Have you ever tried to squeeze all of the toothpaste out of the tube? I mean really tried. And I mean every last sticky particle of paste. No? Well then, give it a try right now. Take the almost empty tube, pinch it hard at the very end, and then pull the tube through those pincered fingers. This way, you are further reducing whatever space is available inside, while increasing the pressure on the contents. And if my memory of high-school physics is sound, and the cap is still on the tube, you have at least doubled the pressure the poor toothpaste is under. What does this have to do with Alvarez vs Saunders you ask?
Well, let’s imagine what’s inside the tube is not toothpaste, but one Billy Joe Saunders, and the ever-shrinking space to breath, move, and punch is a regulation size boxing ring. No wonder the man from Hertfordshire has been highly concerned about precisely how many feet and inches he’ll have to work with on Saturday night.
For that is when Saunders will cash in one of the hottest tickets in all of professional sports. Namely, a face-to-face confrontation with the biggest star in the game, not to mention the man regarded by most as the best in the business, pound-for-pound: Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. On Cinco de Mayo weekend no less, and in front of what could be an unrestricted capacity crowd of eighty thousand at AT&T Stadium, Saunders gets the chance of a lifetime.
While at the moment he’s a +400 underdog, meaning Vegas gives him about a twenty percent chance of success, it must be noted that the undefeated Saunders is not as defenseless as that tube of Crest you just manhandled. A southpaw, he boasts an effective right lead and a serviceable straight left, not to mention cagey movement and some halting feints borrowed from his training partner and friend Tyson Fury. Defensively, he’s slippery, with deft upper body movement making him a difficult target. A self-described “fat pig… eating cakes” between fights, Saunders also makes for a big 168 pounds, and he brings that heft to bear on the inside and in the clinch.
Cast your mind back to 2017, when Saunders delivered a signature win against David Lemieux, in which he put his advantages in speed and mobility to good use. The Briton quickly found his rhythm against a slowly advancing Lemieux, and was able to batter him across twelve rounds for a shutout win. Lemieux just couldn’t cut the ring off, and whenever he did close the distance, Billy Joe quickly smothered him in the clinch, forcing a reset. Saunders, whose team has lobbied aggressively this week for a ring as large as 24-feet square, is likely to impose this sort of run-and-gun affair on Saturday, hoping to keep Alvarez so off-balance that he can’t set up his offense.
So all agree, Saunders is no Avni Yildirim, and he shares little more with Rocky Fielding than a weight class and an allegiance to Queen Elizabeth, but then to call Canelo Alvarez ‘just’ a pressure fighter doesn’t quite capture his evolution across a fifteen year career with 55 victories against a single defeat.
After a Covid-19-imposed layoff, Alvarez is riding the wave of two back-to-back wins, a thorough dismantling of Callum Smith in December, and a routing of the overmatched Avni Yildirim in February. Yildirim, a mandatory challenger, was rightly dismissed as cannon fodder standing between Canelo and Saunders, and was quickly dispatched. On the other hand, Smith’s size and length was expected to give Canelo fits, all the way up until it didn’t. In an interview with Sky Sports, Smith described the truly daunting task that is locking-up with the menacing Mexican ginger:
“With anybody else, you would jab. But he wants you to jab because he’s a counter-puncher. So you don’t throw as many jabs and while you are waiting, he closes the space down without throwing anything. Then he jabs and hits you. You think: ‘How did that land?’ He was so hard to hit clean. When I was throwing he was riding them, making me miss. You aren’t landing so you stop fully committing to shots. He takes away what you are good at.”
Alvarez certainly favors his front foot, combining that forward momentum with the ring-smarts to hem his opponents in, closing the space down, as Smith puts it. Simply put, Canelo’s ability to not get hit while applying pressure sets him apart from his pressure-fighting peers. His defensive acumen is made possible by his knack for controlling his head as an expert point-guard controls a basketball as though on a string: what once seemed vulnerable to a lunging hand is suddenly perfectly safe, and its owner is well on his way to delivering an ESPN Top Ten-worthy highlight, while a defender is left grasping at empty air.
Such a miscalculation might cost three points on the hardwood, but the squared circle is more exacting. Alvarez has a broad arsenal to deploy, which, as Callum Smith found, discourages opponents from throwing any punches at all, which in turn allows Canelo to set up his combinations with jabs and feints without fear of reprisal. This increasingly one-way traffic also allows him to set his feet and pour on the power, breaking opponents down with looping shots to the head and heavy blows to the body.
So let’s go back to our tube of toothpaste. This means that the pressure inside that tube of Crest will inevitably turn into punishment and pain, and attempts to fight out of the squeeze will be ducked, dodged, and re-directed, only resulting in, you guessed it, more heavy punches, more pain.
There appear only two obvious solutions to this high-pressure conundrum. One would be to use quick feet and a sharp jab to keep the tormentor at bay. And two, landing some hard and heavy blows which give the Mexican pause and discourage him from taking charge and inflicting serious damage.
Past hopefuls employing the first strategy include Erislandy Lara and Austin Trout. And Callum Smith, while not known for his quick feet, could be put in this camp, as many thought he would make the most of his seven-plus inch reach advantage. But if all three went the distance, and Lara’s 2014 decision loss was a controversial one, none could rattle Canelo. The fact remains that walking the tightrope of a twelve-round fighting retreat against a fighter so comfortable stalking his opponents, is a proposition with no precedent for success.
That brings us to possible solution number two: enough stopping power to make Canelo think twice before engaging. Here we can again turn to Callum Smith, Alvarez’s December 2020 victim, for his take on Saunders’ ability to discourage the Alvarez assault with power: “But I don’t know if he’s got anything to keep Canelo off, enough power. Canelo is hard to hit clean and I don’t know if Billy Joe has enough to get his respect, and put a dent in him. I see Canelo finding a way. Walking him down, starting to land as the fight goes on. I will always back a Brit, but I don’t think anyone beats Canelo.”
Difficult to argue, but even so Saunders retains an air of mystery, his inconsistencies and relative inactivity making him something of an unknown quantity. Might he have just enough slipperiness and ring craft to defuse the pressure, create some drama, and give the Mexican serious trouble? And if so, is there indeed a legitimate chance, however slim, for Alvarez vs Saunders to become one of the great upsets of recent years?
Whatever the case, surely Saunders has the skills to deliver fans a great show by, if nothing else, bringing another great performance out of Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. The bottom line is it’s almost impossible to imagine the toothpaste finding a way to foil the tube. But then again, not for nothing do we call boxing “the theater of the unexpected.” — Harry Meyerson