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‘Fighting Words’ — Canelo-Saunders: Just Desserts and a Just Stoppage

Photo by Michelle Farsi/Matchroom.
12
May

He had it coming.

That’s how some boxing fans felt about Billy Joe Saunders after years in which he’d firmly established himself as a villain.

He was a childish man whose absurd antics were more cruel than they were funny, more stupid than they were silly. 

There was the video of Saunders goading a woman, saying he’d give her money for drugs if she performed a sex act on his friend, then convincing her to punch another person. There was the story of him impersonating a police officer and telling a driver to remove his clothing. There were comments that were sexist, misogynistic and homophobic. And there was a video, a terrible joke done in poor taste, advising men about how to commit domestic violence.

That was just what occurred outside of the sport. Within boxing, there also seemed to be a number of reasons for contempt.

Saunders talked a big game, trashed the opponents he was going to face, ridiculed potential foes he never wound up facing, and even insulted fighters far removed from him in other weight classes. None of that is different from what countless other fighters do. And yet as skilled a boxer as he’d shown he could be in some bouts, Saunders otherwise had a habit of fighting down to his level of opposition. For an undefeated two-division titleholder, he hadn’t quite backed up all his talk. 

Fights at middleweight with Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez failed to happen, and some blamed Saunders for that. His reign as a 160-pound titleholder ended when he tested positive for a banned substance just before a fight with Demetrius Andrade in late 2018. He captured a title at super middleweight two years ago, beating someone you’d probably never heard of for a vacant belt, and had done little of substance since. He’d complained about the ring size for his fight with Canelo, asked for something larger than normal that would better suit his style, and threatened to pull out just days before the match.

But to his detractors, the worst thing that Saunders was on Saturday night was a quitter and a hypocrite.

That has been the reaction after Saunders’ loss to Canelo via technical knockout, when Saunders suffered an injury after taking a heavy uppercut midway through the eighth round, then remained in his corner before the ninth could begin.

At once, they both took glory in his defeat and took umbrage with the way he was defeated.

They got what they wanted, but not how, and so they weren’t completely satisfied. They wanted to see him humbled if not humiliated, pummeled if not punished. They wanted a comeuppance but felt let down. They believed that Saunders deprived them of that — that he should have been as brave as he’d said he would be in such a situation, that he should’ve gone out on his shield instead of on his stool.

“Get carried out of the ring, brother,” Saunders had said about five months ago, the day after heavyweight Daniel Dubois took a knee and took the count due to an eye injury in his fight with Joe Joyce. It was soon revealed that Dubois had suffered a broken orbital bone and nerve damage.

 

Saunders said more a few days afterward, speaking on The Ak and Barak Show:

“Before I go on one knee, I’d like to go out on my back with my pulse stopped,” he said, adding a little later: “If my two eye sockets were broken, my jaw was broken, my teeth were out, my nose was smashed, my brain was beaten, I was not stopping until I was knocked out or worse. … I don’t agree with a man taking the knee and letting the ref count him out.”

Often, boxing fans and writers get lambasted when they criticize fighters, told in essence that our opinions don’t matter if we’ve never really laced up a pair of gloves.

Photo by Michelle Farsi/Matchroom.

In this case, one professional boxer simultaneously questioned Dubois’ toughness while celebrating his own, even though he’d yet to walk a mile in Dubois’ shoes, or in this case fight a round with his injury.

Halfway through the eighth round, the southpawSaunders missed a leaping lead right hook and ate a counter right uppercut in return. The punch landed on Saunders’ right eye and clearly affected the 31-year-old from the United Kingdom. Saunders stumbled backward a couple of steps. The toll was quickly visible on Saunders’ face. Saunders felt it as well. After being on the receiving end of yet another Canelo left hook to the body, Saunders grabbed on to the 30-year-old from Mexico and didn’t let go for five long seconds.

