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Why Billy Joe Saunders could be the perfect kryptonite for Canelo Alvarez’s unification hopes



ARLINGTON, TX – If the opening moments of WBO super middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders’ formal sitdown with DAZN this week was any indication as to how Saturday’s 168-pound title unification bout might play out, we might be in for something special.

“At the end of the day, this isn’t about him,” Saunders said during a DAZN “Off the Cuff” interview. “I don’t give a shit about Canelo Alvarez, not two shits.”

It has been anything but a normal fight week for Saunders (30-0, 14 KOs) from the standpoint of trying to figure out exactly where his mind is at just days out from facing Alvarez (55-1-2, 37 KOs) in the biggest fight of the British southpaw’s career inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

If this is your first rodeo with Saunders, things might seem a bit chaotic and teetering toward the 31-year-old faltering off the edge. Yet leaving fans, critics and opponents alike wondering whether he’s merely crazy or instead crazy like a fox has long been part of the mental strategy that has made Saunders anything but an easy out since turning pro in 2009.

Saunders made waves on Tuesday when he no-showed a press event that was supposed to have marked the first time he and Alvarez, the pound-for-pound king and reigning WBC/WBA champion, would have faced off for cameras. He proceeded to campaign on social media, after his team got into a screaming match with Alvarez’s in the hotel lobby, that he would pull out of the fight if Alvarez didn’t agree to switch to a larger ring ahead of Saturday.

“The intimidation in this sport goes a long, long way and control. There will be no controlling me through the media,” Saunders said. “There will be none of this turning up and doing what he wants because he’s the star of the show. I don’t give a shit if he’s the star of the show. He may be the star of the show on paper but, trust me, it will not be a work in his own way. He will have a very, very big shock.”

Incredibly enough, the power play worked as Alvarez, who claimed the size of the ring doesn’t matter, gave in to the request and the fight was saved. Not only would a bigger ring allow Saunders’ deceptive and awkward boxing strategy its best chance to succeed, the fact that he completed a power play against the sport’s biggest star may or may not go down as a huge victory for Saunders in terms of the mental game.

“I have planned this out in my head and I have been dreaming this since I was a little boy fighting in the front room. I have dreamed of this since I have been fighting since five or six years old,” Saunders said. “This will be the biggest upset in boxing history, I believe, and certainly for the last 20 years.

“I believe what is meant to be will never pass you in life. What is meant to be is always meant to be. If I am meant to walk out of here and get struck by lightning, it is meant to be. I believe [beating Alvarez] is meant to be but what comes with that meant to be is a lot of sacrifices, a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication.”

Saunders remains a firm but far from a laughable betting underdog against Alvarez. The thinking, at least among the sport’s experts, are that he has enough skill and determination to mix with his blatant lack of fear to possibly make this a trap fight for Alvarez, or at least a more difficult style matchup than most might realize on the surface.

The problem with Saunders, despite having never been defeated, is that his performances have so regularly fluctuated between brilliant and pedestrian that it’s hard to truly pin down just how good he is. And the more you listen to Saunders talk, it’s almost as if he uses that constant willingness to play up or down to the level of his opponent as a strategic smoke screen to how good he really is.

“Sometimes when you enter the ring, no one really gives the underdog a chance until you start watching him,” Saunders said. “It’s always good to see the underdog win whether it’s horse racing, dogs, boxing, football — I always root for the underdog and I know I’m the underdog this time. I know I’m the clear underdog.

“I love finding answers and I love proving people wrong. I know people will have their say and they will look at my Martin Murray performance [a wide decision win in December] and compare that to his last two fights and go, ‘He has not got a chance in hell.’ And I can totally agree with people on that, I can relate to that. The performance in December does not have a chance against Alvarez, 100 percent. But that performance won’t be there on May 8, for sure.”

If you’re looking for an apt comparison as to Saunders’ deceptive ability to lull you into thinking he’s not as sharp or game as he really is, look no further than his stablemate and longtime friend — WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury.

It was 2015 when, following a handful of lackluster performances in which his weight had ballooned, Fury shocked the world by showing up in the best shape of his career and relying on his technique and other worldly confidence to disarm Wladimir Klitschko in a monster upset. Three years later, following a miraculous comeback from depression, obesity and substance abuse, Fury did the impossible again — first by getting off the floor to salvage a draw with Deontay Wilder in their first meeting and second by following through on a bold promise to knock him out in their 2020 rematch.

Saunders possesses a similar amount of next-level confidence and mental fortitude which suggest that although defeating Alvarez in any form — up to and including getting a decision over him — is a task only Floyd Mayweather has been able to accomplish, the challenge isn’t one that scares him in the least bit.

Whether that translates to another monumental upset remains to be seen but anyone not realizing Saunders’ potential to dramatically shake things up against Alvarez in one way or another hasn’t been paying close enough attention.

“Winning to me means everything. To be prepared to win, you have to be prepared for anything to happen at any given moment and I’m always prepared for that,” Saunders said. “You’ve got to be born with that. People say that I’m a fighting man and I have this or that pride but when you have to dig in the ring when you know you haven’t trained right and done things proper but you still get very high up on the ladder of the game. You look back and wonder if you had done it right, where could I be now? But winning is done in the present moment. You have to win every moment.”