Over the next few weeks Boxing Social’s Luke G. Williams will be running the rule over an octet of fighters aiming to topple Saul ‘Canelo’ Álvarez. Today he examines what might happen if the Mexican was to meet the enigmatic Billy Joe Saunders…
Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez’s dominant performance at super-middleweight against Callum Smith in December has left the boxing world pondering whether any man alive between 160lbs and 175lbs has the capability to topple the Mexican master craftsman. Few expect Avni Yildirim – Canelo’s WBC mandatory challenger and likely next opponent – to be the man to depose him. But how might other top contenders from middleweight to light-heavyweight fare against the phenomenon from Guadalajara?
Billy Joe Saunders (30-0, 14 KOs)
Saunders has his fair share of admirers. A tricky and elusive southpaw, his speed of feet and thought, coupled with his defensive excellence, precise and skilful punching and excellent jab make him a potentially interesting opponent for Canelo.
The 31-year-old Romany gypsy was an Olympian at welterweight in 2008 and has been boxing since he was five. He has followed what you might term the ‘old fashioned’ route to world level, annexing Southern Area, British, European and Commonwealth middleweight titles prior to snaffling Andy Lee’s WBO 160lbs crown in December 2015 and then winning the vacant WBO 168lbs title against Shefat Isufi in May 2019.
However, periods of inactivity due to injury and a positive drugs test in 2018 have – frustratingly – seen the talented Saunders fight just seven times in the five years since his breakthrough victory against Lee.
His performances have also been inconsistent – by his own admission he was “flat” against unheralded Artur Akavov in December 2016 – a contest some thought he lost. In contrast, a year later he boxed beautifully to rout David Lemieux on points on away soil.
It was hoped the Lemieux victory would be a turning point for Saunders, but a drugs test controversy put paid to a potentially intriguing defence against Demetrius Andrade and he was not seen in the prize ring again for over a year.
Once active again, Saunders beat Charles Adamu and then Isufi for the 168lbs WBO title but neither fight was particularly engaging. Meanwhile in his November 2019 contest against Marcelo Esteban Coceres, he looked out of sorts and was behind on one of the three judges’ scorecards before forcing an eleventh-round stoppage. Against a faded Martin Murray last month he dominated, but lacked a cutting edge as he racked up a low-key points victory. Let’s be honest here. Close examination of Saunders’ career thus far reveals that he has – more often than not – flattered to deceive.
Indeed, it is worth asking exactly what BJS has achieved that makes anyone think he could possibly beat a pound-for-pound talent such as Canelo, whose resume utterly dwarfs his own? What – after all – are the highlights of Saunders’ career thus far? Beating Andy Lee, of course, via a tight majority decision; winning a debatable verdict after a life and death struggle with the technically flawed Chris Eubank Jr and schooling the clumsy Lemieux when the Canadian was already long past his peak.
None of these achievements or performances are likely to disturb Canelo’s sleep. The reality is that constructing a case for a Saunders victory against Canelo is possible but relies on far-fetched notions and unlikely events. Firstly, the Mexican would need to have an off-night. Secondly, Saunders would need to box in a similar fashion to the Lemieux contest, but at a far more active level. That night in Canada, Saunders threw 430 punches and Lemieux just 356. Such a sedate activity level will not be enough against Canelo to accumulate enough points to secure a points verdict after 12 rounds.
True, Saunders will draw encouragement from the difficulties Canelo had against Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara, fellow southpaws whose ring smarts and elusive awkwardness bear at least superficial resemblance to Saunders. Both men extended Canelo the full 12 rounds in 2013 and 2014 respectively, with Lara winning on one judge’s card at the MGM Grand.
The bottom line is, though, for all the problems he had against Trout and Lara, Canelo still found a way to win. Furthermore, the 30-year-old is now a vastly superior fighter to the man that fought that duo. He is now at the peak of his powers and has improved virtually every facet of his skill-set in the last few years – from defence and head movement to power-punching, counter-punching and footwork.
One thing seems certain; bar a freak Canelo injury or cuts stoppage, a points victory – itself an unlikely occurrence – is the only conceivable way Saunders could beat the Mexican. The idea that a man with just 14 stoppages in 30 victories – and not a single stoppage win against a true world level opponent – might KO the granite-chinned Canelo is absurd.
Remember: Álvarez has never tasted the canvas in 414 professional rounds of boxing spread over more than 15 years and 57 bouts. The only time he has remotely come close to suffering a knockdown was in a 2010 light-middleweight contest when a Jose Cotto left hook sent him reeling into the ropes, with referee Tony Weeks electing not to administer an official count.
The educated pressure that Canelo can bring to bear against Saunders 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 Eubank Jr in 2014 and also surrendered late rounds to 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.
Canelo’s record against British boxers in the past also provides little comfort for Saunders and his fans – the Mexican having previously defeated Matthew Hatton, Ryan Rhodes, Amir Khan, Liam Smith, Rocky Fielding and now Callum Smith in ‘world’ title contests, with only Hatton and Callum Smith making it to the final bell. In short, Saunders does not possess the stamina, punching power, discipline or relentlessness needed to deter or defeat Canelo.
If the two men ever meet I believe that Canelo would 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.
In turn, Canelo’s work to Saunders’ body should slow him down sufficiently to enable the Mexican to score and hurt him to the head.
Whatever Saunders’ cheerleaders would have you believe, I think this contest would represent easy pickings for Canelo, who I would expect to prevail via late stoppage or a conclusive points victory with Saunders hanging grimly on during the championship rounds.
Prediction: Canelo by late stoppage.
Main image: Matchroom Boxing USA.