Canelo must have known. He peered around the referee as the third man in the ring separated the two fighters, saw the bruising and swelling, sent another hook to the body, held Saunders’ head down and threw an uppercut. Then Canelo put his gloves up, motioning for the crowd to cheer him on, to revel in the moment.


Saunders retreated and attempted to make it through the rest of the round. Canelo landed two uppercuts and put his arm up for the fans again. Then came three body shots and a right cross to the head. 

Saunders defiantly shook his head, but the rest of his face definitely told a different story. 

He was in survival mode, moved and ducked shots as best he could, and tried to gain another lengthy respite with a clinch. When Saunders did throw a punch again, his jab quickly was countered by a hard right hand. He circled away for the remaining seconds until the round, the trouncing, was over.

Saunders’ cutman promptly applied an enswell to the injury. His trainer, Mark Tibbs, looked at the fighter and made the wise decision to stop the match.

It was anticlimactic. One punch, no knockdowns, no knockout, just 90 seconds of aftermath and then a quiet resignation. But it was the right call.

The injury was bad. It essentially shut Saunders down. He’d thrown 50 punches in Round 7, per CompuBox, but only let out 23 in Round 8. Almost all of them came before he ate that huge uppercut. Saunders was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with multiple fractures. He underwent surgery and faces a lengthy recovery.

Some fans and observers were quick to point out several warriors who’d fought through significant pain and grotesque injuries. But that’s why those fighters are as revered as they are. What they endured was exceptional. How they responded was remarkable.

The other thing to keep in mind is that not all eye injuries are created equal. It is impossible to measure what that fighter is experiencing. It also matters who they are experiencing it against. 

It was one thing for Pawel Wolak to still stand in against the likes of Delvin Rodriguez despite the horrifying swelling around his eye. It is something completely different to know that Naoya Inoue fought nearly an entire fight, and won, with his injuries against Nonito Donaire. 

Photo by Michelle Farsi/Matchroom.

The fact that Saunders and his team pulled out given his condition, and given that he would be even less able to deal with Canelo Fucking Alvarez, is not at all surprising. Anything else would’ve fallen somewhere between negligence and malpractice. 

Whenever a fighter is lambasted for quitting, the example I always turn to is Israel Vazquez in his first fight with Rafael Marquez. With a broken nose and trouble breathing, Vazquez called it a night after seven rounds. It was difficult enough to fight Marquez while healthy. It would’ve been dumb to fight him while not. In his case, discretion truly proved to be the better part of valor. Vazquez was able to mend, be back in the ring five months later and win the next two installments in their fabled series of fights.

That’s not to compare Vazquez and Saunders, but rather to note that even the most storied warriors need mercy — think of Buddy McGirt saving Arturo Gatti from any more of the embarrassing beating he was taking from Floyd Mayweather Jr. 

Of course, Saunders isn’t beloved like Gatti nor respected like Vazquez. To many, he has been a villain who needed to be put in his place. Those repercussions should never include the risk of permanent injury. 

He lost the fight. 

He lost his world title. 

He lost out on becoming a unified titleholder. 

He lost out on the paydays that accomplishment would have brought.

The wounds beneath the skin will heal and the marks around his eye will fade. That blemish on his record, and everything it represents, will remain forever.

The 10 Count

1 – Canelo Alvarez deserves much acclaim for his campaign to win all four major world titles at super middleweight in the span of nine months. He’s not the only fighter with three belts and aiming for a fourth.

There’s also junior middleweight Jermell Charlo, who took back his WBC title when he knocked out Tony Harrison in their rematch in 2019, and then added the IBF and WBA belts when he put away Jeison Rosario last year. Charlo is slated to face WBO titleholder Brian Castaño this July. The winner will be the undisputed champ at 154.

(We’ll also have another undisputed champ in a week and a half, when Josh Taylor brings his two belts, Jose Ramirez brings his two belts, and the winner leaves with four titles and the junior welterweight throne.)

Both Canelo and Charlo would still have challengers available afterward. 

