It's time for some big-time boxing on a massive stage. Unified super middleweight champion Canelo Alvarez will put his pair of titles on the line against WBO champ Billy Joe Saunders in a blockbuster main event inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday night (8 p.m. on DAZN, sign up now). Alvarez is dogged in his pursuit of becoming an undisputed champion in the 168-pound division and has just two more titles to collect and seal his fate among the sport's all-time greats.
Central to what the fight will actually look like is whether Saunders (30-0-1, 14 KOs) presents just another challenge in a line of necessary hurdles needing cleared for Alvarez (55-1-2, 37 KOs) to become the division's undisputed champion or whether the brash southpaw from the U.K. actually represents much more as the key protagonist in a potential trap-fight scenario for boxing's pound-for-pound best fighter.
If the chaos of fight week taught us anything it's that Saunders, the reigning WBO champion, appears to bring a level of mental toughness, pure guts and the sly ability as a never-ending troll to present a challenge that will be unique to recent Alvarez opponents -- from Rocky Fielding and Sergey Kovalev to Callum Smith and Avni Yildirim -- who proved to be much more lamb than lion in the face of Alvarez's sublime skill.
"I've been boxing since I have been five years old and been dragged up on the Gypsy camps," Saunders said during Thursday's final press conference. "We can all have the tough talk growing up as kids but I'm here for a reason. There is no other reason for me to be apart of this thing other than to win.
"It's not about the fame, it's not about anything else, it's not about the publicity. Win. And I don't think he has had somebody come to win for a very, very long time. A lot of people turn up, fly in, collect checks and they are out but we haven't had someone with the heart, soul and IQ that I'll bring to the ring on Saturday night to win."
Can't get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Subscribe to Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news, including an early look at Alvarez vs. Saunders below.
Having guts to do the job is one thing, as is whether Saunders can prove he's skilled enough. One thing for sure is that his style is designed upon the precepts of making his opponents look bad thanks to his elusiveness -- which, in theory, should be helped by his ability to barter Alvarez into agreeing to a bigger ring after threatening to pull out of the fight on Tuesday.
Eddy Reynoso, the architect and trainer behind Alvarez's rise to superstardom, has echoed his fighter in giving Saunders' ability the respect he deserves with Reynoso saying, "He's a great fighter, a two-time champion for a reason, who knows how to defend and move around."
Even though Alvarez seemed annoyed enough about ring-gate to mention that it's just one of many excuses he believes Saunders has already made and refuse to shake his hand after the press conference, there's noting to believe Alvarez is taking the fight lightly.
The one bit of contention Alvarez seemed to have were any comparisons made by the media about the challenge Saunders represents to similarly difficult technical battles against Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara that Alvarez previously made as a junior middleweight.
"[Saunders] is a great fighter, he has a lot of abilities and he's also a southpaw but I'm not the same fighter I was six or seven years ago. On Saturday, I will show that," Alvarez said. "I've been involved in a lot of big fights and this is just another day at the office. I come to win and boxing is my life. I come here to win."
Taken at face value, Alvarez's words could be interpreted as a jab taken at Saunders meant to expose the difference in experience between the two fighters, particularly as it pertains to raising their game when the platform and lights are the biggest and brightest. No one is here contesting Alvarez's history in that regard and this one is no different: a unification fight and pay-per-view main event contested inside a dome in front of 70,000-plus fans.
Saunders appeared to feel the heat of the comment enough to later retort.
"I have been up against the crowds before," Saunders said. "I have traveled as an amateur to the Olympic games where there is no shortage of pressure on one's shoulders when you are stepping up in front of millions of people. There is also added pressure coming in for both of us because neither of us want to go home the loser."
Given Alvarez's standing as the sport's biggest global draw and most popular elite name, Saunders spent part of Thursday openly wondering whether success had changed his opponent's work ethic, particularly if he "forgot where he came from and forgot all those hard things that has brought him to where he is at."
Yet seemingly regardless of how well Saunders actually fights is the debate of whether he can get a fair decision in doing so. Alvarez has a long history, time and again, in getting the benefit of the doubt in close fights including Trout, Lara, Gennadiy Glolovkin (twice) and Daniel Jacobs.
The Texas Combative Sports Program has assigned veterans Tim Cheatham, Max De Luca and Glenn Feldman as the three men tasked with deciding a winner should the fight go the distance.
"As long as I get fair treatment -- and I am very happy with the panel of judges, they are very experienced and I'm sure it's all going to be fair -- I'm looking forward to a very, very good fight and most definitely the win," Saunders said.
This is mostly a one-fight event given how the sport has produced these cards in recent years, but there are still a few fighters worth keeping an eye on. WBO junior flyweight champ Elwin Soto will look to make his latest title defense against Katsunari Takayama. Soto is 18-1 and carries decent power for the very light weight. Plus, Cuban heavyweight Frank Sanchez is back when he takes on Nagy Aguilera.
Fight card, odds
Odds via William Hill Sportsbook
- Canelo Alvarez (c) -650 vs. Billy Joe Saunders (c) +475, super middleweight titles
- Elwin Soto -900 (c) vs. Katsunari Takayama +600, WBO junior flyweight title
- Souleymane Cissokho -440 vs. Kieron Conway +340, super welterweights
- Frank Sanchez -3000 vs. Nagy Aguilera +1300, heavyweights
Although he's the rightful underdog, this is a fight Saunders can win. He's big enough, bold enough and has the mixture of a strong amateur pedigree and an awkward approach to potentially give Alvarez fits. But he'll likely need to do one of two things to get the job done: throw the equivalent of a perfect game in baseball when it comes to his technical boxing approach or surprise everyone by hurting Alvarez.
Admittedly, neither scenario is an easy one to pull off against Alvarez, who has sealed up any holes in his game to become a truly well-rounded master of the sport who has carried his power well enough to be a knockout threat at any point in the fight.
Saunders might have the tools and intangibles to pull off the job, but will the judges reward his artful strategy, especially should Saunders choose to stall the fight out and make Alvarez chase? And does he have a plan B to win the fight should Alvarez make the necessary early adjustments to deal with his awkward style and strong command of distance?
What could end up being an issue for Saunders is that outside of his foot speed, there really isn't a lane fighters can confidently take when trying to expose any potential weakness. As a junior middleweight, Alvarez previously covered up for his lack of elite movement by moving his upper body so well defensively from close position and being an accurate marksman counter puncher. Yet now that he has risen up so high in weight, even that weakness has been largely taken away because of how quick Alvarez is in comparison to his 168-pound pounds.
Saunders will need to set traps, make Alvarez miss and make him pay -- and be able to do all three consistently for him to have a shot at the victory. But he will also need to be more active than Lara was in showcasing he was the better technical boxer against Alvarez without giving away rounds due to inactivity. The more active Saunders is, however, opens up the chances for Alvarez to counter him and score big to the body in hopes of slowing him down.
How the terms of this dance will ultimately be dictated remains the most interesting question needing answering. Expect Saunders to achieve expectations by making it a competitive fight by giving Alvarez fits. Yet his activity level remains a concern, particularly once Alvarez makes the first adjustment.
Saunders may ultimately be forced to settle with the knowledge that he was good enough to compete with Alvarez on this level and had an argument in the conversation that maybe he had done enough. The problem is that it's unlikely the judges will agree with him and not because their corrupt but simply because Alvarez landed the fight's cleanest and most telling blows.
At the end of the day, that still matters.
Pick: Alvarez via UD12