Gray Matter: Is Billy Joe Saunders stumbling block or stepping stone for Canelo?
OK, now that Canelo Alvarez has stuffed the mandatory challenger from Turkey (see what I did there?), it’s time to move on.
The Ring Magazine super middleweight champion and pound-for-pound king will now defend his growing collection of title belts against WBO counterpart Billy Joe Saunders (30-0, 14 KOs) on May 8 at a site to be confirmed. This is a high-profile unification matchup, a fight that’s been talked about for several years, and it’s a brilliant clash of styles.
So, what do we know coming in?
Saunders, who is rated No. 5 by The Ring at 168 pounds, is an even better fighter than that ranking suggests. Despite picking up a vacant super middleweight title, the Englishman’s trio of wins in this division have come against opponents that he was strongly favored to beat and his current rating reflects that. The fact is that the 31-year-old Saunders made his bones at 160, where he defeated Chris Eubank Jr., Andy Lee and David Lemieux. He proved his class in that trio of fights and moved north over three years ago.
Stylistically, Saunders is not built to look good against. He’s a former Olympian with fast fists, fast feet, a varied skillset, and at his best his reflexes and slippery southpaw style make him harder to find than a black cat in a coal cellar. He’s not what one would call a fan favorite, but Saunders has bundles of natural talent and he’s a fighter.
It’s very easy for naysayers to dismiss him as a threat because Saunders can blow hot and cold. His 12-round unanimous decision win over pre-fight favorite Lemieux, in December 2017, was one of the finest exhibitions of boxing given by a British fighter on away soil. Conversely, just one year earlier, Saunders looked ghastly against the unheralded Artur Akavov, whom he outpointed over 12 horrible rounds in Scotland.
The version of Saunders that is sure to turn up for Canelo will more closely resemble the one that befuddled Lemieux. Saunders is savvy enough to know that anything less than a 100 percent effort will result in a painful beating. Canelo’s status, skills and hitting power will be ample motivation for Saunders to put his body through hell in training camp.
“Canelo is strong, he’s fast and he’s always in good shape,” Saunders told me in late-2017. “But I wouldn’t have to change too much from what I did against Lemieux to beat him. I’d let more shots go and I’d need to be a little bit cleaner. I would bring maybe 70 percent of my game plan from the Lemieux fight and the other 30 percent would be geared specifically to deal with Canelo.
“He has some miles on the clock now. He’s had a lot of big fights and I don’t know how much that will have taken out of him. In his last couple of fights, I personally thought he’d dipped a bit. Liam Smith had some success at stages and I thought to myself, ‘Well, he didn’t look too good there.’ To be honest, though, a lot depends on who turns up on the night.”
Fast forward three years and Canelo looks as good as he ever has, maybe even better. In December, the Mexican star turned an eagerly anticipated showdown with the previously unbeaten Ring Magazine super middleweight champion and WBA titleholder Callum Smith into a virtuoso performance. He displayed sublime technical craft that night and it’s clear that the foray into the 168 and 175-pound divisions, a move that came after Saunders spoke with me, has benefitted him.
Can Saunders cope with this version of Canelo? My feeling is that he’ll cause real problems when the pair finally collide. Canelo suffocated Smith by cutting off the ring and letting his hands go in brilliantly conceived bursts, but Saunders is superior in terms of foot speed and agility. He constantly improvises his defense by switching direction, moving his upper body, changing the height of the target, and he creates angles effortlessly. Saunders does all that while maintaining the balance required to let his own shots go and that’s testament to his outstanding athleticism.
I won’t make a prediction on the fight right now – it’s a long way off – but the bottom line is that I expect May 8 to look vastly different from February 27 in Miami. Canelo is no Lemieux, but Saunders is no Avni Yildirim.
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Tom Gray is Managing Editor for Ring Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing