Monday, May 10, 2021

Opinions and Observations: Canelo-Saunders

It could have been the left hook to the liver, which Canelo Alvarez landed as early as the first round. Maybe it would be the straight right hand to the solar plexus, a punch Canelo connected with often throughout the first four rounds of the match. But in fact it was the counter right uppercut that ended the fight in the eighth round. After Billy Joe Saunders missed with a lunging right hook, Canelo detonated the uppercut on Saunders' right eye, fracturing his orbital bone. The fight was stopped after the round. 

Reputations are a funny thing. Saunders was known as a slick defensive southpaw, whose movement and unpredictability were supposed to present problems for Canelo. But reputations are sometimes the product of dining out on lesser competition. Sure, Saunders pitched a shutout against the one-dimensional left hook artist David Lemieux. But even the wild-swinging Chris Eubank Jr. was able to land at will on Saunders in the second half of their fight. And as good as Saunders looked against Andy Lee in the first part of their match, Lee certainly got through with some big power shots in the last third. 

Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland


Ultimately, Saunders' defense just wasn't as good as advertised. Any of Canelo's big power punches could have ended the fight, and he was landing too many of them for Saunders to secure a win. Saunders gave Canelo too many free shots at his body early in the bout. And for a fighter who relies on his legs, that's not a winning strategy. 

It's not as if Saunders was without hope in the fight. In particular, he had strong fifth and sixth rounds where he used his left hand for creative counters. In those rounds he showed that he certainly belonged in the ring with Canelo. 

But let's look at the bigger picture. He wasn't throwing a high volume, didn't move like he could have and didn't seem to have the power to hurt Canelo. And what finally did Saunders in was overconfidence, greed and a mistake. His success in the mid-rounds of the fight saw him hold his ground more and trade with Canelo in the center of the ring. In short, he was now fighting Canelo's fight. All of that bluster leading up to the fight about demanding a 22-foot ring became a laughable footnote as he insisted on trading with Canelo in the pocket. Yes, he was having some success, but he was also on borrowed time. 

In the end it was a defensive move from Canelo, not Saunders, that led to the stoppage. He expertly avoided Saunders' speculative right hook, took a step back and landed on a defenseless fighter. In the post-fight interview Canelo said he instantly heard a crack after connecting with the uppercut. He knew. It was over. 

Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland

Similar to the Kovalev fight, Canelo kept many of his boxing tricks in his bag and instead focused on the knockout. He wasn't concerned with establishing his jab, throwing a high volume or even losing an exchange or two. His goal was to inflict maximum damage wherever possible. And although it may not have been his most energetic performance, his actions were purposeful. From early in the fight, he concentrated on the body, and perhaps that helped lead to Saunders moving less than anticipated. He also was trying for counter uppercuts as early as the third round – he saw that opening. 

In the two years prior to facing Saunders, Canelo had fought Danny Jacobs, Sergey Kovalev and Callum Smith among others, all champions and quality opponents on the world stage. Meanwhile, Saunders was fighting the Shefat Isufis and Marcelo Cocereses of the world. The gap in quality of competition could not be more striking. 

And let's be honest, it's not as if Canelo has been perfect during every fight during his recent run. The Jacobs fight was contested without a sense of urgency from either boxer. Canelo had stretches of inactivity against Kovalev where he seemed content to wait and regroup for later in the fight. 

No fighter will be at his very best every time that they are in the ring. But over the years Canelo has figured out ways to beat challenging opponents even if he's not at his absolute apex. He outpunched the tricky and athletic Jacobs. He finally cornered a Kovalev who refused to set his feet. And he helped force a mover like Saunders to stay in place and fight in the center of the ring. 

Boxing has always been far more than talent or skills. Real experience against tough competition is vital at the top level in the sport. Saunders hadn't faced a world-level fighter in over three years before Canelo. He had been fighting the type of opponents where he could make mistakes and get away with them. And on Saturday, that rust was on display. He had forgotten the potential risks that could be involved when facing the very best and he didn't fight to his strengths. 

Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland

Canelo's next set of opponents will all have their plusses and minuses. On paper many will appear to have certain advantages over him, either technical, athletic or physical. And while Canelo is far from unbeatable, my hunch is the next fighter who defeats him will be one who has recently faced duress and has persevered against tough competition. On paper won't be enough. That fighter will need to be battle-tested, physically peaking, psychologically sharp, have a great chin, an experienced corner, and be able to deal with being an opponent against perhaps the most popular fighter in boxing today. It's a tall order. And to me, there's no obvious candidate who emerges among his current pool of potential opponents. 

So, it will be next man up for the Canelo sweepstakes. I certainly appreciate Canelo's greatness, but even more than that I prefer compelling fights at the highest level of the sport. I wish that many of the fighters circling Canelo would have stayed busier perfecting their craft instead of waiting for a golden ticket. The business case for maintaining an undefeated record against weaker competition may be sound, but it also results in half-formed fighters. We're now left with a generation of boxers at 160 and 168 lbs. who have never fully developed their abilities in the ring. And as a lover of boxing, that is a real tragedy. 

Love Canelo, hate Canelo...that's fine. But there are no "what ifs" about his ability level. He has extracted everything he could from his physical tools and continually improved. Canelo's shown a determination to fight top opponents. The others want what he has without putting in the work. And boxing does not often reward shortcuts. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.

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