Monday, May 10, 2021

Alvarez Sets Stage For An Undisputed Coronation?


The recent history of Saul “Canelo” Alvarez has been as eventful outside the ring as his accomplishments inside the ring. While these recent times have been well-chronicled by virtually everyone in Boxing media including this observer, what began last year as a highly publicized dispute between Alvarez and his former promoter Oscar De La Hoya, and for a time also with digital subscription sports streaming network DAZN, resulting in his release from not only his promotional agreement with De La Hoya, but also his initial landmark $365 Million eleven fight agreement with his broadcaster, quickly evolved into one of the more active schedules of a fighter regarded as the top boxer in the entire sport in recent memory.


After aligning himself with promoter Eddie Hearn and returning to DAZN’s platform almost as quickly as he left, Alvarez has competed in three bouts in under six months. This began in December of last year when he scored a twelve round unanimous decision victory over previously undefeated Callum Smith to win Smith’s WBA Super-Middleweight world championship as well as the vacant WBC world championship in the same weight class. What followed in his first defense of his unified crown was what amounted to both a bout to stay busy as well as fulfill his mandatory obligation by scoring a third round stoppage of WBC mandatory challenger Avni Yildirim in February of this year,


The two wins in a short time frame for a fighter on the elite level of the sport by today’s standards provided the ideal preparation for Alvarez’ bout on May 8th at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. A bout where he attempted to further unify the 168lb. Super-Middleweight division by facing undefeated two-division world champion Billy Joe Saunders, holder of the WBO world championship in the division. 


With the world still dealing with the ongoing global COVID-19 epidemic, this fight also provided something we have not seen in what is unfortunately the COVID-19 era. A full stadium of rabid fans where there were no visible restrictions due to the COVID-19 virus. A crowd of over 73,000 spectators, setting an indoor record for the largest crowd to ever see a Boxing event in the United States were on hand for this showdown.


While such a mass gathering is a subject that will likely be debated due to the ongoing global crisis in terms of safety under the circumstances, the atmosphere did bring back fond memories of what Boxing can be at its best. An event as well as an exciting and competitive fight. In previewing this bout, this observer stated that one could argue from a stylistic standpoint that Saunders presented the most difficult challenge for Alvarez since his September 2013 bout against Floyd Mayweather, a fight that remains the only official loss of Alvarez’ career.


This was based on Saunders having an awkward Boxing style that in addition to fighting out of a southpaw stance, also incorporates consistent lateral movement, angles,  and combination punching. No opponent in Saunders’ thirty previous professional fights had been able to solve his puzzle, much less win rounds against him on a consistent basis. While there was no dispute as to where the crowd support would be in an event that headlined Cico De Mayo weekend, the stylistic challenge Saunders posed to Alvarez alone made this fight intriguing.


While this fight was one that was simple to describe in a pure boxer in Saunders trying to offset the boxer/puncher who can do a little of everything in Alvarez, it was an encounter where subtle things ended up being the difference. Saunders true to form attempted to establish himself as an elusive target from the outset by utilizing movement, trying to approach Alvarez with angles, while also trying to limit Alvarez’ opportunities to get his punches off.


This was the approach that this observer felt would be to Saunders’ advantage if he could execute it. Although he had periods of success throughout the fight, he could not keep Alvarez at a distance where he could have the advantage. What was also a tactical mistake in my eyes was Saunders’ willingness to stay in the pocket in spots where he could exchange offense with Alvarez. For those who may be unfamiliar with the term “In the pocket,”  it means that rather than using his legs to evade Alvarez, there were times where Saunders would stand in one spot and engage in exchanges of offense. While some fighters including Floyd Mayweather were able to use such tactics to their advantage throughout their careers, in this case, it worked against Saunders.


It worked against Saunders not only from the standpoint of allowing Alvarez opportunities to get his punches off, which more often than not were the harder punches being thrown, but also it created a scenario where Alvarez might have been able to sway opinion as to who was getting the upper hand, despite Saunders appearing to be the more active of the two fighters. What also worked against Saunders throughout this fight was his inability to avoid being backed up periodically by Alvarez against the ropes, which allowed Alvarez opportunities to land body punches. 


Although there was a period of time throughout this bout that I felt Saunders may have been ahead on the scorecards not only in my view, but on the three official judges scorecards based on his overall activity as well as his ability to somewhat limit Alvarez’ output in addition to making him miss with a portion of his offense, the subtlety of Alvarez being able to make the most out of the opportunities his did have to land offense made this a close fight in my view.


As the fight entered the eighth round, I felt Saunders was ahead based on the success he gradually was able to build in limiting Alvarez’ offense and being able to make him miss. While Saunders at no point was able to land a punch that visibly seemed to hurt Alvarez and, despite his combination punching throughout being sporadic, perhaps out of respect for Alvarez’ counter punching ability, it appeared as though Saunders was finding a rhythm that while not necessarily crowd pleasing, did make the fight competitive. 