If Canelo beats Caleb Plant — if that fight is made (more on that below) — then he could go on to defend against the winner of the upcoming bout between David Benavidez vs. Jose Uzcategui. Or Gennady Golovkin could move up from 160 to 168 for a third fight with Canelo. Or Demetrius Andrade could move up and finally get the shot he’s been clamoring for (more on that below as well). Perhaps Jermall Charlo, Jermell’s twin brother, could make the jump from middleweight as well.

As for Jermell, he’d emerge on top after what has felt like a round-robin tournament at 154:

  • Jermell has defeated the likes of Erickson Lubin, Harrison and Jeison Rosario.
  • Lubin lost in one round to Jermell and but has wins over Terrell Gausha and Nathaniel Gallimore (who beat Rosario).
  • Julian Williams lost to Jermall back when he too was at 154, but J-Rock went on to beat Gallimore and Jarrett Hurd before getting knocked out by Rosario.
  • Hurd beat Harrison (who was awarded a controversial win over Jermell in their first fight) and Erislandy Lara, but was upset by Williams. Hurd will be facing Luis Arias soon; it’s uncertain whether he’ll be moving up to middleweight for good.
  • Lara beat Gausha, lost to Hurd and drew with Castaño. He just won a secondary belt at 160 and may be staying there.

I’d enjoy seeing Jermell against any combination of Lubin, Williams, Hurd and Lara. 

2 – Plenty of talk after Canelo-Saunders went to Caleb Plant and the leverage he’ll have in negotiations. After all, Canelo needs to face Plant to get that fourth world title.

I’m sure Plant and his team will ask for what they feel is proper, as they should. I don’t think they’ll take too hard a stance, however. Plant has even more to gain from this fight than Canelo does.

Plant won’t get anywhere near as much money facing anyone else as he would against Canelo. No other super middleweight can pack stadiums like Canelo. Now that Canelo’s short-term deal with Matchroom Boxing has come to an end, it remains to be seen whether Canelo’s next fight will be strictly on pay-per-view or if he will stick with DAZN. Either way, Canelo’s dance partner will get paid decently, if not handsomely, for the privilege.

That doesn’t mean Plant should just accept whatever he’s offered. But he has to know this is his biggest opportunity, fighting for all four world titles and millions of dollars and the potential for more down the line. There’s a lot of pride on the line. There’s a lot of prizes on the line. He shouldn’t let the former get in the way of the latter.

3. Boxing fans have enjoyed it in the past when one fighter crashes another fighter’s victory to issue a challenge. Alas, Demetrius Andrade got little love from fans when he spoke up at Canelo Alvarez’s post-fight press conference. (He got even less love from Canelo, who cursed at Andrade and mocked the middleweight.)

I don’t blame fans for their opinion, given how much Andrade has sabotaged himself over the years, from pulling out of a fight with Jermell Charlo in 2014 to going through the motions in fights where he could’ve easily taken out his opponents. I’ve written often over the years about how Andrade must shoulder much of the blame for his situation.

However, as someone who is a fan of boxing, rather than a fan of boxers, I still would be interested in seeing Andrade in the big fights. But he needs to do more to make them happen. 

He needs more fights that make him look more entertaining, like his recent win over Liam Williams. The thing is that Andrade has never had much leverage. Having a world title never gave him as much sway at 154 or at 160 as, say, maneuvering through the ratings for a mandatory shot might’ve accomplished. 

The big names aren’t fighting him. It’s time that Andrade stops wasting his time against the lesser names. Face the second tier — the guys who’ve lost to the top guys — and start making your case with your actions, not just your words. 

4 – It’s a nitpick, but the DAZN production team dropped the ball by either not capturing the sound from Billy Joe Saunders’ corner after Round 8 of his fight with Canelo Alvarez, or just not airing it.

We saw an enswell being applied to Saunders’ injury below his right eye. We watched Saunders shake his head multiple times. We had no context. Not as it happened. Not after it happened, after the fight was stopped and Canelo was declared the technical knockout winner.

