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There’s no other moment in sports like the few seconds before the opening bell rings for a big fight. When two boxers stare at each other across the ring — like Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez and Billy Joe Saunders did on Saturday night inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas — it feels like time slows down. The opening bell can’t ring fast enough.
At that point, it feels like few other things matter. Not the national anthems from the United States, England and Mexico. Not the mini-concert with Antonio Aguilar that included fireworks. Not the size of the ring, which became a minor controversy on Monday, when Saunders demanded a bigger size canvas or else he wouldn’t fight.
None of that ultimately mattered once the bell rang, and almost immediately, Álvarez forced his fight on Saunders. Álvarez stalked Saunders the first few rounds. A few times each round, he’d force him to the ropes, or worse, into the corner. There, Álvarez punished Saunders. He attacked the body long enough that Saunders’ hands began to lower as he tried to protect his organs.
When Saunders did attack, he exposed himself to Álvarez’s counterpunches. By the middle rounds, with his arms hanging lower and lower, Saunders got hit more and more in the face. Álvarez punched him so hard that Saunders, always arrogant, would simply shake his head, claiming none of it hurt. Except it did.
His eyes started to swell around the same time he tried to convince the announced crowd of 73,126 — a new record crowd for an indoor boxing event in the United States and the largest crowd for a sporting event since the coronavirus pandemic begin in March 2020 — that he was fine. Not like anyone would have believed him.
Almost as soon as the fight started, and then again every few rounds, the entire crowd chanted together: “CA-NE-LO! CA-NE-LO!”
There probably weren’t more than a few dozen people in the entire stadium that wanted to see Saunders win. Only his friends and relatives who traveled from England were in his corner. They were the ones who, during the week, told everyone who listened that Gypsy magic was real. That Saunders, whose great-grandfather was a great bareknuckle boxer in the gypsy community, had inherited a fighting spirit and would somehow overcome everything against him. That he’d somehow be the person to beat Álvarez, something no one’s done outside the generation’s greatest boxer. That somehow, Saunders would enter a stadium full of people who wanted to see him lose, and send them all home disappointed. But that didn’t happen.
During the seventh round, all the work Álvarez had done began to show. He was punishing Saunders. Whenever Saunders could punch he’d do so, then immediately hold. But as soon as the referee separated them, Álvarez went back to attacking.
In the eighth round, Álvarez's (56-1-2) punches turned violent. He began to demand that the crowd cheer him on as he gave Saunders the beating of his career. Almost assuredly, the beating of his life. It’s hard to imagine Saunders (30-1, 14 KOs) being battered like he was Saturday night while fighting in the amateurs — the last time he lost. Perhaps, everything Saunders said and did during the week angered the usually stoic Alvarez. And then the round ended, and before the next could start, the fight was over.
“I told Eddy, he’s not coming out because I broke his cheek,” Álvarez recalled telling trainer Eddy Reynoso during his post-fight interview inside the ring. “And that was it.”
What that was, was Saunders’ corner stopping the fight after an uppercut from Álvarez left their fighter unable to see. What that was, was Saunders sitting on his stool while Álvarez got carried around the ring, a Mexican flag waving proudly from his corner. Saunders had a towel on his head while his corner tried to comfort him.
In the end, Saunders, the willing and even perfect antagonist, had changed. Physically, of course, since after the fight he left in an ambulance. Saunders' team speculated he had a broken orbital bone. Inside that ambulance, he must have felt like the loneliest man in all of Texas. Easy to believe he also changed emotionally. A boxer doesn’t go from being an undefeated world champion, to — 24 minutes of fight time later — having his beliefs of invincibility violently shattered.
Matchroom Boxing chairman Eddie Hearn posted Sunday on Twitter that Saunders “suffered multiple fractures to orbital area and will undergo surgery this afternoon.”
Álvarez, for his part, changed — most of it symbolically. He’s now three-fourths of the way to becoming the undisputed super middleweight champion. That’s a feat only four other men have accomplished, across all weights. None have been Mexican. It’s why Álvarez wants to fight Caleb Plant next.
“They already know what I want,” Alvarez said of Plant — who owns the fourth belt — and his managers, in the post-fight news conference. “Hopefully the opportunity comes.”
Whether that fight happens seems to largely depend on whether Plant wants to fight. Whether he wants to prove that he’s the one that can actually beat Álvarez, this side of Floyd Mayweather Jr. Whether he wants to risk losing his undefeated record and title — like Billy Joe Saunders did — to a fighter that’s at his peak.
That’s who Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez is right now. He’s a boxer who no one in his weight class can beat. He’s seemingly the most disciplined too.
“I keep improving day by day,” Alvarez said, minutes after he easily defeated what many thought would be his most difficult challenge in years.
With the help of his trainer and corner, Alvarez still fights like he has something to prove despite having everything money can buy. Everything except for the one thing he wants. That fourth belt.
Roberto José Andrade Franco is an author, freelance journalist and writer at large at Texas Highways.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.