What are Saunders’ chances at a Canelo upset on May 8?


This might seem like we’re moving on fast, and, well, we are. Let’s be frank: There is no reason to keep talking about Canelo Alvarez’s completely predictable demolition job against Avni Yildirim. Canelo vs Billy Joe Saunders is set and official for May 8. Let’s talk about that instead, because it’s a lot more interesting.

The fight between Canelo (55-1-2, 37 KO) and Saunders (30-0, 14 KO) will be for three of the four world titles at super middleweight, with Alvarez bringing the WBC and WBA belts, and Billy Joe his WBO strap. It is an obviously step — for either man! — to become undisputed champion at 168, which is what Canelo wants badly. The winner of this fight will have only the IBF belt to chase from there.

The 31-year-old Saunders is a bit of an odd one to figure in a lot of ways. He’s still unbeaten, but he’s had various close calls in his career, including some in fights where by reputation he should have been able to win handily. Chris Eubank Jr and Andy Lee pushing him hard late in fights is one thing. Artur Akavov and Marcelo Coceres giving him some fits is quite another.

Saunders has the rep of a skillfull technician, but “technician” doesn’t quite describe it; he’s not basic and he’s not robotic about things. At his best, Saunders flows in fights, boxes very effectively and sometimes very awkwardly, but in a smooth way that makes opponents look bad.

It’s arguable, though, that we’ve really only seen that Saunders past a domestic level one time, back in Dec. 2017 when he went to Quebec and rather easily cruised past dangerous puncher David Lemieux, at times making Lemieux look downright lousy and way out of his league, which in all reality he was on that night. Saunders dominated that one, it was the sort of win that got people really excited about Billy Joe — and to some, really excited about him as a potential Canelo opponent.

Since then, Alvarez has stayed locked in as one of the top fighters and drawing cards in the sport. Saunders, on the other hand, not so much.

Billy Joe didn’t fight for a year, and when he did he was way out of shape against Charles Adamu, winning a tune-up fight against the journeyman. He moved up to 168 and beat Shefat Isufi for a vacant belt, which was kind of like Canelo fighting Yildirim tonight, except Saunders went 12 and had moments of struggle, though not a ton.

Really, Saunders has probably made as many headlines outside the ring as he has inside it since beating Lemieux way back when.

But there will be the pull to believe Saunders is a huge threat here. For one thing, people naturally want to believe things they’re spending time on are or will be interesting. Maybe that’s why the DAZN commentators were screaming about how they believed in the Yildirim camp’s talk that he was a threat even though he was a 15-to-1 underdog and Alvarez a 50-to-1 favorite. Maybe they really did, because they wanted to believe they weren’t all going to Miami to watch what amounted to a fart in the wind title defense accompanied by a mini-concert, a night where Jerry Forrest stole the show.

And let me be at least a little bit that way, too. I want to believe Saunders will be that Billy Joe Saunders against Canelo Alvarez. Faced with a real test of every skill he has, maybe Saunders is in peak shape, rises to the occasion, becomes the fighter some thought he could be, with full and total focus. If you’re going to “get up” for anything, it’s a Canelo fight. And this does happen, too — Oscar Valdez has never, ever been better than he was in battering and knocking out Miguel Berchelt on Feb. 20.

Saul Alvarez standing in front of a boxing ring

At any rate, Saunders has a drastically better shot at beating Canelo than Yildirim did. It’s a much, much better fight than that one. Alvarez will be a strong favorite, but he won’t be 50-to-1. Saunders will be an underdog, but not 15-to-1 (or 18-to-1 or 20-to-1 or wherever Yildirim was on your book of choice). It’s much more the sort of fight that can actually test Alvarez in theory.

Canelo is always on, always at his best. He didn’t take Avni Yildirim or Rocky Fielding any less seriously than he did Gennadiy Golovkin or Daniel Jacobs or Sergey Kovalev in the last few years. Canelo doesn’t get out of shape.

How this fight turns will mostly be on Billy Joe Saunders. It’s not that he’ll be expected to win, but fans will want to see him truly compete, at least give himself the best shot he can.

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