Billy Joe Saunders spent the better portion of the week leading up to his bout with Canelo Alvarez doing everything he possibly could to pester his opponent.
Days before the fight, Saunders insisted he was prepared to bow out of the contest if the size of the ring wasn’t increased to at least 22 feet. Organizers were forced to believe him, or at least prepare for the possibility that he was serious, and arranged for both John Ryder and Carlos Gongora to be on-site in Arlington, TX as emergency backup opponents.
Despite his proclamations, Saunders remained at the fight hotel, wandering around the lobby in a Versace robe, taunting Canelo, mocking Mexican reporters’ command of the English language, and generally doing anything he could to irritate his foe and get him to fight a different fight than he normally would.
Ultimately, Saunders got what he asked for. The ring size was increased, and Canelo did fight differently on Saturday night, albeit not in a way advantageous to Saunders. The sport’s pound-for-pound king fought with the obvious intention of not just stopping Saunders, but hurting him—something he wound up doing in a serious manner.
Canelo dialed back his punch output to a career-low according to CompuBox, opting to instead throw his heaviest power shots nearly each and every time he moved his hands. When he found Saunders along the ropes in the ring designed for Saunders to stay off of them, he wailed Saunders with single hooks to the body. When Saunders hunched over close to him looking for a body shot, Canelo uncorked uppercuts meant to end the fight with one shot.
In the eighth round, that shot connected. Canelo slipped Saunders a right jab and hit him with a right uppercut so hard that one could almost see his hand sink into Saunders’ face in real time. It harkened memories of the right hand Rocky Marciano landed on Jersey Joe Walcott, the photo of which has lived on in boxing lore, in which Walcott’s face disfigures upon impact. Immediately, Saunders staggered back and cameras captured his eye closing in an instant.
Suddenly, no ring could have been big enough for Saunders to escape. In his own bit of pre-fight bluster, Canelo and trainer Eddy Reynoso had predicted a knockout “between rounds eight and ten,” and he was about to prove his prophecy.
Canelo motioned to the crowd with both gloves to hype them up in between combinations thrown at a reeling Saunders. As Saunders looked more and more ragged, Canelo gestured more, like a pro wrestler telling the audience he was about to perform his finishing maneuver. Except in this case, the finisher was already performed. According to promoter Eddie Hearn, Saunders had suffered a zygomatic complex fracture of his orbital bone upon impact. Injuries of this nature can cause loss of eyesight, and in treatment can cause a reshaping of one’s face and an appearance of one’s eye being inset, as seen in Antonio Margarito following his orbital bone break suffered at the hands of Manny Pacquiao.
"I knew it. I think I broke his cheek. I got to the corner and I told Eddy he's not coming out because I think I broke his cheek, and that was it,” Canelo said in his post-fight interview with DAZN’s Chris Mannix.
At the end of the round, Saunders sat down in front of his trainer Mark Tibbs who observed the gruesome injury.
"I wasn't getting the response that I needed to send the guy out," Tibbs told Radio Rahim of SecondsOut following the bout. "He can't see nothing coming against a pound-for-pound great. It was my call. He was disappointed, he was gutted, but he never argued with me."
In the aftermath of the fight, the discussion has been less about Canelo keeping his promise of scoring a stoppage in a particular set of rounds, and more about Saunders not living up to promises he had made earlier in his career.
“My right hand to God. If I can win this fight Saturday night and say goodbye to the kids,
I will leave the Earth,” said Saunders prior to the bout, insinuating that he was prepared to die in order to win the bout.
More specifically, Saunders’ comments regarding heavyweight contender Daniel Dubois, who took a knee in his most recent bout with Joe Joyce after fracturing his orbital bone, have been unearthed and presented as evidence of hypocrisy.
"Before I go on one knee I’d like to go out on my back with my pulse stopped," Saunders told DAZN's AK & Barak Show in 2020. "If my two eye sockets were broken, my jaw was broken, my teeth were out, my nose was smashed, my brain was beaten, I was not stopping until I was knocked out or worse. I don’t agree with a man taking the knee and letting the ref count him out.”
Saunders’ feelings at the time echo those of a loud contingent in the boxing community who are labelling him a quitter following the Canelo bout.
