After the phoney war of hype and posturing, now the fight. When the bell finally tolls tonight in Texas for the battle between destruction machine Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez and boxing stylist and rebel Billy Joe Saunders, deep pride and global bragging rights are at stake. Styles make fights, and this is a classic: bull versus matador; Mexican warrior versus Romany Gypsy boxer; iron will versus skill, a raft of narratives around respect and rivalries which will bring together two prize fighters who have been on a collision course for four years as they have climbed the ranks, and according to both, since their bodies first lit up at the prospect of fighting. It promises so much. And it should deliver. They are both in their prime. And the dance, at super middleweight, four years in the making, is a superfight of global proportions.
Canelo, four-weight world champion, regarded as the No 1 pugilist, pound for pound, on the planet, and commanding huge fees of £25 million per fight, steps into the ring in Dallas as a strong favourite. The 30-year-old Mexican is hellbent on hurting Saunders,
having felt a “lack of respect” this week, towards both himself, and the nation in love with the sport – and indeed, the red-haired one. Saunders has laughed it all off, maverick, jester, picaro, and rebel, as the 31-year-old can be in his many guises. Yet the depth of this challenge they both face will hinge around just how switched on Saunders is, how much he can frustrate the Mexican, and whether he can deliver a masterclass boxing display. Saunders is undefeated in 30 contests, and at his very, very best, and moving like a ghost in the ring, makes this a mouth-watering prospect. Canelo takes a brief look at opponents in the opening round, then
comes to fight, a crowd-pleaser and typically Mexican in his desire to stand toe-to-toe in a battle of machismo and brawn. He is now at the peak of his powers and moreover, has matured in his defensive patterns, as well as his attacks, in recent performances. You might say the complete fighter.
Opposing the WBC and WBA super middleweight champion, arms stretched across the ropes, body loose, an air of the maverick, confident in his way – though not always the right way, having been fined by the boxing authorities for a series of misdemeanours – the rebel WBO champion Billy Joe, steeped in boxing from his roots as a Romany Gypsy, not intimidated, and on the edge of his own sensibilities and declaring that he has dreamt of this moment for 20 years. Signalling his class at elite level, Saunders’ best performance was three and a half years ago, a brilliant, near faultless performance in which he bamboozled heavy-handed Canadian David Lemieux with his evasiveness and counters in a defence of the WBO middleweight title. It was a dazzling display for 12 rounds. And that was the night on which Saunders’ naysayers were dispelled and talk of fights with Canelo – and Gennady Golovkin – became a reality. Two years earlier, in December 2015, in a chess match between two southpaws, Saunders had
dropped Andy Lee twice to claim the WBO crown.
“Canelo’s a great fighter and a great champion,” Saunders told me. “In my own head, I understand the job in hand. I understand I can’t just turn up and I’m going to shock the world. Sport is made for upsets. My only concern is I know Canelo has got a lot of people and a lot of money invested in him, I just want a level, clean, fair playing field.”
He added: “I believe on the night I will be victorious. There’s no doubt in my mind whatever I need to do, I will do. There’s not much else I’m good at to be honest, but when I’ve got those gloves on and I’ve got to get my thinking brain on, I can think from A to Z real quick. Real quick. I’m very strong and dependent on my confidence as well. If people could get in my head and look out from my eyes they might think I’m over confident. But it’s not, it’s just my strong belief.” That confidence is one of the keys to a Saunders victory.
There are many intangibles to this fight. Mainly around just how great a performance Saunders can get out of himself. We know that Canelo will bring heat, twist sideways and hunt for heavy, scything hooks to the liver. We know, in range, he will explode with three and four punch combinations to body and head; we know he will try to walk Saunders into the corners and onto the ropes.
How ‘present’ Saunders can make his focus against Canelo, how deep his self belief really is that he has mentioned, could take him a long way in this fight against the man of the moment in boxing, the fighter with the aura of destruction and invincibility. It will determine the thrill of this contest for both protagonists and a huge audience worldwide on the DAZN digital platform.
“I will box to win. That may come with showing a lot of grit, determination, heart. I know he’s world class. You look at him, he’s
got out of his last couple of fights unscathed. Not a mark on him. Not one mark,” explained Saunders to Telegraph Sport. “I’ve been boxing since I was five, if I’ve took a 100 clean punches from my amateur days to now, that’s a hell of a lot of punches. I don’t like to go in there and think we’re going to have an all out Mexican war, because that don’t get you onto the next level. We’ve seen Mexican wars in there before and they don’t work. He’s a prize fighter. He’s there to excite people with thrilling knockouts. If you get drawn into that excitement you’re just going to be another victim.”
The mind games this week from the Briton have seen Canelo’s team assert that the Mexican wants to punish and inflict damage on Saunders. It could mean the Mexican star goes head and body hunting hard early, with Saunders’ evasiveness from the southpaw stance allowing him to outbox his foe in the early rounds. Somehow, though, Saunders, who has not fought the calibre of opponents Canelo has, must find a way to dent his rival, rather than simply nick the rounds. But there is a cold, relentless ruthlessness about Canelo, who has an incredible engine. His work-rate will tire Saunders in the late rounds, in which he will come to fore, leading the Mexican to win a points decision. Saunders has already shown that he is very, very, good. This is his opportunity, like never before, to upset the odds and show that he is truly great.