Boxing can be a very “what have you done for me lately?” world, and in some respects, there’s good reason for that.
The most recent performances of a fighter are generally the most important in trying to figure out how they’re going to look the next time out. That’s not to say that fights further back don’t matter at all, but people improve, decline, make various changes in their careers or approaches.
With two guys in their prime years like Canelo Alvarez (55-1-2, 37 KO) and Billy Joe Saunders (30-0, 14 KO), it’s probably less vital than when you’re matching someone in their prime against someone past theirs, but living off of old name value and maybe some old wins that don’t reflect their quality anymore.
But it’s a big fight week, so let’s take a look back at the five most recent outings for Canelo and Saunders.
How to Watch Canelo vs Saunders
Billy Joe Saunders
David Lemieux (W, UD-12, Dec. 2017)
Saunders has other good wins on his record, notably Andy Lee, Chris Eubank Jr, and John Ryder. But Saunders kind of faded or fought really close in every single one of those fights, too. He beat Ryder in 2013 by close decision, Eubank in 2014 by split decision, and Lee in 2015 by majority decision, and that came with dropping Lee twice in the third round.
In the Eubank fight in particular, Saunders wilted a good deal down the stretch. In the Lee fight, he did his third round damage and seemed content to mostly avoid trying to do a whole lot more. Neither was a truly controversial outcome, I don’t think. I had 115-113 Saunders over Eubank, and I scored the Lee fight even, 113-113.
It was against Lemieux in 2017 that everyone went, “Wow! That’s the guy he was supposed to be!” In an HBO main event on Lemieux’s turf in Quebec, Saunders out-boxed Lemieux handily over 12 rounds, winning a very clear decision. It wasn’t hard to give him every round, as judge Benoit Roussel did (the other judges gave Lemieux two and three rounds).
Personally, I think the win is maybe a little overrated, but only in a sense. Lemieux is extremely one-dimensional. He punches real hard, and that’s about the sum total of what he brings at the highest levels. Lemieux had already lost to Marco Antonio Rubio, Joachim Alcine, and Gennadiy Golovkin by the time Saunders got him.
At the same time, Lemieux is such a legit puncher that he gets people naturally excited about him, and Golovkin at the peak of his destructive powers wasn’t exactly storming in on this guy, either. He respected Lemieux’s power until he felt he’d set the tone enough to take some chances. They worked out, he stopped Lemieux in eight.
It still stands as Saunders’ best win, or at least the one that got the most people excited about his chances at even higher levels, against someone like a Canelo Alvarez.
Charles Adamu (W, RTD-4, Dec. 2018)
After an Oct. 2018 fight with Demetrius Andrade fell apart because Saunders failed a drug test, Billy Joe vacated his WBO middleweight title before he could be formally stripped.
In the end, Saunders sat out a year and then weighed just under 180 lbs for this stay-busy fight against journeyman Adamu, winning a stoppage after four rounds. There was nothing to take from this really, Billy Joe desperately needed to start working his way back into proper condition. That has not been uncommon occurrence in his career.
Shefat Isufi (W, UD-12, May 2019)
Moving up to 168 for this one, Saunders had, as mentioned, just vacated the WBO middleweight title before he could be stripped of it, railing against anyone and everyone. So the WBO made the decision only a boxing sanctioning body could or would: They gave him a vacant title fight as soon as he was ready to come back, and they gave him a relatively easy opponent to boot.
Isufi came in with nothing of real note on his record, had never fought anyone near true “world class.” He was a very “sanctioning body contender” sort of fighter; they all put guys like this up toward the top of their rankings in case a favored son needs someone who isn’t much of a threat to fight, and they can still justify sanctioning it as a world title fight. “Well, he’s ranked No. 3!” or whatever.
Saunders mostly cruised over Isufi to take the belt and make himself a two-division world champion. He did get stung at one point, and started playing it safer from there, but it was a clear win.
This also wound up Saunders’ last fight with Frank Warren’s Queensberry, as he made the jump to Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom, which was purely a business thing. Warren had done his best to promote Saunders, but Saunders isn’t the easiest guy to promote as a star a lot of the time, and moving to Matchroom gave Saunders likely easier access to big fights at 168 or dropping back to 160.
Marcelo Coceres (W, TKO-11, Nov. 2019)
Billy Joe made his first defense on the Logan Paul-KSI 2 undercard in Los Angeles, which deeply insulted some people but both Saunders and Devin Haney seemed happy enough to fight in front of a bigger crowd than either of them would have been able to put in Staples Center without the internet goobers, and also to cash the checks that came with it.
