Billy Joe Saunders
Billy Joe Saunders

Canelo vs Saunders: The burning big-fight questions

On Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, boxing’s biggest star Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez seeks to add the WBO super-middleweight belt to the Ring Magazine, WBA and WBC titles he already owns in an intriguing 12-stone unification bout with unbeaten British counterpart Billy Joe Saunders.

Beating Canelo Alvarez (1/7 with Sky Bet), on Cinco de Mayo weekend, is arguably the hardest task in world boxing right now but the 9/2 underdog Saunders (30-0) is not without hope. addresses some of the burning questions ahead of their Cinco de Mayo weekend superfight.

Does Billy Joe Saunders belong in the ring with Canelo Alvarez?

Since turning over in 2009, the former Olympian has enjoyed a colourful career, with his out-of-the-ring exploits making almost as many headlines as his exploits in the ring. His best performance came in Canada in December 2017, when he put on a boxing masterclass over 12 rounds against David Lemieux. There was a point in that fight where he made his world-rated opponent miss with a right hand by such a margin, Billy Joe then looked into the crowd to see where his befuddled opponent was aiming. He won by scores of 120-108, 117-111 and 118-110 in Quebec in a statement victory which also launched a thousand GIFs.

However, since the Lemieux win, Saunders resume has been uninspiring, having fought the likes of Charles Adamu, Shefat Isufi, Marcelo Esteban Coceres and Martin Murray. This is a huge step up in class compared to those names. A fight against the most marketable fighter in world boxing, in his prime, means Saunders is in deep.

However, Billy Joe is motivated, he’s dangerous and very elusive. On his very best night, he is an extraordinarily gifted southpaw with a style to give even the great Canelo fits. He is unbeaten with a perfect record and is a two-weight world champion in his own right. Given his talent and ring achievements to date nobody can deny Saunders his shot this weekend, particularly when you compare him to Avni Yildrim, the WBC mandatory challenger Alvarez brutalised in his last ring outing in February.

Canelo holds the WBA and WBC titles at 168 and wants to unify the four main sanctioning body titles. That’s why Saunders, as WBO champ, gets the gig this weekend and it’s an assignment he is deserving of.

Is Billy Joe’s style all wrong for Canelo?

It is getting on for seven years since Alvarez last faced a truly technical, scientific southpaw, and there are many in the trade who feel that Erislandy Lara deserved more than the split decision loss he came away win after his fabulous effort against the Mexican at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in July 2014. On that night, judge Levi Martinez’s 117-111 card was way out of line with his two compatriots. Jerry Roth scored 115-113 for Lara and Dave Moretti carded an identical 115-113 score in favour of Canelo. It was a close fight and Lara’s best weapon, his leg speed, kept him out of harm’s way for much of the bout. The way he also picked his Mexican foe off with straight lefts coming off the jab presented a puzzle Canelo struggled to solve all night long.

Billy Joe, like Lara, is a southpaw and he is a mover with quick fists and quick feet. He will be moving in and out all night long and if Canelo is guilty of one thing, he can on occasion be one-paced. However, it is hard to argue that the Mexican megastar has not improved over the last five years. In fact the 55-1-2 (30) future Hall of Famer continues to raise his level at an age when many boxers see their skillset begin to regress. He clearly respects the sport and never cuts corners when it comes to his preparation. With trainer of the moment, Eddy Reynoso, calling the shots you can guarantee Canelo will have prepared diligently for this type of test.

Such a tricky and evasive style means Saunders will almost certainly have to put on a clinic to get a result. It’s very difficult to nick a decision away from home purely boxing off the back foot, not least against the ‘pound-for-pound’ king. American judges like aggression and that means at some point Saunders will have to engage if he wants to get the ‘W’. This is when he will be at his most vulnerable.

Has Saunders gained a psychological edge in fight week?

Elite athletes always have an aura about them, and Canelo has that X Factor - much like PPV stars of the past such as Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Oscar De La Hoya and Mike Tyson. However, he has not had everything his own way during this particular fight week. A dispute erupted on Tuesday about the size of the ring for the contest. Team Saunders said if the ring on the night was less than 22ft there would be no fight. Indeed, Saunders did not attend his first media obligation of fight week and at that point his team said the bout was "off" because of a dispute over the dimensions of the squared circle. Happily, the matter seems to have been resolved and we have a fight.

His stance is noteworthy of course (even if most British rings are 20ft) because a bigger ring clearly suits Billy Joe. Some of the 31-year-old's best attributes as a fighter are his movement and footwork, and he is widely expected to adopt a hit-and-move masterplan against a rampaging bull in Canelo. Obviously such a strategy is made easier if there is sufficient space in which to move around the ring.

Yet it was always going to be a stretch to believe Saunders would walk away from such a colossal (and career high) payday, and a truly career-defining fight, over an argument about ring measurements. Indeed, if the dimensions of the ring really were in fact a deal-breaker, it should have been stipulated in the contracts. Was there more at play here than meets the eye though?

Billy’s biggest friend in boxing - Tyson Fury - made a point of rattling Wladimir Klitschko during the build-up to their 2015 heavyweight world title fight because of a perceived issue over the ring padding in Dusseldorf. Fury’s brinkmanship (he too threatened to walk away from the fight with just days to go unless his demands were met) seemed to give the impression of a psychological edge against Klitschko, and whether real or imagined it was significant against a man who at that point was known for controlling all aspects of his fights and promotions.

