THERE were numerous moments during the 12 one-sided rounds he shared with David Lemieux in December 2017 when Billy Joe Saunders went missing – in a good way. He appeared, in these moments, both invisible to his opponent and ignorant to the dangers of his profession. Transfixed, we watched him the way he watched Lemieux. Same intensity, same focus. But, unlike him, we couldn’t look away.
We knew Billy Joe Saunders was good. We just didn’t know he was that good. We also knew he might be able to beat David Lemieux. We just didn’t know he would be able to beat him like that.
As it turned out, this wasn’t so much bull vs. matador as man vs. boy – knife vs. rattle. With an opponent constantly spiked and spun, Saunders clearly wasn’t wasn’t playing Lemieux’s game and he wasn’t playing into his hands either. Instead, he was the one playing. He was the one playful and having fun, his every move designed to both avoid Lemieux’s punches and generate from his audience the kind of acclaim reserved for circus acts or magic tricks. We enjoyed the spectacle almost as much as he did, even if a fight, for its participants, is meant to be anything but enjoyable.
Until that point the only joke associated with Billy Joe Saunders was that he might be a potential threat to other middleweights likes Gennady Golovkin and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. Yet, during his play time with Lemieux, that joke no longer seemed quite so funny. Funnier was the image of Saunders holding his right glove to his head and looking out at the bleachers in an attempt to locate the latest punch Lemieux had misfired. Funnier was how easy Saunders, equal parts Whitaker and Chaplin, managed to make boxing appear that night.
On reflection, it should have been the launchpad to greater success, just as a 2018 fight against Demetrius Andrade should have been his ticket to the big league. But instead Saunders went missing – differently this time.
He first ran into issues with the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association [VADA] when oxilofrine, a banned stimulant, showed up on one of his tests. This led not only to a proposed bout with Andrade being scrapped but Saunders not boxing at all within the 12 months following his breakout win against Lemieux. In all, it left Saunders, a man whose style is predicated on good timing, sharp reflexes and movement, running low on vital ingredients. It slowed him down. It left him stationary. It rendered him, momentarily, an easy target.
Now, three fights on, Saunders is a man stuck between two versions of himself. He is both the skillful artist who bamboozled Lemieux in Laval and the hard-up busker hampered by a nothing 12 months and the inadequacies of the three opponents he boxed in the aftermath. He is a WBO champion again, this time at super-middleweight, but has beaten no names of note at that weight. He is winning fights again but flattering to deceive. He is also on the verge of fighting Canelo, but few give him a chance of winning.
Perhaps this is to be expected. Canelo, after all, is not only the biggest name in the sport but arguably one of its pound-for-pound premier fighters, a man who has now taken to soaring through the divisions picking belts whenever he happens to come across one. Yet, more than just his opponent’s talent, much of the reason why Saunders is being written off owes to his patchy last couple of years, some sub-par opposition, and his own knack of blowing hot and cold. He is, we have now come to accept, a fighter who goes missing. He goes missing in good ways when at his best. And he goes missing in bad ways when at his worst.
When the time comes to face Alvarez (now in the works for September after the outbreak of coronavirus vetoed their May date), Saunders will need to be very much present – in mind, body and spirit – but, equally, will need to at times go missing. To do this, to disappear completely, Saunders will need to utilise the following attributes and then hope Canelo falls into the trap of believing the only thing elusive about Billy Joe Saunders is his concentration.
Saunders isn’t just a southpaw. He’s the sort of southpaw old-timers would have once wanted to drown at birth. He’s southpaw squared, a southpaw with interest, a southpaw whose awkwardness is defined by more than just the position of his hands and feet. His mentality is awkward. His mood is awkward. He is the very embodiment of backwards and unruly.
Not only that, Canelo doesn’t tend to box many southpaws and when he does is seemingly never happy in the process. The last southpaw he boxed was James Kirkland in 2015, a fight Canelo won inside three rounds, but Kirkland and Saunders are both southpaws in the same way chicken nuggets and steak are both sources of protein. There are differences, not even subtle ones, the most notable of which is that Kirkland’s raw aggression and desire to find a knockout punch often makes his southpaw stance painfully predictable, whereas Saunders’ is quite the opposite.
Before beating Kirkland, Canelo had struggled getting to grips with Erislandy Lara, a southpaw after Saunders’ own heart, whose movement and technical skills tamed the Mexican at times and forced a split-decision verdict at the bout’s conclusion. It’s from that fight, as opposed to the wins over Kirkland and other lefties like Austin Trout [UD 12] and Ryan Rhodes [TKO 12], Saunders will take confidence.
If anybody this month could have gone from Wuhan, China to Northern Italy and returned home without so much as a runny nose it’s Billy Joe Saunders.