For some, as Saunders felt back in 2020, there is no acceptable reason to bow out of a boxing match once the bell has rung. This viewpoint is purely callous coming from the mouths of observers, to whom fighters’ livelihoods or in this case, eyesight, are not owed. But one can understand how a fighter like Saunders, who despite getting punched for a living hadn’t yet encountered a pain excruciating enough to make him stop participating in a fight, could come to the bravado-fueled conclusion that he would act differently than Dubois did.
On Saturday night, he experienced what Dubois felt, and although he didn’t unilaterally decide to halt the bout the way Dubois did, he allowed his trainer to throw in the towel without protest.
Neither were decisions deserving of criticism, and in fact, were probably wise ones, something even Canelo pointed out at the post-fight press conference.
"When you break your cheekbone, you can risk your life, and you can't continue that way," said Canelo.
Some on social media have pointed out that fighters like Erik Morales and, more recently, Ebanie Bridges, courageously fought long stretches in fights with one eye closed. But Morales, and Bridges (as she pointed out herself on Twitter) did not have broken orbital bones. On the scale of eye injuries, Saunders’, which was effectively a blowout of his orbital region including its lateral walls and sinus walls, is about as severe as it gets in boxing.
Fighters have fought with broken orbital bones in the past, including Naoya Inoue, Paulie Malignaggi and Antonio Margarito, but they certainly weren’t required to. In Margarito’s case, he admitted last year that he wishes he hadn’t.
“The truth was (my corner) mentioned that to me when I went back to the corner, that (my eye) was very bad. And I told them not to stop the fight,” Margarito told ESPN Deportes in 2020. “But I was really wrong.”
Saunders, like Margarito, is for many a heel character in boxing, albeit for much different reasons. His conduct during Canelo fight week was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of poor behavior throughout his career. The 31-year old has been fined by the British Boxing Board of Control for repulsive acts such as offering a woman drugs to perform sexual favors on another person, and appearing in a subsequent video mocking sex workers. He was also fined in 2020 for a video described by Reuters as “advising men how to hit their female partners during lockdown.” In 2017, he was reported to police for photographing and insulting Jonny Marsh, a nonbinary employee, in a shopping mall.
“I wouldn’t say this about me wanting redemption, it’s just about wanting to be a role model for kids and needing to be a role model. I started thinking about some of the things I’d done when I was lying in bed at night and I realized I’d got to stop doing them. I’ve made mistakes, plenty of them, and now I want to put my name out there for the right reasons,” said Saunders in 2019.
To be clear, no one has to accept Saunders’ apology, especially when his offensive behavior has continued to present day. There are good reasons to not be fond of Billy Joe Saunders. There are even good reasons for fans to be happy that Saunders lost. However, one’s dislike for Saunders shouldn’t cloud how one evaluates what happened on Saturday night.
In particular, some are insistent on using the term “quit” to describe Saunders’ exit from the fight. In most walks of life, “quit” doesn’t have a negative connotation. People quit jobs all the time. In boxing however, it’s a pejorative, meant to be used in order to stain the reputation of a fighter forever.
Some who are using the term mean it wholeheartedly, believing Saunders should have continued. Others merely think he could have continued and opted not to. A third group is mainly gaslighting in a semantic argument about its dictionary definition.
Calling any fighter, even Saunders, a quitter, sets a dangerous bloodthirsty precedent that is corrosive to the sport and perilous for its participants. “Quit” shouldn’t be a loaded term in boxing. But given that it is, using it remains harmful until the toxic culture surrounding bowing out of a fight is eroded completely and it’s agreed upon that quitting is a fair and acceptable thing to do in the ring. Until then, it mostly lends legitimacy to an insult that has serious implications, establishing a paradigm within the sport that can only lead to tragedy.
Saunders found that out first-hand on Saturday night. Even the toughest people in the world can eventually encounter a risk that is no longer worth the reward.
In a moment of clarity that might have informed Saturday’s outcome, Saunders replied to a question about his motivations for taking the Canelo bout, whether they were competitive, financial, or both. He insisted the fight was about his legacy, not the $2.5 million he was guaranteed.
“As long as you’ve got enough money to feed your family, a warm bed and a roof over your head, we’re lucky people,” said Saunders.
As he sat on his stool with his eye throbbing and heeded the advice of his trainer, he perhaps realized that being healthy and able to enjoy those blessings was what was most important, knowing his legacy was now in the hands of those with keyboards in front of them.