Canelo v Saunders: Billy Joe has the style to succeed, but can he shock the boxing world?

By Sports Desk May 08, 2021

Back in December 2017, Billy Joe Saunders produced a dazzling display against David Lemieux, systematically dismantling the dangerous Canadian to retain his WBO middleweight title in style.

The Briton's unanimous points triumph seemingly paved the way for a blockbuster fight. Now, three and a half years on from delivering a boxing lesson in Quebec, and having moved up a division, Saunders finally gets that opportunity.

Gennadiy Golovkin was the initial target back then, but Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez is more than an adequate alternative. The Mexican is viewed by most to be the best pound-for-pound boxer around right now, as well as the sport's biggest superstar.

The two rivals have taken contrasting paths to topping the bill at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. While Canelo has skipped around the weights, piling up victories and padding his resume to help define his lasting legacy, Saunders has fought just four times since schooling Lemieux.

"He thought he was going to get Golovkin or Canelo as his next fight after his brilliant display against Lemieux. He didn't, though, and then lost momentum being inactive for 12 months," Dominic Ingle, Saunders' former trainer who was in his corner in Canada, told Stats Perform News.

"I think he found it hard to motivate himself for fights that weren't going to bring him some big money, or a big name.

"He's just not been very consistent in terms of fights, but he's got that kind of style that can prove so elusive. If you can hit someone with two or three shots and they’re missing you back, you’re going to win.

"The thing with Canelo, though, is how consistent he has been, no matter who he is up against. He just gets on with it."

So, can Saunders really seize his long-overdue chance? The skilled southpaw has both the talent and temperament to cope with Canelo, so the key - according to Ingle at least - will be his stamina.

"With Billy, even if he hasn't done a lot of boxing stuff and sparring, it's like a game of tag with him. He can touch someone, get them to commit then he fires in a quick counter and is off," Ingle explained.

"The way he boxed against Lemieux wasn't like I'd taught him any of that stuff; he knew how to do it. What he needed was the conditioning and the fitness to get through.

"There was a stage when he wanted to stop him [Lemieux], but there was no point taking a risk. If he can box like that – I know it's a different opponent, of course – but Canelo finds it difficult to beat fighters who are elusive and slippery. It's frustrating when you can't get your shots off."

Saunders has done his best to antagonise Canelo before the bout, including threatening to head home during fight week over a dispute about the ring size inside the impressive venue.

He will hope to annoy him once the bell sounds to start the action too, as the seemingly unstoppable force faces a moveable object determined to make life as tough as possible for a rival accustomed to getting his own way.

Canelo has lost just once – back in 2013 to Floyd Mayweather Jr – but Ingle feels Saunders has all the ingredients required to create a recipe for success, even if a stoppage triumph seems unlikely.

"It's all about how quickly Canelo can get used to closing Billy down," Ingle said ahead of a bout that could see a record crowd in attendance for an indoor boxing event in the United States.

"I know people will say that fight against Mayweather was years ago, but if you struggle against movers then that doesn't change. When he boxed Erislandy Lara [in 2014] he struggled a bit as well.

"He can obviously do really well against orthodox fighters, but when it's against southpaws it is a bit more difficult.

"You've got Billy there being a southpaw, a great southpaw and an exceptional mover, while Canelo struggles with southpaws and movement. Billy likes to frustrate you when you are up against him.

"You need to be fit to do that kind of style, one like Tyson Fury uses, so you can frustrate your opponent into making mistakes. He can beat Canelo, for sure, but I don't think he can stop him.

"He can win on points, but that is a risk as the verdict may go against you."

Any risk is surely worth the reward for Saunders, who can alter the boxing landscape by beating Canelo and taking not only his WBA and WBC belts, but also his aura of invincibility. 

If the build-up is anything to go by, he appears up for the challenge that lies ahead in the ring, no matter what size it is.

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    Anthony Joshua must learn from his defeat to Oleksandr Usyk if he is to come back stronger and keep alive the possibility of facing Tyson Fury, according to Joseph Parker.

    Joshua lost his IBF, WBA and WBO titles to Usyk on Saturday after being outclassed by the Ukrainian on home soil at a packed Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

    The 31-year-old had no answer to former undisputed cruiserweight champion Usyk and lost on a unanimous points decision.

    It was just the second defeat of Joshua's professional career, having previously been stopped by Andy Ruiz Jr. in June 2019 before reclaiming the belts in their rematch.

