Four days before Saul Álvarez and Billy Joe Saunders were due to meet for a high-stakes boxing match at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, organizers were dizzy with ticket sales predictions for their super middleweight title bout on Saturday night.
Eddie Hearn, the promoter and head of Matchroom Boxing, testified the matchup – between Álvarez, a 30-year-old Mexican nicknamed Canelo, who holds the WBC and WBA titles at £ 168, and Saunders, the undefeated WBO champion England – A sale of 70,000 tickets was expected.
That number, Hearn said, would be a record for an indoor boxing match in the United States that would vastly exceed the 63,350 spectators at the New Orleans Superdome Muhammad Ali-Leon Spinks fight 1978. Attendance would also be the latest sign of a general opening of major events in the country as pandemic-related restrictions have eased and a sizable amount is open to the NFL draft and Kentucky Derby, as well as capacity expansion in baseball and basketball games .
“This is boxing. Saturday night the world will be watching, ”said Hearn. “It’s so encouraging.”
But Saunders nearly derailed the event on Wednesday when he threatened to ignore the size of the ring. The fighters had agreed on a ring size that is pretty normal – 20 feet by 20 feet. But Saunders requested a larger ring – 22 feet on each side – and issued an ultimatum to Álvarez’s camp. Saunders directed Hearn to fly him back to England if Álvarez refused, and for a tense few hours the fight fans feared the fight might be canceled.
Álvarez agreed to the enlarged ring, although he prefers Saunders, an elusive boxer who needs space to serve. .
Only boxing could bring about this type of last minute act. Imagine if the NFL lets the teams negotiate the size of the field or the Red Sox refuse to play the Yankees unless they have agreed to cut the game down to six innings. That flirtation with self-sabotage, just days before the biggest fight so far this year, indicated that the boxing industry was moving back into prepandemic habits.
The sport pushed forward amid its usual long-term uncertainty as Álvarez prepared to face Saunders in a bout of world champions with a combined record of 85-1-2.
“I’ve been in a lot of important fights. This is another day in the office, ”Álvarez said at a pre-fight press conference. “I always go 100 percent. Boxing is my life. I am here to win. “
In 2018, Golden Boy Promotions, representing Álvarez, signed a $ 365 million contract with DAZN, the streaming service that aired the fight on Saturday. The deal depended on Álvarez’s pull and was guaranteed 11 fights of Álvarez. Then his relationship with Golden Boy disintegrated in a series of lawsuits, but he and his built-in audience stayed with DAZN. Outside of the heavyweight division, Álvarez is the largest draw in competitive boxing.
This distinction is important as the sport creates a wave of attention-grabbing novelty battles. A November exhibition between Roy Jones Jr. and Mike Tyson (combined ages: 105) spawned negotiations for more such battles, including such pitting Jones versus Joe Calzaghe and 63-year-old Thomas Hearns and a possible rematch between Tyson and Lennox Lewis.
Then there’s Jake Paul, the YouTube personality boxer-turned-boxer who turned a knockout of a retired basketball player, Nate Robinson, on the Tyson Jones card into a pay-per-view windfall for a fight against a retired mixed martial arts fighter, Ben Askren. Paul received more attention Thursday afternoon after he and Floyd Mayweather Jr. exchanged insults and pokes at an event that was hyped against Paul’s brother Logan at the Mayweathers exhibition on June 6th.
These events may not captivate the avid boxing fans planning a Saturday night around Álvarez and Saunders, but they attract the broader audience that makes title fights big mainstream events. Hearn admits that boxing’s stakeholders need to plan countermeasures.
“If the fighting game doesn’t increase and we have great fights, we will be overtaken,” he said.
Aside from Saunders’ prefight move, Saturday’s fight is the opposite of a novelty. Saunders, 31, is a hard-to-hit southern paw who has won all 30 of his professional fights. He moved up to the 168-pound weight class in 2019, defended his title twice, and said he won’t be satisfied just sharing the ring with Álvarez.
“I don’t think anyone has come to win in a long time,” Saunders said, referring to Álvarez’s youngest opponents. “We had a lot of people showing up, flying in, collecting checks, and flying out. But we didn’t have the heart and soul and IQ that I’m going to bring to the table. “
The last time Álvarez faced a fighter who is as committed to movement and defense as Saunders, he lost. That was in 2013 when he faced Mayweather. Since then, Álvarez has taken 14 wins and has briefly been promoted to the light heavyweight division, beating Sergey Kovalev for a world title.
“He’s a great fighter,” said Álvarez at a press conference on Saunders on Thursday. “But I’m not the same fighter as I was six or seven years ago.”
Álvarez remains a key component of the DAZN plan to expand its presence in the United States. In other countries, the streaming service has rights to events such as NFL games, Premier League football and international rugby. In the USA, however, it has positioned itself as the first boxing platform and thus competed with the premium cable socket Showtime and the streaming service FITE TV.
DAZN has contracts with Álvarez and middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, who fought for a draw against Álvarez in 2017 and lost a close decision against him the following year. Joe Markowski, Executive Vice President of the company, has specifically expressed DAZN’s desire for a third fight between them. But Golovkin would almost certainly have to gain weight and move up to Álvarez’s division. He recently turned 39 and asked how long he can hold out at the elite level. Álvarez claims that if he beat Saunders he would rather fight American super middleweight Caleb Plant than face Golovkin again.
“What we respect about Canelo is his pursuit of greatness,” said Markowski, referring to Álvarez’s quest to unify the £ 168 title. “If he beats Saunders, the last piece of the puzzle will be Caleb Plant. But the Golovkin fight has a special place in the hearts of boxing fans. “
Plant, the Champion of the International Boxing Federation, is under contract with Al Haymons Premier Boxing Champions, which has partnerships with Fox and Showtime. Working out an agreement between him and Álvarez would mean more arguments over purse splits, advertising rights and broadcasting platforms, which in turn could lead to typical boxing chaos. Last month, heavyweight champions Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury reportedly had a $ 150 million deal for a fight in Saudi Arabia. Then suddenly they didn’t.
The fight on Saturday will take place but nothing other than Álvarez-Saunders is guaranteed. Boxing fans recognize this uncertainty. For them, it is a sign that sport is back to normal.