Fury was a heavy betting underdog in Germany, as Saunders is here, so it might be that ‘Team Saunders’ was just trying to gain a mental edge against a fighter who gets most things his own way given his superstar status within the sport.

What seems like a trivial issue to some boxing casuals may therefore actually hold a deeper significance. Will an argument over ring measurements win him the fight? Absolutely not. It does however show Billy Joe is not just here for the payday and/or to make up the numbers, and it remains to be seen whether Tuesday’s brouhaha has any effect on Canelo when they meet each other across ring centre.

Who has the edge in the corner?

Both fighters are cornered by men who have a vast wealth of boxing knowledge, Two trainers from different sides of the pond whose gyms are on the up and up.

Saunders has joined back up with former trainer Mark Tibbs. The two-weight champ was coached by Tibbs' father, old-school London face Jimmy, for the first half of his career.

After leaving Tibbs Sr, the 2008 Olympic bronze medal winner had a succession of trainers including Ben Davison, Danny Vaughan, Adam Booth and Dominic Ingle before reuniting with Tibbs Jr.

Mark is one of the best young trainers in Britain, and he has recently been chosen to relaunch the career of heavyweight prospect Daniel Dubois after his crushing loss to Joe Joyce. That tells you what type of esteem he is held in.

Canelo is the prize asset of a ‘super stable’ under trainer Eddy Reynoso which also includes lightweight sensation Ryan Garcia, heavyweight stars Andy Ruiz Jr and Frank Sanchez and WBC super-featherweight king Oscar Valdez.

While Saunders has not had a settled backroom team for most of his career, moving from gym to gym, the opposite is true of Alvarez.

Since the first day the flame-haired prodigy walked into the tiny, ramshackle Julian Magdaleno Gym, he has been soaking up the knowledge and vast experience of father-son duo Chepo and Eddy Reynoso. Jose “Chepo” Reynoso has worked with hundreds of hungry Mexican youngsters desperate to make it out of poverty down the years, and while ‘Chepo’ is still on the scene it is more as a peripheral figure with son Eddy now established as Canelo’s main trainer.

The Reynosos have an unbreakable bond with Alvarez, and they have guided his meteoric rise from raw 15-year-old pro novice to multi-weight world champion and PPV superstar. Tactically Alvarez has been near flawless in the last three years. Many thought Callum Smith’s size and jab could cause major problems, but instead it was Canelo’s power and ‘old school’ ring smarts which ultimately ground Smith down.

How should Canelo approach the fight?

The Mexican is known for his educated ring pressure, and he is clearly in a class on his own these days if his recent fights are anything to go by. Saunders is a bit of a maverick between the ropes and will invariably get on his bike while trying to befuddle and bewilder the Mexican, so the WBA and WBC boss must close him down early and try to offset his opponent’s rhythm.

Saunders is more fleet of foot than the ‘pound-for-pound’ king and is a better mover. As Tyson Fury said a few months ago: "Canelo Alvarez’s Kryptonite is someone who boxes and moves - southpaw, slick, good feet, good hand speed, good power. Billy Joe Saunders does all of that, but he needs to be active.” Saunders has been in camp since the end of January, so there will be no excuses in terms of his preparation.

However if ‘The Gypsy King’ thinks that is the blueprint to beating Canelo, the Mexican will know he himself that needs to cut the ring down and take away his opponent’s legs if he is to emerge victorious. He is used to opponents using lateral movement to frustrate him but, will not be fearful of Saunders’ power. Billy Joe has a KO ratio of less than 50% and couldn't knock out Murray in a fight he dominated back in December. The fact that Murray immediately announced his retirement from the sport after that points loss proves he did not have a lot left to give. That doesn't bode well when facing Alvarez, who let’s have it right, took all of Gennady Golovkin's hardest punches better than any of his previous opponents have to date in their brutal two-fight series a few years back.

Canelo is a good puncher, a tough guy and vastly experienced. Don’t be surprised to see him hitting Saunders on the biceps, shoulders or on the belt line to slow him down. Canelo trying some rough stuff on the inside could make Billy Joe lose his cool on the biggest night of his life and if Saunders cannot keep his man off down the stretch, don’t be surprised if the fight ends with a highlight reel KO for the Mexican.

What does a Saunders win do for Canelo’s legacy?

If Alvarez can beat Saunders and look good in doing so to take the WBO crown, and then annex the IBF super-middleweight title from Caleb Plant, he will have cleaned out the 12st division courtesy of his own personal ‘Super Series’.

However, while any divisional unification can only be seen as a good thing for the sport in these times of title saturation, Alvarez doesn’t have a huge amount of options in terms of legit opponents to fight going forward.

Canelo holds wins on his resume over legends such as Shane Mosley and Miguel Cotto, and big names such as Amir Khan, Daniel Jacobs and Sergey Kovalev. With the greatest of respect to both athletes, wins over Saunders and Plant between now and the end of 2021 would not be earth shattering, simply expected.

No, the biggest fight for Canelo remains a third tussle with an old foe. Out there somewhere, like a Kazakh lion in winter, is Golovkin. Despite their epic two-fight series, most feel there is still unfinished business between the pair. Golovkin may be 39 now, but he remains a top-drawer boxer with massive power and an unshakeable belief he won their first fight.

Unbeaten Russian Artur Beterbiev at light-heavyweight would be another legacy fight, but one gets the feeling that the Mexican cannot end his career without a huge trilogy fight against Golovkin to settle their business once and for all.

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