    The prospect of Joshua and Fury facing off now appears slim, with the latter's promoter Frank Warren casting doubt on a bout that at one point looked certain to take place this year.

    A rematch with 19-0 Usyk may now be on the cards for Joshua before he can contemplate facing Fury, who has a third clash with Deontay Wilder coming up on October 9.

    But Parker, who was the first man to take Joshua the distance in their 2018 unification fight in Cardiff, believes there is still hope of an all-British heavyweight clash taking place.

    "I feel like the point is just the best fighting the best," Parker told Stats Perform. "Even though AJ lost that fight to Usyk, he's still considered one of the best. 

    "He's going to go down in history as one of the best heavyweights. I think people want to see the best fight the best and that's a fight that can still happen. 

    "People will still be very interested to see who's the best British heavyweight there is."

    Speaking after his surprise defeat in London at the weekend, Joshua said he is "110 per cent" up for a rematch with Usyk to win back his belts.

    Despite the manner of the defeat, Parker has backed Joshua to put up a far stronger performance if he does step back into the ring with Usyk.

    "I was a little surprised by the defeat," Parker said. "I mean, a lot of other people called it a 50-50 fight, a lot of people said it was going to be a tear up for AJ to win. 

    "But Usyk showed everyone watching tremendous skill and footwork and movement. You just saw him outbox and outsmart AJ for the 12 rounds.

    "But [Joshua's] a smart man and he's got a smart team. He's faced a loss and adversity and he's come back with a better game plan. That's what he's going to need to do. 

    "I think I saw an interview saying he's already watched the fight straight after it happened and he just needs to make those adjustments and how to counter someone like Usyk.

    "Who wins the rematch depends on the training, it depends on who shows up on the day. But going into the rematch, Usyk would have big confidence. 

    "It's pretty crazy how he came from the cruiserweight division, unified champion of the world and then has three fights and he's the unified champion of the world. 

    "That's the goal of a lot of heavyweights, is to be champion of the world and be unified champ. It's so crazy how things happen."

    Joshua followed up his victory over Parker, which saw him retain his WBA, IBF and IBO belts and win the WBO title, with a knockout triumph over Alexander Povetkin.

    The Briton has lost two of his following four fights, however, giving him a record of 24-2 and leading to inevitable suggestions that his career is now declining.

    But Parker said: "It's hard to say if that's the case. From when I fought him, he's had a couple of wins, a loss to Ruiz and come back and beat him again.

    "He's saying that he's improving and getting better, but maybe he just was faced with a fighter who was just different, you know, in his element. 

    "When you see Usyk, with the footwork and the movement - he didn't really allow AJ to land his shots and catch him. He was just in and out and just very smart."

  • Justin Herbert building strong early case for MVP after Mahomes duel Justin Herbert building strong early case for MVP after Mahomes duel

    'It's too early to talk about the MVP!', you might think when the NFL's most prestigious individual award is brought up in discussion in September.  

    On the surface, that is reasonable logic three weeks into an extended 17-week season. There are many twists and turns to come that will ultimately decide the identity of this year's Most Valuable Player.  

    Yet the reality is that talk of who is most deserving of the game's top solo prize plays a critical role in forming the narrative of a season.  

    Conversation over which quarterback – sorry, Aaron Donald – is most deserving of the award at certain points of the campaign and what impressive performance does for a player's hopes consistently captures attention and creates heated debate, regardless of whether we think such talk is premature.  

    By the end of last year, Aaron Rodgers had rendered any suggestion of alternative candidates pointless with a stunning 2020 season for the Green Bay Packers.  

    While Rodgers did his prospects of retaining the award no harm by making 37 seconds seem like an eternity in the Packers' last-gasp win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, the opening stages of the season suggest he will have intense competition.  

    And perhaps his biggest threat plays his home games several hours south of Levi's Stadium, where Rodgers unsurprisingly was the leading man in the theatre the Packers and Niners produced in primetime.  

    Indeed, long before Mason Crosby was sending a 51-yard field goal into the Northern California night to settle a fierce NFC battle, Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers took a similarly dramatic AFC contest off the leg of their kicker, with Brandon Staley's faith in Herbert and the passing game rewarded with a win that alters the complexion of the playoff race.  

