He's the biggest superstar and money earner in combat sports. I was slow coming around on him until the last few years, but he's become a hell of a fighter.
Saul “Canelo” Alvarez is one of the rare fighters I've seen in 50 plus years of observing the sport of boxing, who I didn't think was particularly special, became a superstar and then got better.
At one time, Canelo was stymied by movement and good footwork, would often tire and had to catch a breather after six or seven rounds and was at his best when his opponents led and he was able to counter-punch them. None of that applies now due to him being so comfortable and relaxed in the ring fighting any style.
This Saturday night Canelo 55-1-2 (37) puts his WBA/WBC and Ring Magaizine super-middleweight titles up against WBO super-middleweight titlist Billy Joe Saunders 30-0 (14) at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. In some circles it's been bantered that Saunders, due to him being a southpaw, his movement, foot work and boxing ability just might be a stumbling block for the Mexican star. Perhaps, and I'll touch on that in a moment.
There's a theme in my head pertaining to this bout that I can't turn off.
And that tape playing over and over says Canelo doesn't have a morsel of a doubt that he's gonna win – and there may come a point and perhaps early in the bout that he'll convey that to Saunders and Billy Joe will try and bluff that he hasn't accepted it, but inside he will have. Thus the confidence Saunders had going into the ring will evaporate, and like Canelo's recent opponents Sergey Kovalev and Callum Smith, he'll shrink but fight on not to get embarrassed.
Like Sugar Ray Leonard after going to war with Roberto Duran twice in one year, Canelo became a full fledged man as a champion after two wars with Gennady Golovkin in a calendar year. With the exception of WBO welterweight title holder Terence Crawford, I don't believe there's another fighter in Boxing or MMA who enters the ring or Octagon as convinced that they not only will win, but they just can't lose, as Canelo. And I believe the reason for Canelo gaining confidence just as Leonard did is the same.
Prior to fighting Duran, Leonard entered every fight as the alpha male. However, that wasn't the case when he fought Duran, because Roberto didn't give a damn about him nor his reputation. Against Duran, Leonard found out for certain that he took a great punch and was as tough as anybody out there, and he realized that nothing in the future could be more taxing than Duran in Montreal.
The same applies to Canelo after 24 rounds of life and death with GGG. Today Canelo firmly believes nothing can be as tough as GGG and he survived that and holds the upper hand, 1-0-1. Add to that he's evolved as a fighter defensively and fighting as the attacker, so it'll take a special fighter to derail that express.
In addition to that, Saunders faces another issue matching up with Canelo.
Granted, Saunders is a good boxer, moves well laterally and fights with a chip on his shoulder. But the thing that many miss is, it takes a lot of physical strength to outbox a strong guy like Canelo. Hitting and running doesn't cut it, and if the boxer can't keep the opponent from becoming bold he'll just get walked down and forced to fight uphill. If Saunders is looking to get out as soon as he cuts loose, he'll cede the fight psychologically and turn off the fans and judges in the process.
Stylistically, Saunders should be able to give Canelo a few headaches, but he seldom fights with a sense of urgency as if winning is living and losing is dying. You're not going to beat Canelo if you're not busy through the whole fight. If Saunders just potshots, the judges won't give him anything. Therefore it's hard to envision him matching Canelo's urgency as the bout progresses.
If that weren't enough, Canelo has become great at pressuring without punching nor moving his hands, forcing his opponents to punch for the purpose of just occupying him looking to buy time, instead of truly impeding his aggression while trying to slow him down. By not committing to their punches they play into his hands and he feeds off of that and grows confident. When a fighter is just moving in and daring you to throw your hands like Canelo did versus both Kovalev and Callum Smith, it sends a message to the opponent that I have no fear of you and will undoubtedly make you pay if you miss or make a mistake. Once they are handcuffed mentally, they offer less resistance and that in itself makes the attacker fight more boldly, which we saw in both fights with Kovalev and Smith versus Canelo.
Saunders fights nothing like Kovalev nor Smith. He's banking on stealing from the blueprint detailed by Erislandy Lara and Floyd Mayweather, who got to Canelo with quickness, timing and sound footwork. But that was Canelo back in 2013-14 and Saunders isn't as fast as them and Canelo is no longer that unsure-of-himself 23 year old.
