BILLY JOE SAUNDERS didn’t like the size of the ring that Canelo Alvarez, the A-side and superstar, insisted upon ahead of their super-middleweight showdown in May 2021. “If it’s any smaller than 22-feet I ain’t fighting,” he threatened.

John Ryder, thousands of miles away but aware of the commotion, removed his Team Canelo t-shirt that he would regularly train in, packed his bags – making sure to remember his gum shield, boots, groin protector and gloves – and took a flight to Dallas, fully prepared to step into any sized ring and face Alvarez should Billy Joe follow through with his promise to walk away.

“To be fair if the opportunity came up, I’d fight him in a phone box,” Ryder told Boxing News at the time. “It’s a fight I’d love. He’s the pound for pound star, he’s the number one champion in the world. He’s going through the weights making history. To share a ring with him would be an honour but I’d go in there with the same mentality that I could beat him, I could hurt him, I could knock him out. I’d try it. Try and upset him, upset his rhythm, hit him low, hit him on the belt, whatever you can to offset him and beat him.”

Predictably, Saunders’ threats about pulling out came to diddly squat, no more than a badly played mind game. Alvarez duly pounded Saunders into an eighth-round defeat, breaking the Englishman’s skull in the process. Though some may have called that a lucky escape for Ryder, he merely saw it as a missed opportunity. So, when Russia invaded Ukraine to throw Canelo’s May 2022 contest against Russian Dmitry Bivol into momentary doubt, the Englishman again declared himself ready to step in if required.

It should be no surprise, then, that Ryder didn’t think twice when he was eventually offered a deserved shot at the 32-year-old world super-middleweight champion. Nor that he has agreed to step into the role as perceived fall guy when the all-conquering Canelo makes his first appearance on Mexican soil since he trounced Kermit Cintron in five rounds back in November 2011. Ryder’s date with destiny is set for this Saturday (May 6) at the Estadio Akron in Zapopan, in the district of Guadalajara. For most, it would be a daunting task.

Ryder insists, for now, that’s not the case. The 34-year-old, however, won’t know what to expect when he makes his way to the ring, much less what’s in store for him once he gets there. Yet the experienced Islington southpaw, 32-5 (18), remains confident that he can pull off the upset. Even just getting this fight must be seen as a tremendous achievement for a boxer who, in 2015-16, was facing an uncertain future after losing domestic middleweight contests to Nick Blackwell and Jack Arnfield.

Ryder – the fifth-ranked contender – is here on merit. After finding his feet at 168, a period which included a split points loss to Rocky Fielding in 2017, he scored noteworthy victories over Patrick Neilson, Jamie Cox, Andrey Sirotkin and Bilal Akkway – all fringe contenders with a combined record of 89-2-2 at the time of facing ‘The Gorilla’ – to gain a shot at WBA belt-holder Callum Smith in November 2019. And it was against the then-unbeaten Smith when Ryder proved that he could deliver on the world stage. Though the judges were cruel that night it was a close bout which could have gone his way and, in a fairer sport, at least led to an immediate return. Ryder’s progress after that was patchy, largely because of the pandemic, but he regained top form in 2022 to tightly outpoint Daniel Jacobs and halt an injured Zach Parker.

Regardless, Ryder, despite being in the form of his life, remains a massive underdog for good reason. Canelo’s stellar résumé doesn’t need regurgitating here but it’s certainly worth noting names like Miguel Cotto, Gennadiy Golovkin, Sergey Kovalev, Saunders and Caleb Plant would all be deemed superior to Ryder. Canelo’s record against opponents shared with Ryder doesn’t make for any more encouraging reading, either. Whereas Saunders, Fielding and Smith got decisions over Ryder, Canelo halted Saunders in eight, Fielding in three and won practically every round of 12 against Smith. Many felt that Jacobs deserved the nod against Ryder last year, but few argued with Alvarez’s unanimous points success over the American stylist in 2019.

Ryder’s neat and tidy southpaw style, which is fluent yet aggressive, could give Alvarez something to think about, however. And we must also go easy on the hero worship of Canelo. Though he’s the most marketable fighter in the sport, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest he’s also a boxer in slow decline. He lost convincingly on points to Bivol just 12 months ago, albeit up at 175, and he didn’t exactly look back to his best while coasting to victory over old rival Golovkin in September. The surgeries he’s endured over the years to repair fight-related injuries are starting to pile up and his yoyoing between weight classes in recent years could yet have an effect.

