‘Pressure makes diamonds’ isn’t quite the whole story. Whether in a lab, or hundreds of miles below the earth’s surface, when temperatures of thousands of degrees combined with high pressure are applied to graphite, the result is diamonds. But one imagines that subjecting the wrong materials to this process, or doing so under the wrong conditions, does a spectacular amount of damage without much to show for it in the end.
We tuned in last night to watch Canelo vs Saunders primarily to learn if Billy Joe Saunders was, as he claimed, the right stuff, and if a twenty-two foot ring in the middle of AT&T Stadium in Dallas would prove to be the right conditions. If yes, we’d watch along with a record 73,126 fans in attendance as a three-belt super middleweight champion was minted before our very eyes. If not, well, we’d see just what all that heat and pressure could really do.
For Saunders, last night’s test, all that pressure and heat, took the form of Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez. The Mexican pound-for-pound great brought with him 55 wins, two super middleweight belts, and championship victories at four weight classes. Beyond the outstanding record, he has a ghoulish quality in the ring, always in front of his opponents, but rarely vulnerable to a clean punch. Shots that are not slipped, parried, or rolled are shaken off by the seemingly indestructible Alvarez. When the smoke clears, there he is, still in front of you, but now countering your punches with blows that are equal parts precision and power.
While Saunders stepped between the ropes as a +475 underdog, he was thought to offer a blueprint for beating Canelo, sharing as he did stylistic cues with Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara, two of the tougher tests in the Mexican’s career. Saunders is a slippery, left-handed mover, who just might give Canelo fits. Or so went the thinking. A bet on Saunders was a bet on the unconventional British boxer being able to stay out of the crosshairs by keeping Canelo turning while piling up points with his jab.
After the customary pleasantries led by the inimitable Michael Buffer, Alvarez and his roundly-booed opponent answered the opening bell. Beyond the typical awkwardness and jockeying of foot-position endemic to meetings between southpaw and orthodox fighters, the first four rounds of Canelo vs Saunders were halting and twitchy as both looked to get comfortable and impose their gameplans.
For Saunders, this meant finding a rhythm with his feints, his jab, and his footwork. In these early frames he was able to keep his lead right hand in Canelo’s face in the form of either a jab or extended as a long guard, while avoiding protracted trips to any of the ring’s four corners. None of this activity made a strong case for winning these early rounds, but it confirmed the near-universal prediction that Saunders was committed to the highwire act of using his mobility and awkward angles to keep the stalking Alvarez off-balance.
For his part, Canelo was committed to taking that mobility away, focusing his offense and counterpunching to Saunders’ body. These punches audibly thudded into Saunders’ midsection, and swayed this judge’s very unofficial scorecard in Canelo’s direction. To Billy Joe’s credit, none of the straight right hands or uppercuts that Canelo landed seemed to meaningfully bother him.
The fourth round, an honest-to-goodness toss-up round, saw Saunders controlling the first minute with quick hands and flashes of combination punching. Few of these punches landed cleanly, but the underdog had found his rhythm, which allowed him to put punches together. But midway through the round, Canelo’s counters started to land with greater accuracy, knocking Saunders out of his flow. As the round came to a close, the counter right uppercut that Canelo had been fine-tuning in earlier rounds landed big, nearly dislodging Billy Joe’s mouthpiece.
Despite, or perhaps in spite of, the uppercut that punctuated the close of the fourth round, Saunders delivered two or three winning rounds thereafter. To fight Canelo Alvarez with your hands down is to pause your highwire act to add chainsaw juggling to your routine. And yet, tempting fate, the Briton fought with his hands lower and lower, and seeming to have greater success the more he clowned and the closer his hands got to his waist. Across these rounds the patient Canelo continued to press forward, investing in further body punishment.
Maybe Saunders’ best moment of the fight occurred in round six when he executed a picture-perfect ‘catch and counter’, blocking a hard hook to the body and returning fire with a digging rear uppercut to Alvarez’s body and a cross to the head. Soon after, he was able to push Canelo into the ropes during a clinch. Briefly, Saunders appeared to be slipping into the driver’s seat, but the menace that is Alvarez’s power was never far from the surface as the Mexican unloaded with increasingly bomb-like counters which brushed closer and closer to landing flush.
Round eight started off the same way, with the awkward Saunders feinting, circling, and pecking away. He had already won two or three rounds in this manner, and the fight looked like it might be on its way to an exciting finish as each tried to impose his style, neither knowing if they’d done quite enough to get the nod on the cards. But at the halfway point of the round, all of that changed.
Twenty by twenty? Twenty-four feet to a side? The hotly contested matter of ring size turned out to matter not at all when Canelo leaned back to watch Saunders’ right hook sail by before detonating a counter right uppercut as Saunders ducked down to tie up or avoid a counter, as he had been doing throughout the night. The punch landed flush on the right side of Billy Joe’s face, causing him to stumble and the extent of the damage became clear soon after as Saunders’ right eye puffed up dramatically.
Not one to give an opponent even an iota of room to breathe, Canelo seemed to know he’d done very serious damage with that shot as he uncharacteristically gave the raggedly retreating Saunders a respite, waving his arms above his head and exhorting the cheering crowd. That uppercut had bisected the round perfectly, landing exactly at the 1:30 mark, and in the ninety seconds that followed, Saunders, the busier fighter to that point, threw just a single jab. Canelo gave chase and bullied his quarry into the corners and against the ropes, looking to land a fight-ending punch, as he seemed to know that the match was all but decided.
By round’s end Billy Joe’s right eye was almost sealed shut and a dark bruise was spreading under it and as his team tended to him, Canelo eschewed his stool. This made for quite the study in contrasts: the injured man sprawled on his stool with his increasingly panicked corner working to revive him, while across the ring the champion stood and cooly sized up his adversary for a coffin. Thus Canelo was all the more ready to begin celebrating when Mark Tibbs, Saunders’ coach, waved off the contest. At the time of the stoppage, Alvarez was favored on all three judges’ cards by either two or three rounds.
As of this writing, the extent of Saunders’ injury remains unknown, but a fractured right orbital bone is suspected. Recovery will rightly be the top priority, but then Billy Joe will find himself at a strange crossroads in his career. After years of uneven performances and sporadic activity, he has proven that he can mix it up with the best, but his moment in the sun may have passed.
Perhaps Saunders could sway Canelo with promise of a rematch at a sold-out Wembley Stadium, but one imagines this to be an unlikely scenario. Saunders is then likely to find himself betwixt and between, clearly crafty enough to be avoided by many of the division’s up-and-comers, but also lacking the star-power to ensure a rematch with Canelo, who hopes to have all four of the division’s belts before the year is out.
For Alvarez, the hit parade continues, and all eyes turn towards Caleb ‘Sweethands’ Plant, who is an undeniable but largely untested talent, and, it must be noted, one with a style similar to that of Billy Joe Saunders. A discouraging detail for Plant and his coach Justin Gamber might be that Saunders was behind on the cards at the time of the stoppage, strongly suggesting that a points-decision was not likely to break his way.
Before we can dissect a prospective Canelo vs Plant match-up though, the more salient detail is that Caleb fights for Al Haymon and while one senses that a Canelo-sized payday is hard to turn down, this introduces some political complexities. Can Fox or Showtime, with whom PBC works, put together a compelling enough deal to make the fight? And if DAZN, which appears to be Canelo’s preferred partner, puts together a better package, will Haymon be willing to work with them instead? These are the questions that are now likely ruining the Mother’s Day plans of promoters and TV execs around the country as they hope to make a September 2021 unification fight, and another major Canelo Alvarez event, a reality. — Harry Meyerson