Saunders can give Álvarez problems but he may yet regret his impudence

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“I have no regrets whatsoever,” Billy Joe Saunders said defiantly a few weeks ago as he began to beat the drum for his world title unification fight against the formidable Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez in front of an expected crowd of 60,000 in Arlington, Texas on Saturday night. “I never regret anything – otherwise I wouldn’t do it.”

Saunders spoke in typically fiery fashion after he was asked if he felt any remorse for some of his antics over the years. A small selection could start with Saunders being an unrepentant and very loud supporter of Daniel Kinahan, his mentor, who is exiled in Dubai. This year a BBC Panorama investigation into Kinahan’s continued involvement in boxing insisted that the Irish courts “have accepted that the Kinahan Organised Crime Group is involved in drug trafficking, money laundering and gangland executions”. Saunders led the backlash against the BBC and also appeared to taunt Barry McGuigan, who spoke out against Kinahan, over the death of the former world champion’s daughter from cancer.

Related: Saúl ‘Canelo’ Álvarez: ‘This is the reality of my life. No boxing, no life’

In 2018, Saunders posted on social media a video of him humiliating a female drug addict by offering her “£150 of crack” if she would perform a sexual act and punch a passing stranger. He eventually apologised – as he did last year after he released a video advising men how to hit their female partners if “your old woman is giving you mouth”. The 31-year-old claims that his depressing stunts are meant to be humorous.

I have met Saunders only once, just before his professional debut in 2009, when he was an interesting if wayward 19-year-old. His father also spoke powerfully to me about the Nazis’ persecution of Romany Gypsies and explained how draconian legislation still shackled their traditions in Britain. He hoped his son would change perceptions of their community.

“I’d like to do that,” the young fighter told me. “When most people hear we’re Travellers they think: ‘Gypsy! Trouble!’ It ain’t nice. Look at my dad, or my great-grandad. They’re proud and decent and if I can help people understand that I’ll be doing a good job.”

Saunders, the WBO super-middleweight champion, has followed a less noble path over the past 11 years while compiling a 30-0 record. He remains a highly skilled technician and Álvarez, the WBA and WBC champion widely regarded as the best boxer in the world, recently told me their fight will be “complicated” – at least for the first half of the bout. Saunders is also more provocative than any of his previous opponents in a 14½-year career in which the Mexican has lost only once in 58 previous fights.

“He might try to do that,” Álvarez said coolly when I asked if Saunders could get under his skin, “but he won’t achieve it.”

This week in Texas has been chaotic and tawdry. It began with Saunders threatening to pull out of the contest after Álvarez said the fight would take place in an 18ft ring. Saunders rightly refused to accept such a small ring because he needs space to use his elusive stick-and-move style. Tom Saunders complained: “They’re trying to take BJ’s legs away. I can’t let my son box in even a 20-foot ring against Canelo. The fight’s off.”

The threat of cancellation escalated when Saunders failed to show up for a face-off with Álvarez. He posted a charmless video saying he was too busy “playing with my balls”. The two entourages then clashed in the hotel when amember of Saunders’ team yelled at Álvarez: “What’s happening with the ring? Grow some bollocks.” Álvarez, usually a study in aloof calm, looked straight at Saunders and called him “a fucking pussy”.

Billy Joe Saunders enters the fight as the WBO world super-middleweight champion
Billy Joe Saunders enters the fight as the WBO world super-middleweight champion. Photograph: Paul Harding/PA

Even after the dispute was resolved, and a 22-foot ring was agreed, Saunders kept needling away. When he and Álvarez finally met for the first time, Saunders said, repeatedly: “You like the beef.” This was a reference to the only cloud over Álvarez. In March 2018 the Mexican failed a drug test when a small amount of clenbuterol was found in his system. Álvarez blamed contaminated meat and he was given a six-month ban. But he did submit to a rigorous hair sample test that eventually cleared him.

In September 2018 Saunders tested positive for oxilofrine. He insisted that, rather than taking a performance-enhancing drug, he used a decongestant. The fallout cost him a world title fight and Saunders’s career has been a stop-start affair ever since.

His most impressive performance had been a near flawless exhibition when he dazzled David Lemieux in December 2017. Saunders has had only four fights in the subsequent three-and-a-half years and none of those opponents were anywhere near the calibre of Álvarez – who is in supreme shape and at the peak of his career. The 30-year-old Mexican is also the most active world champion in boxing. He was imperious in December when beating another unbeaten British world champion in Callum Smith, before knocking out Avni Yildirim in February.

Saunders has warned Álvarez “you ain’t never fought a Gypsy” and stressed that he is willing to die in the ring. Yet his best hope will be to try to stay out of danger and fox Álvarez with his slippery southpaw style. It’s no secret that one of Álvarez’s most frustrating nights in the ring, apart from when he was 23 years old and outboxed by Floyd Mayweather in 2013, was against the tricky Erislandy Lara a year later. Álvarez won a split decision.

Saunders is also a southpaw, and an even slicker operator than Lara. But his optimism is likely to be tempered by the reality that Álvarez is now a much more brutal and complete fighter. The shenanigans of the past week have also prompted Álvarez to declare that the fight has become “more personal”. It may yet prove a source of regret for Saunders that his impudence seems to have made Álvarez coldly angry. It is unlikely that even a 22-foot ring will allow him to escape retribution for 12 long rounds.

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