We of course know why Saunders’ corner stopped the fight. But hearing what was said would’ve added so much to that dramatic turning point.

I think back to several times when corner audio helped portray a moment. Off the top of my head, two of them involve Buddy McGirt, another involving Freddie Roach.

I think of Arturo Gatti leaning in to tell McGirt that his hand was hurt in the third fight with Micky Ward, and then McGirt counseling Gatti on how to adjust his strategy. 

I think of HBO’s crew switching to Paulie Malignaggi’s corner just before he came out for the 11th round with Ricky Hatton, just in time to hear the tail end of McGirt saying he didn’t want to let his fighter take more punishment, and Malignaggi protesting. Those few seconds of footage gave important context when, less than a minute later, McGirt stopped the fight mid-round and Malignaggi angrily pushed McGirt. And that then gave full context for when Malignaggi changed trainers afterward.

I think of Roach counseling Ruslan Provodnikov to go for the knockout against Timothy Bradley, advice that didn’t come before the 12th round but rather before the 11th — and the fury that came from Provodnikov’s fists until he finally downed Bradley with seconds to go in the match.

And even when it’s not live, the footage can be valuable after the fact. I think of Showtime’s recurring post-fight feature in which they highlight snippets from each boxer’s corner.

5 – Even without the end of Canelo Alvarez vs. Billy Joe Saunders, I’d hesitate to question a fighter who receives a potentially serious blow. 

These days, I can’t see a fighter respond to a rabbit punch without recalling Prichard Colon, the young welterweight/junior middleweight prospect who ended up in a coma after his 2015 loss to Terrel Williams, injuries many believe were caused by the many shots that landed behind his head. I think of our interviews earlier that year, the miracle that he’s still alive, and yet the condition he’s in and what that continues to mean for his family.

With all of that said, I think Nagy Aguilera was overreacting — and possibly overacting — in his fight with Frank Sanchez on Saturday night.

Sanchez, an unbeaten heavyweight, was taking on the faded journeyman on the Canelo-Saunders undercard. In the sixth round, Sanchez threw a looping right hand and Aguilera dipoed his head forward. The shot went behind Aguilera, appeared to hit his back or shoulder, and may have cuffed Aguilera’s neck and the back of his head.

Photo by Ed Mulholland/Matchroom.

Aguilera turned away, motioned to the back of his head, walked to the ropes, went down on both knees, and soon dropped the rest of the way to the canvas. After several seconds, Aguilera began to rise before collapsing back down again.

When the fight went to a technical decision, as is proper for a fight-ending injury caused by this kind of accidental foul, Aguilera began to protest. “That’s a motherfucking foul,” he said. “Ten times he hit me, and nothing.”

The crowd was having none of it. Every time Sanchez was shown on the huge screen at AT&T Stadium, they let out a chorus of cheers. Every time Aguilera was shown, they booed. It felt like an old school wrestling match where the babyface and heel were exchanging punches.

Given that Aguilera seemed to be cradling his left arm and didn’t take his left glove off, it’s fair to wonder if something else was going on and he was looking for a way out.

6 – The Nagy Aguilera situation was reminiscent of another debacle last month, when Ivan Redkach was stretchered out after complaining about a low blow that, quite simply, wasn’t. Regis Prograis was initially given a technical decision win over Redkach but was later awarded a TKO.

Except you don’t even need to go to another fighter to recall a travesty like this. Apparently, this is part of Aguilera’s shtick.

“Nagy Aguilera also pulled that ‘He hit me on the back of the head, I can’t continue!’ move in a fight in Poland,” tweeted Hall of Fame boxing writer Graham Houston. “The Polish ref didn’t buy it, counted Aguilera out.” 

It’s true. It took some searching, but here’s some footage of Aguilera’s loss to some 6-1 dude named Sergiej Werwejko back in 2017 in Poland. Werwejko landed a tapping rabbit punch in a clinch. Aguilera cradled the back of his head and took a knee.

