Saunders arrives at the moment of truth. Canelo on Cinco de Mayo

First published on January 29th 2021

British Super-Middleweight contender Billy Joe Saunders has landed a fight with boxing’s premier star, Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, to coincide with Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican celebration of the nation’s victory over the invading French forces in 1862. It is a day now synonymous with boxing and, specifically, whoever is the nation’s biggest star in that calendar year, headlining a US based show.

Saunders’ challenge to Canelo will bring joy to those hipsters who revel in the possibility the Hatfield rascal will prove to be slippery Kryptonite to boxing’s newest and seemingly invincible Superman. For those to whom Saunders is merely a crass irritation, their joy will be found in the presumed evisceration of such a fanciful idea.

The fight offers the Mexican superstar an opportunity to substantiate his status as the division’s king. A crown he earned beating Callum Smith last year. Saunders holds the WBO belt. In truth, it is a decoration. Saunders won the vacated title by beating unheralded Shefat Isufi in May 2019. Two subsequent defences, both abject in their significance and the entertainment provided, added negligible kudos to his reign and the belt stubbornly remains little more than a curio.

Nevertheless, without it Saunders would probably not have landed the fight and be facing his moment of truth.

Despite the credibility issue, in victory, Canelo would then only require Caleb Plant’s IBF belt to shout Bingo, or ‘Beuno!’, in the 168 division. Undisputed champions are rarely crowned, and rarely last. Not necessarily because they lose, but because the four main sanctioning bodies struggle to resist appointing commercially unpalatable mandatories. But, for the moment it occurs, recognising an undisputed champions affords modern fans a fleeting sense of connection with a by-gone age. It is a welcome respite from the duplicitous nonsense the sport tolerates and imposes on its followers.

However Saunders has arrived at this moment, and it has been a frustrating three years since his break out performance against David Lemiuex back at Middleweight, it would be foolish to ignore his talents. A boxing businessman as diligent as the one Canelo has become will not be overlooking the unbeaten 31 year old either. Saunders, in victories over Andy Lee, Chris Eubank Jnr. and John Ryder demonstrated his ability to outsmart capable men. His punctuated progress subsequent to those high points, which include losing his WBO Middleweight belt, and further indiscretions outside the ring for which he was fined robustly, all portrayed a dysfunctional personality and one unlikely to fulfil his potential.

Moronic behaviour doesn’t preclude success in boxing, examples to the contrary abound, but it hints at a level of distraction not usually associated with greatness. He isn’t The Problem, but he is a long way from Marvellous too.

The pandemic, and the pause it imposed on many fighter’s careers, did for Billy Joe what it has done for many fighters, it encouraged focus. In the interview that followed his lamentable defence against veteran Martin Murray in December, Saunders was evidently frustrated at the sink hole his career had fallen in to. Some of his own making he conceded, but, in his estimations, much caused by the broken promises of promoters.

His background insists to fans that his appetite for challenge is uninhibited by fear. A lazy stereotype perhaps, but belying his evasive back foot style, there beats a stout, courageous heart. One shaped by his Traveller roots. Speaking to Paul Gibson in late 2015, on the cusp of his fight with Andy Lee, Billy Joe tried to impart the essence of why his upbringing made him different.

“In our background, as soon as you’re born, you’re out running on the site and you’re fighting when you’re only as big as that [points to knee height].”

Billy Joe Saunders speaking to Paul Gibson in 2015

The greatest gift the fight with Canelo will offer Billy Joe Saunders, deserving or not, is an opportunity to unfurl the full extent of his talent. To prove to the world and himself that he belongs at this exalted level. Whether it proves sufficient to secure an unlikely victory remains to be seen. In a sport in which too few fighters realise their full potential, Billy has the perfect foil against whom to measure his own and in doing so avoid those most destructive of post-career questions. The ‘what ifs’ can gnaw at a man’s soul far more than the reality of a defeat.

And if the edge exposed in his interview with television is anything to go by, flanked by Eddie Hearn, his promoter of record, in the aftermath of his tedious victory over Martin Murray, those most searching of questions have already begun to surface.

The answer to the most fundamental among them, just how good is Billy Joe Saunders, is on its way. If he is as good this observer believes him to be, then we may also learn just how good Canelo is too.

Boxing opinion and insight by David Payne

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