Just as it seemed as though Saunders was building momentum, Alvarez responded in round eight with what was his best round of the fight as he was able to stun Saunders with an uppercut to the head. This set off a sequence where Alvarez was able to land several power shots. While Saunders did not get knocked down, he was in trouble for the first time in his career. To his credit, he was able to survive the round. Unfortunately, for Saunders, this is where his night would end in terms of competition as the bout was stopped after the eighth round by his trainer Mark Tibbs. 


Although the ending of this bout initially confused yours truly and it gave an initial impression that perhaps, Saunders having felt Alvarez’ power and being put in danger for the first time in his career simply did not want to continue, which subsequently led to both criticism and ridicule by Boxing fans throughout social media, it did not take long for the reason why the fight was stopped to become clear. During the course of the eighth round, the uppercut that Alvarez was able to land to Saunders’ head that stunned him landed in the area around Saunders’ right eye, which resulted in rapid swelling around the area and the eye appeared to be nearly swollen shut by the time Saunders was able to get back to his corner at the conclusion of the eighth round.


Mark Tibbs would later explain in post-fight interviews including on Boxing media outlet’s Seconds Out YouTube channel that Saunders has told him that he could not see and it was his call and not Saunders to stop the fight. It was later revealed that Saunders, who left the ring under his own power, but was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital soon afterward, had suffered what was believed to be a broken eye socket. Promoter Eddie Hearn via Twitter would confirm the day following the fight that Saunders had suffered multiple fractures to the orbital area around his right eye, which required surgery that Hearn said would occur later in the day.


While obviously in the era of social media there is never a shortage of opinions amongst Boxing fans that range from the well thought perspective to the frankly ill-advised in the way one might express their view, the reality here is while Saunders wanted to continue, an injury such as one to the eye socket and orbital area around the eye is extremely serious and potentially career threatening. Although some fans may not want to hear this and all too often allow their fandom to not view things objectively, the decision of trainer Mark Tibbs to stop the fight, putting his fighter’s long-term health as the priority over the opportunity to emerge from this fight as a unified world champion in what was to date the biggest fight in Saunders’ career both from a financial standpoint as well as from a marquee event perspective, was the right call to make.


Even though the Boxing fan no matter their view is entitled to just that, their view, Boxing is still a combat sport and much like how a fight can end at any given time, so too can a fighter’s career or life. Fortunately, once it became apparent that Saunders had suffered a serious injury, his trainer made the correct decision to not send his fighter out for what possibly might have resulted in permanent damage. Obviously, it remains to be seen what the future will be for Billy Joe Saunders, but in this observer’s view, he has nothing to be ashamed of and made a good account of himself in defeat.


As for Saul Alvarez, for a fighter who had more battles and disputes outside the ring last year than unfortunately he did in the ring, he now is on the brink of doing something no other fighter has been able to do in the history of the sport, fully unify the 168lb. Super-Middleweight division. The lone obstacle is undefeated IBF Super-Middleweight world champion Caleb Plant.


Although from a business perspective there is also an obstacle that could be present as Plant is aligned with the Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) group of promoters, who’s current broadcast agreements with networks Fox Sports and Showtime in the United States, put them as rivals to DAZN, who have been able to retain their relationship with Alvarez and Eddie Hearn, who Alvarez has also formed a partnership with, the reality is Alvarez is in the driver’s seat. In the driver’s seat both in terms of being able to command lucrative paydays as well as the ability even as the world continues to deal with COVID-19, to draw massive crowds and attention whenever he fights.


With DAZN continuing to expand their global reach and maintaining their relationship with Alvarez, it is up to Caleb Plant to decide whether he will want to fight Alvarez on DAZN’s network or if he will insist on the bout taking place under the PBC banner. Although the PBC has also done good for the sport since it launched in 2015, it has also seen its share of struggles particularly due to its reluctance to embrace digital subscription based streaming as an option for its marquee cards, choosing instead to rely on the overpriced and undervalued model of pay-per-view, something that has not proved to be successful and which differs significantly from it’s initial concept of bringing “Big Time Boxing” back to free over the air (OTA) television here in the United States.


While DAZN in recent months has used the pay-per-view medium, one that they market as an alternative to, as a way to reach non-subscribers on a selective basis, their position is growing stronger. What this means for a fighter in Caleb Plant’s position is not only the possibility to face Alvarez for all the gold in the Super-Middleweight division, but to also do so on a platform that could offer him the opportunity to make more money for one fight than he has had before in his career. Even though Saul Alvarez is chasing history in wanting to secure his legacy as an all-time great fighter and Plant much like Callum Smith and Billy Joe Saunders would walk into an encounter with Alvarez unbeaten, in terms of the business of the sport, Plant is in the position where he needs a fight with Alvarez more than Alvarez needs a fight with him. Something he should consider when the time comes negotiate.


“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”


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