7 – How little drug testing is going on in boxing these days? Too little, according to this well-reported article by Lance Pugmire of The Athletic. 

Here are my initial thoughts after reading Pugmire’s piece:

  • The World Boxing Council, which instituted its Clean Boxing Program in 2016, isn’t providing enough funding to the effort, which limits how often it uses the services of the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, or VADA. Although the top 15 in each division (270 fighters, if you include bridgerweight) must be enrolled in the program, the $120,000 budget only allows for a total of 75 or so random tests per year, according to Pugmire.
  • I wonder whether the WBC’s budget for testing is lower now than it used to be, or if its costs are higher. Because in mid-2017, the organization announced that it had tested a total of 72 fighters so far that year, many of them multiple times.
  • This situation leaves a tremendous amount of room for boxers to get away with cheating. Most of them won’t be tested a single time under the WBC’s program. And if they get tested once, they can gamble on the likelihood that they won’t be tested again.
  • As pitiful as the WBC’s funding is, what little that sanctioning body does is still more than what the other sanctioning bodies are doing. The fractured state of boxing means that whether you’re drug tested, for what substances, and how often, can depend on who has you ranked, what athletic commission has licensed you, who your promoter is, and whether the part of your fight agreement relating to drug testing has been signed. 
  • In a tweet after Pugmire’s article ran, VADA said this: “It’s important to note that VADA currently tests 30-40 boxers each month. Most are enrolled in the WBC Boxing CBP as either Top 15 rated or volunteers with testing subsidized by athletes, their representatives, promoters and commissions.”
  • Mauricio Sulaiman told Pugmire that he thinks that the loss of revenue from the pandemic and the increase of expenses from COVID testing meant that promoters “looked at anti-doping as an aside and not a priority.” Sadly, that has more often than not been the case since well before the pandemic. Drug testing rarely seems to come up with promoters unless one of their fighters wants it. 
  • And boxing writers are still too often apathetic about drug testing, too rarely holding promoters accountable for whether drug testing is happening, how often it’s happening, and how long before a fight — or, as tends to be the case, how short a time before a fight — drug testing is set to begin. I can tell you from experience that promoters don’t like answering these tough questions. Promoters should be put on the record before every significant fight. And it’s important not just to ask them whether it’s happening, but why or why not.

8. Sadly, asking my fellow boxing writers to hold the powers-that-be accountable on drug testing is clearly asking too much of them. 

They couldn’t even fulfill their journalistic responsibility to do a single article about whether it was safe to have more than 70,000 fans being in an arena during the coronavirus pandemic.

The reporters need not take a stance. They could have easily reported it objectively — asking questions about important topics and seeking out the answers, in this case by calling public health experts and epidemiologists.

It’s what reporters have done for pandemic-related stories about other industries and other sports. They wondered when things would reopen, and how. They asked those industries and sports league what protective measures would and wouldn’t be in place. And then they sought doctors and researchers to explain what all of this meant.

 

I’m disappointed in my colleagues. Sadly, I’m also not surprised given the state of boxing media these days. 

9 – Here was promoter Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing speaking last week to TMZ.com:

“There will be masks worn, mandatory, on Saturday night.”

That just wasn’t true. It wasn’t true at the weigh-in, which while outside still went against the most recent guidelines for outdoor gatherings posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And it definitely wasn’t true on fight night within AT&T Stadium. You need only watch the broadcast itself to see that. Or any of a number of clips posted online. I also spoke to boxing fans who attended the event.

It’s not like the event organizers don’t know that COVID is still an issue. The ring was still being disinfected between fights.

 

10 – We end this week with a video of MC Hammer throwing jabs, hooks and crosses.

Finally, someone whom boxing fans will never bash. After all, unlike some other fighters they criticize, MC Hammer is 2 Legit 2 Quit…

 

Follow David Greisman on Twitter @FightingWords2. His book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” is available on Amazon.

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