Billy Joe Saunders

BETTER PUT A (BIGGER) RING ON IT

Ed Mulholland/Matchroom

For all of Billy Joe Saunders’ (30-0, 14 KOs) posturing and theatrics, it looks as if his unification bout with Canelo Alvarez (55-1-2, 37 KOs) will go on as scheduled.

This Saturday, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the two will meet to unify Alvarez’s WBC, WBA, and Ring titles, with Saunders’ WBO strap.

The winner will have the clearest claim to 168-pound supremacy since Andre Ward won the Super Six tournament in 2011.

Michelle Farsi/Matchroom

Entering fight week, the lack of noise from Billy Joe Saunders’ camp was somewhat disappointing. Aside from the stylistic clash, their opposing personalities were part of what made this matchup intriguing. Barring the usual trash-talking from Saunders, the buildup was fairly tame.

That changed when Saunders arrived in Texas at the beginning of this week. He immediately took issue with the size of the ring, claiming that it was too small. That Team Canelo was trying to fight him in a phone booth.

The ring, which hadn’t been built yet, was supposed to be 18×18 feet. Per the rules of the Association of Boxing Commissions, all rings for title fights will measure between 16 and 20 feet per side. The British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC) abides by the same rule.

Saunders claimed that he had trained in a 24-foot ring for the entirety of his training camp, meaning that an 18-foot ring would hinder the game plan he’d created in that time.

Canelo, not caring what ground on which their battle is fought, okayed a 20-foot ring. It was turned down flat. Saunders demanded 22 feet. If the promoters didn’t meet his demands, he threatened to take himself and his team back to the UK.

Very few people actually thought he would walk away from the biggest fight and payday of his career. Especially since it is likely his only chance to vault from boxing to mainstream fame.

Nonetheless, fellow Brit, John Ryder (29-5, 16 KOs) was immediately put on a plane to Texas, ready to step in for Saunders.

Billy Joe was his usual talkative self when the pair finally faced off after the ring size debacle. Michelle Farsi/Matchroom

Canelo simply said, “Let him take the whole stadium,” as the drama was unfolding. Then, hours after the dispute was raised, Saunders announced on his Instagram story that all issues had been settled.

The ring size hasn’t been officially announced, but it’s safe to say that it will either be 20 or 22 feet per side. It made for some juicy headlines but was likely just a bit of gamesmanship by Saunders.

Now, onto the fight.

Billy Joe Saunders is, at his best, seen as having the best chance to beat Canelo. His blend of attributes as a southpaw with hand speed, good footwork and real boxing ability bring a couple of Canelo’s tougher fights to mind. Namely, Austin Trout (April 2013) and Erislandy Lara (July 2014). On my cards for each respective bout, Trout lost by a single point, and Lara deserved a draw. Saunders is bigger than both Trout and Lara, and may also be better.

This comparison is a bit disrespectful to Canelo, whose improvement since those fights (seven and eight years ago) has been a privilege to watch. After his only loss to Floyd Mayweather in 2013, the Mexican star built himself back up to being a champion and pound-for-pound list entrant.

His major milestones in that time were his wins over Miguel Cotto in 2015, and over Gennadiy Golovkin in their second meeting in 2018. Both wins marked major leaps forward in his progression towards becoming an all-time-great. And yes, he very much is on track for that.

Fans would do well to remember that Canelo is NOT David Lemieux.
Vincent Ethier/EOTTM

Saunders career peak so far was his shutout decision win over David Lemiuex in 2017. Then defending his title at 160 pounds, Saunders traveled to Lemieux’s home country and humiliated the Canadian.

His footwork and defensive prowess were on full display. After a potential fight with Demetrius Andrade was scrubbed in 2018, Saunders moved to 168 and captured the WBO title he now holds.

The Brit looked fantastic in his last outing in December, even if it was against a version of Martin Murray that already shuffling off towards retirement. Saunders doesn’t deserve the blame for that, however.

So now, it’s simply a question of whether the highest-profile Super Middleweight title fight in a decade will live up to its billing. With a full-capacity crowd in attendance (estimates fall between 60,000 and 70,000), and three of the four major belts on the line, my guess is that it will.

The fight will likely begin with Saunders boxing off the back foot, and Canelo pursuing. Saunders will fire jabs to get Canelo to react, following up with straight lefts if his opponent slips to the sides, and left uppercuts if he rolls underneath. Throwing short combinations and cutting angles will be the keys for Saunders early.

AT&T Stadium will be filled to capacity on Saturday. A first for American boxing since before the start of the global pandemic.
Michelle Farsi/Matchroom

Canelo will respond with an early body attack to slow Saunders’ feet and bring his hands down. The slightly larger ring will have minimal impact on how the fight goes, especially if Canelo is able to land to the body with any regularity.

He has shown how lethal his body attack can be in every recent fight he has had, and this shouldn’t be much different. The real question mark in the face of this will be Saunders’ conditioning. He can definitely win rounds from the outside – in fact, many expect him to, including me.

How long can Saunders keep Canelo and his rare combination of elite head movement and aggression at bay? If he can’t keep Canelo at bay, how long can he withstand the body attack before his pace slows? These are the questions he will have to answer. After all, Canelo is no David Lemieux. He isn’t even the same Canelo from a few years ago. His constant evolution is why he holds the top spot on many writers’ pound-for-pound lists.

Ultimately, Saunders will have to hurt Canelo with a single shot, or he will have to stand and fight at some point. It’s hard to imagine him landing a long combination on the Mexican star, which is a testament to Canelo’s ability rather than Billy Joe’s lack thereof. What is even harder to imagine is Saunders being able to stay away from Canelo for an entire 12 round fight. Or at least the majority of those 12 rounds.

That said, this fight has all of the markers for one that could turn into a classic. In my view, the pattern of this bout will settle into that of an intermittent firefight. Saunders will use his feet to set traps and create angles, while Canelo uses his head movement to set up explosive counters. It will be incredibly close early on. Fans shouldn’t be surprised if they split the first four to six rounds. But later on, class will tell.

My guess is that Canelo will close strong, as he always has, and cement a unanimous decision victory down the stretch. The scores will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 116-112 in favor of the Mexican. It’s difficult to imagine a stoppage, or even any knockdowns.

But this fight is can’t-miss action. The first major fight of the year should live up to the many other classics that have preceded it on Cinco de Mayo weekend. Be sure to tune in on DAZN this Saturday to take part in the excitement.

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