SEVEN times British boxers have attempted to audaciously upgrade a life-changing payday for a career-defining win against Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and seven times we have watched them come up short. It is by now something of a running joke – a joke, that is, to all but those who feel the Mexican’s punches – and we have almost now come to expect things to go this way whenever Alvarez goes anywhere near a fighter from the British Isles.
That hardly bodes well for John Ryder, of course, who this weekend (in Mexico, no less) tries to succeed where his seven predecessors failed, but it is an inescapable truth all the same. Like it or not, Alvarez has a whale of a time with British boxers and has so far in their company lost barely a round, let alone been in danger of losing a fight.
Indeed, in a run that stretches back to 2011, when he fought Matthew Hatton in Anaheim, Alvarez has managed to stay unbeaten against Brits for over a decade, teaching every one of them a valuable lesson in levels all the while compensating them rather handsomely for their efforts, however big or small. In fact, it is for that reason – the compensation – many Brits continue to flash Alvarez their best come-hither look and do all they can to catch his eye in rooms overflowing with other potential suitors. Despite knowing what follows, and despite knowing Alvarez will only treat them badly, still these British boxers believe they can be the one to change the course of history and be different from all the others.
John Ryder, on Saturday, will be the latest to think this. He, like those before him, will be aware of Alvarez’s track record against Brits but will tell himself and anyone willing to listen, “I know, but I’m different, aren’t I? I can do things that lot were unable to do. I can learn from their mistakes.”
Whether that’s true or not, we will find out in due course. But, for now, as Ryder prepares to learn from the mistakes of others and finally secure a win for a British boxer against a man with a propensity to destroy them, all we can do is look at past victims – the ones whose mistakes can be redressed as lessons – and ask ourselves: What exactly can John Ryder take from the failed missions of beaten Brits of the past?
Another question, meanwhile, is this: If seven separate and very different boxers could not solve the Canelo conundrum, how does John Ryder, just another man with another set of skills, hope to fare any better? Moreover, are we at the point now where the only conceivable way of beating Canelo Alvarez if you are British is to combine the best traits of the slayed seven to create one ultimate boxer good enough to achieve the seemingly impossible?
In the end, the size of Liverpudlians Callum Smith and Rocky Fielding proved inconsequential in their respective fights against Canelo Alvarez. However, going into both those fights, with Alvarez becoming restless at middleweight and seeking challenges elsewhere, there was at least a feeling that the size advantage of both super-middleweights would represent an obstacle the Mexican would have to overcome in order to add them to his list of British victims.
Of course, in the case of Fielding, this turned out to be no obstacle at all, with Alvarez victorious inside just three rounds and the fight, which took place in New York in 2018, every bit the mismatch many presumed it to be. More disappointing, though, was the way in which Alvarez then controlled Smith two years later. Smith, after all, was unbeaten in 27 fights at the time and deemed a decent test for Alvarez; perhaps even, on paper, the best British boxer he had faced to that point. He had, in his favour, size and reach and maybe power, although watching the fight unfold it would be hard for anyone to identify how any of those things were remotely advantageous.
Remember the time when a somewhat soft-around-the-edges Amir Khan led Alvarez a merry dance for several rounds and had us all believing he was going to continue to do so for the duration of the 12 rounds they were due to share? Remember, too, when his speed seemed to be Alvarez’s kryptonite, leaving him in the dust every time he attempted to get close to Khan and narrow the distance between them? Oh, and remember how happy Khan looked skating around the ring that night in 2016?
No, it’s fine, I’m sure you don’t. Chances are, far more indelible an image is that of Khan being flattened on the ring canvas in round six following a monstrous Alvarez right hand. That, ultimately, was all that mattered and all anyone needs to remember about that particular fight. It showed, once again, that there is no substitute for genuine size and power and also that there is a good reason why professional world title fights take place over 12 rounds rather than three or four.
Nineteen of Callum Smith’s 27 wins going into his 2020 fight against Alvarez had been secured inside the distance, which, in addition to his size, suggested he would be quite the formidable force on the night itself. That this never quite materialised had as much to do with Alvarez’s qualities as it did Smith’s inadequacies, but still it was hard not to feel disappointed with how easily Alvarez was able to walk Smith down and essentially have his way with him for the 12 rounds they spent together. Round after round, we expected some sort of a burst from Smith; a heavy shot which would register on Canelo’s face and give Smith the confidence to then follow up. But, alas, it never came. Instead, by the end it was Alvarez who was producing the meatier punching and all the hurting.
Long before Ryder flew to Mexico to challenge Alvarez, Sheffield’s Ryan Rhodes did the same. He travelled to Guadalajara, Alvarez’s hometown, in 2011 and brought with him a great deal of experience, albeit perhaps not at an elite level, as well as an awkward switch-hitting style the likes of which, he hoped, Alvarez had never before encountered. He hoped, too, that Alvarez, still very much new to the world of championship boxing, would be a little green, a little wet behind the ears, and therefore susceptible to coming unstuck in the presence of a wily old veteran.
As it happened, Rhodes was to find out he was wrong the hard way. At best, he messed Alvarez around for a few rounds and asked him a few questions in the process, but there was nothing he could really do to prevent himself being stopped in the final round of a brave but ultimately futile challenge.
A similar story then unfolded for Billy Joe Saunders 10 years later. He, like Rhodes, presented Alvarez with an awkward southpaw style and a box of tricks, yet, also like Rhodes, flattered to deceive on the night itself. What’s more, in the case of Saunders, he talked a good fight ahead of it and had many believing his style and his attitude would be exactly what was required to unsettle and eventually defeat the more disciplined Alvarez.
Whereas most opponents who face Alvarez, particularly of the British variety, tend to steer clear of the Mexican’s noted power and heavy-hooking style, one man who appeared drawn to it was Liverpool’s Liam Smith. Brother of Callum, who would later write his own story with Alvarez, Liam courageously defended his WBO super-welterweight belt against Alvarez at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington in 2016 and refused to be beaten the typical way; cowering, surrendering, first beaten mentally. Determined to at least make a dent in his opponent, he attacked Alvarez to the body and made an effort to push him back, realising only in the second half of the fight – when dropped in rounds seven, eight and nine, the round in which the fight ended – that trying to beat Canelo Alvarez at his own game is nothing but the road to ruin.
Of all the Brits who have challenged Alvarez over the years, nobody, I suspect, went into their fight as a bigger underdog – and therefore with lower expectations – than Manchester’s Matthew Hatton. Beaten already four times at domestic level, by the likes of Alan Bosworth and Craig Watson, few would have expected Hatton to see the second half of his 2011 fight with Alvarez, much less last the distance.
Yet last the distance Hatton did. Not only that, he gave a good account of himself, tried when there was no need to, and never once appeared in danger of being stopped, a testament to both his mental strength and his durability.
While he may not have offered much during the fight itself, there can be no doubt Billy Joe Saunders disturbed Canelo Alvarez’s cool and calm demeanour more than most who share press conferences with the Mexican before the opening bell. Never short of a comment, and always possessing a unique and sometimes questionable way of issuing it, Saunders had Alvarez bemused by his temerity at times and some even wondered whether Saunders, in sounding so confident, knew something we all did not.
However, that was not the case. Rather, Saunders, like everyone else, whether compliant or confrontational, went the same way on fight night, silenced first by Alvarez’s versatile punching before later exiting the bout, with his tail between his legs, between rounds eight and nine.