Alvarez and Ryder (Melina Pizano/Matchroom)

It’s perfectly natural that Alvarez, a pro since 2005 and 58-2-2 (39), will be showing signs of slowing down. Against Golovkin last year, he threw 487 punches compared to the 622 that were recorded when he decisioned the same fighter in 2018. Though CompuBox stats are of course not 100 per cent reliable, there’s no doubt that the Mexican has been more economical with his output since leaving the middleweight division shortly after the GGG rematch.

Economical, then, but certainly far from shot. Canelo remains an excellent boxer – and a puncher with significant spite – who represents Ryder’s toughest assignment by a considerable distance. Alvarez is no stranger to southpaws and it was once believed, after he struggled against Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara, that sharpshooting portsiders had the best chance of beating him. Saunders, too, had pockets of success before his face collapsed. Ryder is an intelligent boxer but he’s not a flashy, elusive slickster like Trout, Lara and Billy Joe. Nor does he have the dimensions of a Bivol, who used his reach to such excellent effect when bossing large portions of their encounter. To win, Ryder will need to take chances and stifle Canelo when he goes backwards, as he likes to do. Canelo, however, is a master counterpuncher and though not as aggressive as he used to be, he’s adept at controlling the pace of a contest – when he takes a break, that’s when the Briton must put his foot down. Ryder will need to start quickly, throw his versatile combinations in close and not allow the favourite to settle. It’s a huge ask, one made even trickier, surely, by the Mexican stage.

The suggestion that the judges are always kind to Canelo has substance. Let’s not forget where this tale began, either. The Mexican often gets things his own way long before the opening bell, whether it’s the size of the ring or the crowd chanting his name. And in Guadalajara, the fans will be ferocious in their support of their illustrious hero. In the end, one suspects the size of the task will simply get too much for the challenger. Ryder will show the world that he was worthy of this chance along the way, but Canelo is the pick to break him down in the second half of the 12-rounder.

Ryder isn’t the only one who’ll face the wrath of thousands of home supporters. Panama’s Ronal Batista, 15-2 (9), has the unenviable job of trying to contain Mexico’s relentless flyweight belt-holder, Julio Cesar Martinez, 19-2 (14), while Australia’s Steve Spark, 16-2 (14) tackles local super-lightweight Gabriel Gollaz Valenzuela, 26-3-1 (16).

Martinez, ranked three at flyweight and owner of the WBC strap, was exposed – at least to a degree – when he stepped up to super-fly only to lose a lopsided verdict to Roman Gonzalez in March 2022. Since then, he returned to 108lbs and outpointed Samuel Carmona over 12. But against foes like Batista, unranked and unfamiliar with world class waters, Martinez tends to thrive. Batista is decent enough but looks made for the hurtful swings of Martinez, a cruel body puncher, and the ending could come quickly.

Spark, meanwhile, has a better chance of wiping the blood-thirsty smiles off the fans’ faces. Though he was stopped in three rounds by Tim Tszyu in 2021, he’s won his last four, with the last two coming against decent company. In June last year, he dropped Apinun Khongsong three times in the third to get the stoppage and, in a bizarre affair he was controlling, found himself flung out of the ring – WWE-style – in round five by the unbeaten Montana Love, who was then swiftly disqualified.

The same Love outpointed fringe contender Valenzuala in his previous bout. The Mexican, known to British fans for outscoring Robbie Davies over 10 rounds at Wembley Arena in February 2021, lost to William Zepeda Segura in 2017 when both were close to the start of their professional careers. Spark has the power to hurt Valenzuala, who will have to withstand what looks certain to be a fast start from the Aussie if he’s to win. This one could be a thriller.

Another fight to look out for on the DAZN-televised show is Ukraine’s 36-year-old Oleksandr Gvozdyk, the former WBC light-heavyweight belt-holder who continues his comeback against sturdy gatekeeper Ricards Bolotniks over 10 rounds.

THE VERDICT – Ryder might have his moments but Canelo represents a significant jump in class.