Coceres wound up a much tougher fight than anyone — probably even Saunders — really expected. Given I’m clearly not always the biggest Saunders fan, you might expect me to be down on this one, but I’m not. What I liked here is that Coceres legitimately tested Saunders, likely caught him a bit by surprise, and then when he needed to, Saunders put his foot down and roared back, stopping Coceres in the 11th round.
Even having more struggle here than he did against, say, Isufi in what was thought to be a similar level matchup, I think Billy Joe in a sense impressed more. He showed what he’s got deep down if his back is against it, and I think you can take something more from that than, “Well, he got buzzed at one point so he boxed smart the remainder of the fight.” It’s not wrong to do that, mind you, but it doesn’t give anyone much to talk about.
Martin Murray (W, UD-12, Dec. 2020)
COVID wrecked a lot of 2020 plans, and this time around Saunders missing 13 months of action wasn’t really on him. But he made sure to get a fight in before the calendar turned over to 2021, in part because there was the sense something big was on the horizon for him if he could be in shape and be ready.
So Murray, the tough veteran with hard luck history in world title fights, was drafted in to face Billy Joe. It was a bout meant to happen in prior years, when it might have been a bit more interesting, but it never materialized until Murray was, to be honest, fairly well past it.
As a tune-up for the big one that did wind up coming, it probably served its purpose in making sure Saunders hadn’t sat out forever.
Saunders won another clear decision, was able to box and move while Murray had trouble pulling the trigger. It wasn’t a massive marquee win or anything, but the fight was meant to have Saunders ready, and it achieved that. He’s got the big one now.
Rocky Fielding (W, TKO-3, Dec. 2018)
After HBO made the inevitable decision to get out of the boxing broadcasting game, Canelo Alvarez was a valuable TV free agent, and DAZN came calling with a monstrous 11-fight, $365 million offer. In the end, that deal didn’t make the distance, but relations between those sides are still good.
Canelo’s debut with DAZN saw him move up to 168 and fight for a secondary paper belt against Rocky Fielding, a UK fighter coming off a solid upset win over Tyron Zeuge five months prior.
Fielding wasn’t truly at Canelo’s level, which everyone knew going in, though a scant few were sold on the idea that Fielding is taller than him. Canelo made short work of things, battering Rocky to the body en route to a third round stoppage.
Daniel Jacobs (W, UD-12, May 2019)
Moving back down to 160 for what looks like it will be the final time, Alvarez headlined Cinco De Mayo weekend against a guy his then-promoters at Golden Boy had really not wanted him to face, Daniel Jacobs. (That’s not saying Golden Boy were afraid of a fight with Jacobs, it could have been any number of reasons Oscar De La Hoya didn’t want to do it.)
But it was the best fight to make that was easy to get done by the set date, and it happened. Canelo certainly didn’t dominate, and the scores (115-113, 115-113, 116-112) reflect the type of fight it was, but it was also one where it never felt like Jacobs was truly threatening to pull the upset.
It was a sort of stock standard Canelo performance, at times doing just enough, not taking big risks, and Jacobs never forced him to go to a special gear. Alvarez seemed comfortable enough throughout, and scored a strong win in what, again, appears it will be his final bout at 160.
Sergey Kovalev (W, KO-11, Nov. 2019)
Canelo surprised a lot of people by jumping up two weight classes next, targeting the WBO light heavyweight title held by Sergey Kovalev.
There’s really no disputing that Canelo picked an opportune time to fight Kovalev, who was getting older, certainly past his prime, and had had his ups and downs. But he was coming off of a good rematch win over Eleider Alvarez and a stoppage victory over Anthony Yarde, and he took Canelo because, well, who wouldn’t?
Kovalev didn’t just let Canelo have his way, and at times it seemed pretty clear that the size was a factor, along with Kovalev being a good boxer and a dangerous puncher against a naturally smaller man. Again, Canelo didn’t take many big risks, and the fight was very close going into the 11th round, with Alvarez up two points on two cards and even on the third. Then he closed the show, knocking the Russian out and winning a world title in a third weight class.
Callum Smith (W, UD-12, Dec. 2020)
On that note, the Canelo win over Kovalev was hyped as winning a world title in a fourth weight class, but he didn’t truly do that until this fight. After a year spent sidelined both from COVID impact on boxing and his legal issues with Golden Boy and DAZN, Canelo got free from Golden Boy and technically free from DAZN, but also returned to the streaming service with Matchroom Boxing in his corner to face Callum Smith, who held the WBA super middleweight title.