He's now a diverse technician who's versatile, and he's completely unflappable at this time. Now Canelo looks to get into exchanges because he has more than adequate power at 168, gets off two and three punches in succession smoothly and the belief in his chin, like with former middleweight great Marvin Hagler, aides his confidence when he's got to engage in a fire fight if that's what he senses will undo his opponent.
If you're Sanders, you have some burdens to overcome. First and foremost you must fight on the move and stay busy without fully engaging while at the same time you must pop Canelo enough so that he at least respects what you're carrying in your hands.
Kovalev was spooked from the onset and never tried to put anything on him because he was worried that Canelo would not only not flinch but that he'd be more open in between shots if he missed. In many ways Kovalev was happy to go rounds and would've been content losing a decision with an essay's worth of excuses after the fight trying to save face and con the fans.
After that, Canelo fought an undefeated super middleweight belt holder in Callum Smith. Unlike Kovalev, Smith came in thinking he'd win and was gonna try. After two rounds Smith realized that the Mexican sensation was just better at everything and that he really couldn't make him do a thing he didn't want to. And once Canelo had him fighting in retreat, while making him miss on the way in along with closing the distance without letting his hands go, unfortunately Callum knew he was in for a long night. And as long as he didn't bother Canelo too much in trying to hurt him, there was a path to the finish line and he made it…but wasn't very competitive.
Canelo walked Smith down with upper body and head movement. That nullified Smith's jab as Canelo covered and countered. Smith didn't get off enough and Canelo was bold and fought as the alpha from the start. Canelo was quicker, stronger, busier and better!
Smith was forced to lean and lunge while his offense was rushed with no intent other than to keep Canelo off and occupied as he was forced to give up too much ground. Canelo's offense was never more varied and imaginative. He exhibited every punch in the book with power and accuracy to the head and body.
And lastly, Smith's size at 6'3″ was a disadvantage! That won't be a factor for Saunders, his shorter 5'11” height will not require eating up as much of the ring in order for him to try and tame Canelo. Billy Joe is no doubt the quicker fighter all the way around, with a good jab, but Canelo has really become proficient at timing his opponent to offset their speed and jabbing when they use it to stymie him.
Saunders is confident and has a good ring-sense. That combined with his ability to fight on the move could bother Canelo.
But can he get Canelo's attention with his power? Billy Joe isn't a big puncher. His stoppages have come from catching his opponents clean and wearing them down. The problem is he's never faced anybody like Canelo, who's been through the jitters of a big fight numerous times. And what bothers me most is, with Canelo's reputation for taking such a great punch, it's as if it's baked into his opponents’ mind that they approach him with the mindset of knowing they can't hurt him nor have they tried in his last few major bouts. And even if you're a fighter who relies on boxing your opponents more than being driven by your power, automatically ceding that you're not capable of even denting your opponent is a lot to concede mentally and physically.
In the final analysis, Saunders will give his best career effort, and he does have some tools in his box to work with. Moreover, I don't think he'll lose his gumption, at least not early.
However, I question as to whether he has the needed tools for the execution or the work rate to sustain his offense enough to blunt Canelo coming at him. And with Canelo exhibiting a good gas tank at 168, the degree of difficulty becomes that much higher for Saunders.
Lastly, as much as it's become redundant saying, it must be acknowledged, and that is it's hard winning rounds from Canelo if you're not really fighting from bell-to-bell against him.
Remember, Canelo only lost a majority decision to Mayweather in a fight where he lost 10 or 11 out of 12 rounds. And that's when Mayweather, not him, was the face of boxing. That’s something else that adds pressure on Saunders, thinking he has to win by stoppage, thus he may take chances he wouldn't against somebody else.
So you must ask yourself, is Saunders skilled enough to execute the needed game plan boxing on the move and keeping the fight at range, and does he have the necessary strength and power to get Canelo from imposing his will on him? I say no and don't see the likelihood of Saunders winning by stoppage unless he were to cut Canelo.
Canelo will win via a late stoppage or a wide unanimous decision.
After the fight it'll be said by some that he doesn't fight anybody. That’s a case that's getting harder to make being that he will have fought both Callum Smith and Billy Joe Saunders in two of his last three bouts, both of who were in their prime, undefeated title holders and not shopworn when he met them.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com