Inherently elusive, Saunders, when firing on all cylinders, is the very picture of self-isolation. His hands are eternally sanitised, his mouth covered. Nobody and nothing can get near him. The ring seems bigger than normal with him inside it, while punches have a way of slowing down when aimed at his face.
There is a sense, too, that Saunders’ defence is at its sharpest when it needs to be. Which is to say, when not tested, when not fearful of what is coming back at him, he has a tendency to succumb to bad habits, get sloppy and therefore become hittable. If, on the other hand, Saunders is afraid, or at least anxious, there is an edginess to his mindset and movements that allows him to become ghost-like in the company of enemies. He is there but not there. He floats, he glides. He ends up haunting them, the perceived danger.
Confidence is not exclusive to boxers from the Traveller community but there is an argument to be made that boxers who come from that community are blessed with a different kind of confidence. Strong and unwavering, it becomes as much an attribute as hand speed or power and can often be the difference between a boxer winning a fight by one or two rounds and delivering a lesson to an opponent.
With this brand of confidence, boxers like Saunders begin the fight with an advantage, one they are too self-assured to even acknowledge. Their opponent, meanwhile, must before going about beating them first bring them down to earth, level them, let them know defeat is a distinct possibility. They must somehow steer them back to neutral.
Of course, when this happens, often the unravelling of the cocksure boxer will be quick, the thud heavy. When once sturdy ground becomes a trapdoor, down they go. But it’s manoeuvring them towards the trapdoor that is the problem for so many.
The Fury Effect
Though it is easy and possibly lazy to make comparisons between Tyson Fury and Billy Joe Saunders based solely on the fact they are undefeated Travellers, it’s fair to say both carry a similar swagger and defiance in the face of adversity. Similar, too, are their form lines: back in November 2015, Fury used all his shiftiness to outfox Wladimir Klitschko and end a near 10-year reign. Thirty-two days later, Saunders beat Andy Lee to win the WBO middleweight title. Before that, Fury and Lee boxed on the same night in November 2014, with Fury dominating Dereck Chisora for 10 rounds, forcing him to withdraw on his stool, and Saunders edging Chris Eubank Jnr. Generally speaking, then, when Fury has his big successes, Saunders also has his. There’s something in the water.
Lack of power
It’s bizarre to consider a lack of power being an advantage in a fight like this but sometimes, just sometimes, an inability to knock out an opponent with one shot can work in a boxer’s favour.
Saunders’ fights against Lemieux and Eubank Jnr were perfect examples of this. Both times Saunders enjoyed periods of dominance which, under normal circumstances, might have been the set-up to him then looking to make a greater impression on his opponents or perhaps thinking about finishing them. In doing so he would have taken risks. He would have had to fight their kind of fight. He would have surrendered control in pursuit of a conclusive finish. But what instead happened was this: Saunders, cognisant of the fact he was not only the lighter puncher in both fights but that his opponents needed him to operate in a certain manner to have any hope of success, resisted the temptation to go the macho route and give them what they wanted. Rather than chase the finish, he remained calm and composed and picked his way to decision wins. Nobody complained. It was the sensible route to victory. The Saunders route to victory.
A similar approach will be required and no doubt adopted against Canelo later this year. As before, and for many of the same reasons, Saunders won’t delude himself into thinking he can go blow-for-blow with the heavy-handed Mexican and expect to come out on top. Such an approach would be at best playing into Canelo’s hands and at worse suicidal. Yet the good thing here is that Saunders is unlikely to be stuck between two styles, nor crippled by the weight of mixed messages on the night. Instead, because he knows exactly what he can and can’t do, he will likely construct his game plan around what he does best and refuse to deviate from this. His mind will be free and, in turn, so will the four limbs crucial to his success.
In short, Saunders knows his style inside out and knows it works.
Admittedly, Saunders’ lack of wear and tear owes as much to his so-so level of competition as his elusiveness but it’s an advantage all the same. In recent times, especially, Saunders, 30, has been boxing at such a low level he has taken barely any damage and avoided adding miles to his clock. Fights against the likes of Marcelo Esteban Coceres, Shefat Isufi and Charles Adamu were as simple as they were safe, and it could be argued Saunders hasn’t even had to tax himself mentally since going to Canada to outbox Lemieux in 2017.
This says two things. It says Saunders has, for one reason or another, wasted two years of his career on lacklustre fights and the ill-advised use of a nasal spray [UKAD, 2018]. It also says Saunders is fresh, still in the packet, ready to be opened and tested.
Canelo, on the other hand, has taken the opposite approach of late. Save for a blowout of Rocky Fielding in December 2018, the Mexican has fought tough ones against Gennady Golovkin, Danny Jacobs and Sergey Kovalev, each of whom will have taken something from him in the process of falling short.
If a puzzle, Canelo, now 29, appears almost complete. But if there is a piece missing, Billy Joe Saunders hopes it’s the one he holds in his two hands.