Canelo Alvarez and Billy Joe Saunders meet in a fight a long time coming

The WBC, WBA and WBO titles will be on the line in Dallas on Saturday night but this one, between two of the great fighters in the game today, feels far more personal

Steve Bunce@bigdaddybunce
Friday 07 May 2021 17:38
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Billy Joe Saunders vs. Canelo Alvarez Preview

A lovely mix of anticipation and pride will make the ring in the middle of the field at the AT&T Stadium on the outskirts of Dallas resemble a stage for slaughter on Saturday night after 70,000 people paid for blood.

Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez will walk to the ring draped in a Mexican flag, the noise of the crowd will shake the makeshift structure as the roar of his worship fills the night sky; Alvarez will look at his horde, give a gentle nod, not betray any emotions as their leader and then fix his still eyes malevolently on Billy Joe Saunders.

Saunders will be laughing and joking, moving his shoulders, letting a few light punches go and as the ring starts to clear, he will take one last look at the Romany flag, his permanent drape in all prizefights; he will be alone with his fighting job. He will finally be separated by just inches, just a breath away from his own ring destiny and he will not listen to the last words from the referee. Saunders will be talking non-stop, abusing Alvarez, his country and his flag, and he will get nothing back, not a flinch, not a shove. When the referee asks the pair to touch gloves one last time in peace, that is when Alvarez will look up, that is when the Alvarez smile will fade forever. That is the silent signal for a fight.

It is a wonderful fight, a fight delayed by so many Covid deaths, a fight with plots and twists so severe that it has been draining keeping up with the momentum of the latest tale. Saunders is unbeaten in 30 contests, Alvarez has lost just the once in 58. One is the hero of all Mexico and the other feels like an outcast. Alvarez turned professional when he was just fifteen, a tiny battler on a dubious circuit and Saunders was in gyms, rings and fights from when he was a toddler, scrapping for respect inside the traveller community. The pair could trade war stories from their dirty roads to the Dallas ring.

In 2008, when both were just 18, they were on very different paths in this fighting business; Saunders was a good bet for a medal at the Olympics in Beijing and Alvarez had fought 22 professional fights, including ten and twelve rounders. Saunders was in a vest, refining his craft in a safe environment, dancing at the Olympics over four rounds of just two minutes. Alvarez was the fearless one, the boy-battler with the blank eyes and he already had a vast following, the ginger-haired kid from Guadalajara, who looks Irish and fights like an ancient. Same sport, very different worlds. They were roughly the same weight that distant summer.

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Eventually, they both landed in Dallas, a perfect city for a bloody and vicious endgame. Saunders brings his WBO belt, Alvarez his WBC and WBA versions, but if anybody imagines this is about the jewellery they are mistaken; this is about pride now, it's gone beyond the sparkly trophies. I have seen the look in Alvarez's eyes and I can recognise the symptoms in Saunders, his edginess, his body language. This is nasty. Saunders is comfortable with that type of hate and Alvarez has damage deep inside him somewhere. They can each talk about their children, their families so distant from the fight bubble in Texas, but when they talk it is amazing how detached their loved ones seem; they just want to fight, not swap tales about the pony club.

Saunders is annoyed at his perceived lack of respect and Alvarez is angry for the same reason. Saunders set out to upset Alvarez, but the Mexican seldom makes it about emotions and heart – he has made an exception here. “This is not just the fight, this is personal, this fight means a lot to me,” Alvarez said and his beloved coach, Eddy Reynoso, has talked of wanting his boxer to get a knockout. It is an unusual twist from Reynoso, who is a gentleman. Saunders has done a good job playing the pantomime baddie, gently insulting people with a false smile. Saunders has never had an out-of-bounds button, which can be both refreshing and alarming.

Alvarez has won world titles at four weights, fought the very best and shared a ring somewhere with 18 world champions so far. He has finished fights with just about every punch in the faded manual. And he has used his head, shoulder, elbow and forearm on occasion. He has left behind six British boxers, good fighters, most on the canvas, most beaten easily; Canelo has dropped his six British opponents a total of 12 times. The Mexican is nasty inside the ropes, very nasty and that is forgotten because of his polite voice, manners and look. He does not look like the best-paid boxer on the planet. His only loss was on points to Floyd Mayweather back in 2013 when he was just 23, a kid on the night and easily old-manned to defeat.

Saunders, many will try to argue, has wasted his career. And that is harsh. Saunders was meant to fight Alvarez last May, fights with Gennady Golovkin fell out of bed several times, the offers have gone in and been rejected by a lot of good men. However, his record shows long nights against men without real credentials from Serbia and Argentina and Russia in very forgettable world title fights. He has also had his notorious scrapes with the boxing authorities and good taste; Saunders has lost that fight, no mistake. However, Saunders can really fight, he loves to fight, he is a natural fighter. It is doubtful that Alvarez and his army of disciples in the American media have ever really given Saunders the credit he deserves. Saunders has returned the snub with some choice exchanges.

And so, on Saturday night the ring empties, it's just the three men in front of 70,000 – a new indoor record for a fight in America, by the way – and the boxing starts. Alvarez might find very early that Saunders is a lot better than he has been told and Saunders might find very early that Alvarez hits a lot harder than he was told. It will be a fight of personal discovery for both; round after round, brutal moments and a lot of skill. It is neglected, skill and smarts, being clever and using your brain. Saunders will make it very, very difficult before losing by a slender margin. What a night it will be.

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