    Herbert's four-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams, the second time in the game he hooked up with the former Clemson star, sealed a 30-24 win over the Kansas City Chiefs that solidified the Chargers' status as a threat to the two-time defending AFC champions, who dropped to a losing record for the first time since 2015.  

    It was just reward for a display in which Herbert furthered his MVP credentials, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year outshining Patrick Mahomes on a day where the man most regard as the game's most talented and most explosive quarterback made history. 

    Herbert joins exclusive club

    By throwing for 260 passing yards, Mahomes took his career tally to 15,092, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to reach 15,000 in 50 games or fewer, doing so in his 49th appearance. 

    Herbert is not quite on the same pace, averaging 294 passing yards a game through the 18 he has played so far in his still embryonic career. Last year's sixth overall pick is on track to reach 15,000 in 51 games. 

    But he outshone the 2018 MVP in Week 3, finishing with 281 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions while Mahomes threw for three scores but with two picks, including one with the game tied that set the Chargers up to go for the game-winning score. 

    His performance saw Herbert become the fifth player in the Super Bowl era to record five games with at least three touchdown passes and zero interceptions in his first two seasons. 

    Herbert joins Lamar Jackson (six), Dan Marino (six), Mahomes (five) and Dak Prescott (five) on that list. Three of the other four members of that exclusive club have all won the MVP. 

    Fourth in passing yards with 956 but 17th in yards per attempt (7.59), tied-10th in touchdowns (six) and 18th in passer rating (97.9), the raw numbers do not fully support the argument that Herbert is a candidate to join Jackson, Marino and Mahomes this season. 

    However, an understanding of why Herbert deserves to be firmly in the mix through three games requires a deeper look at his statistics and an examination of the high-level throws he is making look ridiculously routine.

    Unerring accuracy

    Herbert finished Week 3 with a well-thrown ball percentage of 91.7. Only one quarterback, Kirk Cousins (91.9), to attempt more than one pass was superior in that regard going into Monday Night Football. 

    He did much of his best work when under pressure too, delivering a perfectly thrown jump pass to Keenan Allen for Los Angeles' opening touchdown with defensive tackle Khalen Saunders in his face, and putting a pass down the right sideline to where only Williams could get it, the duo connecting for the first of two fourth-quarter scores despite Chris Jones screaming off the edge. 

    More exquisite placement came on the decisive drive, Herbert finding Williams on a lofted back-shoulder throw to put the Chargers close, a pass he delivered with his weight falling away from it. He then hit the same receiver for the game-winner. 

    Those plays will be the ones most remember from Herbert's contribution to an engrossing encounter that ended with a failed Hail Mary from Mahomes, the Chargers having inexplicably left him with over half a minute to produce a reply. 

    Yet just as impressive from Herbert were the plays that came up short, including a second-quarter missile from his own 45-yard line - one he uncorked after escaping pressure and rolling left - which was broken up in the endzone to prevent Jalen Guyton hauling in a spectacular touchdown, but that incompletion served as yet more evidence of Herbert's near-boundless ceiling. 

    The first three games of the year have seen Herbert consistently demonstrate that upside. His well-throw percentage of 84.4 is fifth in the NFL to attempt multiple passes, with Kyler Murray (84.5) the only player to have averaged seven or more air yards standing above him on the list. 

    While Murray provides a greater running threat than Herbert, the Chargers' signal-caller has done a superior job of taking care of the ball. He has thrown an interceptable ball on 2.46 per cent of passes, compared to 4.12 per cent for Murray. 

    Though Murray has one more win than Herbert this season, he does not yet have the signature moment the former Oregon man produced at Arrowhead. 

    Kyler playing catch up

    With already 1,005 passing yards to his name to go with seven touchdowns and a further three scores on the ground, Murray is building a strong case of his own for MVP. 

    Yet wins over the Tennessee Titans, Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars are unlikely to move the needle to the extent that Herbert's victory over Mahomes should. 

    Murray's MVP stock could receive a bump when the Cardinals face fellow unbeaten division rivals the Los Angeles Rams in Week 4. However, for now, he is playing catch-up to Herbert in terms of a potential season-defining win that permeates the consciousness of the wider NFL public. 

    Anybody who has taken even a passing interest in a Chargers franchise known in recent years for letting opportunities slip through their grasp should recognise Herbert will have a plethora of hurdles to overcome before he can claim to be an MVP frontrunner. 

