest without the right tools or a supply of oxygen. You might have managed to get to the ice fall or Lhotse Face via a fringe belt or a version of the world title only to find that this is not enough when you try to approach the Death Zone and then attempt to reach the summit.
Alvarez, for all the controversy surrounding him, is standing at the top of that mountain looking down on everyone else. If we look at it from a domestic viewpoint, he has beaten Matthew Hatton, Ryan Rhodes, Amir Khan, Liam Smith, Rocky Fielding, Callum Smith and now Saunders. When not beating Brits, he has posted wins over Shane Mosley, Austin Trout, James Kirkland, Miguel Cotto, Gennady Golovkin, in the rematch, Daniel Jacobs and Sergey Kovalov. His sole loss to Floyd Mayweather on points is a better result than many British wins as he was given an elite-level education by the naturally smaller man.
If you noted down the names of the fighters his British opponents had beaten just before going into fights with him the list would be: Roberto Belge (Hatton), Jose Cleverton de Melo Junior (Rhodes), Chris Algieri (Khan), Predrag Radosevic (Liam Smith), Tyron Zeuge (Fielding, although his shock win in Germany was impressive and got him the nod), John Ryder (Callum Smith) and Martin Murray (Saunders). The gulf is clear when you look at the names.
It is no wonder that our fighters struggle to even get close to him; if they do, he just pulls away from them. In fact, a recurring theme of these columns has been the fact the British promotional divide that has always existed and was intensified around 2012 means our fighters do not always get to meet boxers of an equivalent standing. You need competition to kick on and our boxers don’t get that on a regular basis. Instead of scaling the mountain they are left to plateau, treading water and building up impressive unbeaten records until a shock defeat comes along or they are served up to a genuine world-class talent.
In recent times, we have witnessed an astonishing level of arrogance amongst British pundits and fans. The mantra that the UK is the epicentre of world boxing was taken up by many even though there was no empirical evidence to support this viewpoint. It is down to the Anthony Joshua effect and 80-90,000 bums on seats at Wembley Stadium back in the pre-Covid days.
I used to spend a lot of time arguing with people on Twitter about the UK’s standing in world boxing. I no longer have to do this as the pro-UK argument was solely based around Wembley and Joshua plus those 90,000 fans. Their argument, for want of a better world, was that the UK was an economic powerhouse that all fighters wanted to tap into. The counter argument is always the same: ‘In that case, just tell me when Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather and Saul Alvarez fought over here.’
The counter to that usually descended into gibberish. It is a deceptively simple point. Mayweather fights in casinos in front of a much smaller number of fans because the casinos pay massive site fees. In terms of simple demographics, the USA has got a greater number of people so therefore a greater number of boxing fans and they charge more for PPVs. It is far more economically viable than fighting over here. Why do you think so many British fighters try to crack that market. No need to answer as that was a rhetorical question.
One argument that got bandied about was the Golovkin came here and beat Kell Brook in five in 2016, breaking his right eye socket in the process. Yes, Golovkin fought at London’s O2 Arena, then he went back to Madison Square Garden and outpointed Daniel Jacobs to build up the Alvarez fights, which both took place in Las Vegas — maybe the O2 wasn’t available on either of those nights. Interestingly, British pundits and fans talked up Brook’s performance as he landed a few good punches early, but as mentioned above, he had to give it his all just to stay in the fight and Golovkin cantered to a win.
This issue, we can call it “The Alvarez nee Mayweather problem”, will continue to plague the UK. We are a small island, a former colonial power still clinging to the idea that we are a leader on the world stage. That is the thinking that Boris Johnson and his Brexiters tapped into. It is why some pundits had Saunders within touching distance of Alvarez and why they act like cheerleaders — the fact irony cheerleading is distinctly American is not lost on me — in the run up to and during a big UK vs US/Mexico/World-level fight. We want to be so much better than we are yet are not doing the things we need to do to get there.
Don’t get me wrong, we have some excellent fighters over here who have huge untapped potential, Saunders is and has been one of them. It just needs to be unlocked if we are to produce an Alvarez. At the moment, we are sitting in front of a locked door desperately hoping that we can find the key when the key is actually in one of our pockets. We just need to find it and step through that door to genuine, consistent world-class level.
It is going to be tough for Saunders to come back from this loss. There will be physical challenges due to the extent of his injuries as well as other mountains to climb. There is the question of where he now factors in promoter Eddie Hearn’s list of priorities. There is also the issue of his personality.
Whenever I have met Saunders, he has come across well and was a good interviewee, but the incidents in recent years have piled up and made him a hard sell for the British boxing fans, the ones who do not just support a fighter because they hail from this island. The Eubank Jr, Lee and Lemieux wins aside, he has not always set the ring on fire. He isn’t a huge ticket seller or PPV draw and now no longer has a title. You also must factor in the fact that he has been paid well over the years and will expect to earn a certain amount of money.
It is the Dillian Whyte effect again. A fighter hits a certain level without any truly big wins and gets paid well. Then you want more of the same. Then more. And then some more. We get the governments and world we deserve. Sky PPVs ensured that the game was awash with money. Hearn’s transition to DAZN means that those days are over. Some fighters are either going to have to take pay cuts or will quietly fade away like the image of Marty McFly on the photo in Back To The Future.
Very few people are going to have sympathy for Saunders despite what is an horrific eye injury. His fight week conduct also means that the Mexicans and Americans have no respect for him. Indeed, a deleted Tweet from The Ring magazine, “The Bible of Boxing”, mocked Saunders by labelling him a quitter in what was a very unchristian move by the publication.
It really is a hard road back for Saunders. You could argue that he was trying to emulate Tyson Fury’s approach yet, love him or hate him, there is a humour to what Fury does and a maliciousness to Saunders’ take on it. Fury is the exception to the rule, he broke America whereas America has broken yet another British fighter who headed over there to win a big one. They are unlikely to welcome Saunders back again and he will have to rebuild slowly but surely over here or take a big one right off the bat.
Saunders has shown glimpses of his true class in the ring while being too crass outside of it. You get the impression that there is a level of depth to the southpaw former world titlist. At the age of 31 and nursing a bad injury, time is not on his side. However, there are still fights out there for him and, if he can accomplish what will be a massive rebuilding job, you can still envisage him picking up a title down the line. Saunders Mk.2 is still possible under Mark Tibbs, as he has the potential to be world class, especially if he can find form and stability both inside and outside the ring.
Main image: Michelle Farsi/Matchroom Boxing.