Smith being very tall had made him someone many felt would be a sincere threat to Canelo for a couple of years, but it turned out he kind of wasn’t once the bell rang and the fight got going. No disrespect to Smith, but Canelo dominated this fight with relative ease, and Smith never much got into it over 12 rounds.
The win also netted Alvarez the vacant WBC super middleweight title, which also meant he had a waiting mandatory, as Avni Yildirim had been made WBC mandatory challenger back when the belt was held by David Benavidez. That led to a quick Canelo turnaround.
Avni Yildirim (W, RTD-3, Feb. 2021)
Two months after beating Smith, Alvarez returned to deal with the Yildirim obligation, and despite the big talk from the Yildirim side, we got the mismatch everyone anticipated.
Canelo took Yildirim apart for three rounds, and when trainer Joel Diaz offered to give his fighter one more, Yildirim decided three was pretty much plenty.
It wasn’t much of a fight, but it was a lesson in how big of a star Canelo Alvarez has become. The fight attracted major attention simply because it had him in it, even though he was facing an opponent with no name value and basically nobody thinking he had any shot to win.
What We Can Tell From Recent Fights
In Saunders’ five-pack, he was an incredibly clear favorite against everyone but Lemieux, where at the end he was a slight betting favorite. Adamu was obviously not meant to be a threat, and neither were Isufi, Coceres, or Murray. Coceres had the best night against Billy Joe, but when it mattered most, Saunders dug in and finished the fight triumphantly.
Lemieux did basically nothing against Saunders other than possess the power threat, but Canelo doesn’t fight like Lemieux. Looking at Saunders’ other higher-end opponents — Lee, Eubank, and I guess John Ryder — none of them fight anything like Canelo Alvarez fights in 2021.
That said, Alvarez has faced three top-level opponents in his last five — Jacobs, Smith, and Kovalev — but their styles are nothing like Saunders’, either. There is some argument that slicker, more clever boxing southpaws like Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara gave Canelo some problems, and they did, but those fights were years ago (Trout in 2013 and Lara in 2014), too. The Canelo of 2021 is not the Canelo of 2013-14. That was really a long time ago.
Since then, the toughest matchup for Alvarez has been Gennadiy Golovkin, a pretty straightforward — albeit great — orthodox boxer-puncher. Saunders is nothing like Golovkin.
Now the flip side of the “that was a long time ago” coin is this: Canelo hasn’t been out there fighting slicker southpaws since he controversially edged past Lara in 2014, either. The best boxers he’s faced since then were Miguel Cotto, who was toward the end of his career; Amir Khan, who came up to a weight he had no business fighting and also just doesn’t take punches great; and then guys like the Smith brothers, Liam and Callum, who are quite basic, and Daniel Jacobs, who is one of those guys I’ve always thought lacked a true identity as a fighter.
The general wisdom is that Canelo will be too good for Saunders. This is, without a question, a step to a level Saunders has never been in his pro career, and for Canelo, that’s just not the case.
But I do think there is a legitimate chance this is a style that is going to give Alvarez problems. The “at his best” version of Saunders has been half a myth, but I think you can expect him to be in peak condition and coming with a firm game plan — the arguments about ring size may tip the hand there, but it’s not like it would be a surprise that he wants to move and box and stay out of Canelo’s wheelhouse.
Styles make fights! You’ve heard it a million times, and you keep hearing it because it remains true. The bigger question may be less about a talent gap or even what works better, but whether or not Saunders can win rounds convincingly enough.
Let’s not act like there isn’t and hasn’t always been a pretty frequent bias toward star, A-side fighters in boxing. We all know Canelo has gotten some cards that have been questionable over the years — against Trout, against Lara, against Golovkin in both of their fights, even his win over Cotto had many people believing Cotto was not given nearly enough credit, and CJ Ross retired from judging after the wave of backlash when she scored Canelo even in a very clear loss against Floyd Mayweather in 2013.
Saunders’ best game plan, executed to the best of his ability, might not get him a win. But then you never know. There have been some fights where you sit there all but sure the B-side is going to get screwed of a win he deserves, and then the judges “get it right.” It’s boxing. It’s the theater of the dumb, unfair, weird, and predictably heartbreaking, but sometimes also the unexpected, yes.