    But across the first three games, he has the production, at least in terms of overall yardage, and has showcased the accuracy to stand as the top challenger to succeed Rodgers at this extremely early juncture. 

    Herbert enters Week 4 in a position of which few quarterbacks have experience, having gone blow for blow with Mahomes and come out on top. 

    If he maintains the level that saw him achieve that feat, Herbert will have an excellent shot of replicating Mahomes and Jackson in winning the MVP in his second season.

  • Man City nearly impenetrable, Man Utd issues masked by penalty miss, bad omens for Nuno – the Premier League weekend's quirky facts Man City nearly impenetrable, Man Utd issues masked by penalty miss, bad omens for Nuno – the Premier League weekend's quirky facts

    Manchester City made something of a statement in their 1-0 win over potential title challengers Chelsea on Saturday, whereas Manchester United seemed to take another step back as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's reign stuttered again.

    But Solskjaer is certainly not the only top-flight manager feeling the heat – Nuno Espirito Santo's honeymoon period as Tottenham boss is well and truly over, with the Portuguese now among the favourites to be the first Premier League boss sacked this season following a 3-1 defeat in the north London derby.

    Without any further ado, here are some of the more curious facts and stats from across the Premier League this past weekend…

    City defence putting the 'guard' in Guardiola

    It may not have been the thrill ride neutrals were likely hoping for, but City's 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge was another impressive indicator of just how good Pep Guardiola's team is as a unit.

    Of course, they won the Premier League only a few months ago, so saying City are "good" probably won't cut it for analysis – but what is really making people sit up and take note at the moment is how their unity and cohesion is translating into defensive solidity.

    City have conceded just one goal in their six Premier League games this term, the fewest they've ever shipped at this stage of any league campaign.

    Let's not forget that Chelsea had been widely praised for their own start to 2021-22, yet on Saturday they were prevented from having a single shot on target in a home league game since November 2012, which coincidentally was also against City.

    But even more impressive from City's perspective was the fact Chelsea's expected goals (xG) value was just 0.2, the worst they've recorded in a home Premier League game since Opta records began in 2008-09.

    While Chelsea fans will understandably be frustrated, it would seem their struggles on Saturday were more down to City being in a groove defensively.

    They've only faced six shots on target this season, a record no Premier League has bettered over the first six matches in a campaign since at least 2003-04. If they keep this up, the title will surely be staying at the Etihad Stadium.

    Fernandes' penalty miss not Man Utd's big issue

    It was another day to forget for United on Saturday as they lost 1-0 at home to Aston Villa.

    They were presented with a great opportunity to equalise in second-half stoppage time, but Bruno Fernandes sent his penalty over the crossbar.

    Much of the focus afterwards was on Fernandes and his miss, though it would be unfair to pin the blame on him – after all, of the 23 spot-kicks he has taken since his United debut, he's only failed to convert two.

    In the same time period, Cristiano Ronaldo – seemingly Fernandes' main penalty rival now – has taken 22 and missed four. This is not a problem that United need to dwell on much.

    Instead, they'd be wise to look into their glaring tactical inefficiencies, with Solskjaer's team sorely lacking identity, cohesion and a defined playing style. Too often they are bailed out by moments of individual brilliance, which is an unsustainable approach to solely rely on in a title challenge.

    Against Villa, those instances of individual excellence never arrived, despite United mustering 28 shots. That was the most efforts attempted by United without scoring in a home league game since October 2016 (38 shots in 0-0 draw with Burnley).

    They have now conceded in each of their past eight league games at Old Trafford, their worst such run in 49 years, and lost three successive home matches (all competitions) for the first time since 1962.

    Norwich set new benchmark for worst start

    With every match that passes, the light at the end of the tunnel seems to become ever dimmer for Norwich City.

    A 2-0 defeat at Everton on Saturday leaves Norwich pointless and with a -14 goal difference after six matches – that makes their start to the season the worst after six matches in Premier League history.

    Only twice before had a Premier League side begun a campaign without a single point from six games, the last of which was Frank de Boer's infamous Crystal Palace team in 2017-18 – the Dutchman was sacked after the fourth match in that sequence.

    Norwich have at least been a little more patient than Palace, with Daniel Farke's record of overseeing two promotions seemingly ensuring he retains some good will at the club, even if he now has the highest loss percentage (75 per cent, 33/44) of any manager to take charge of at least 20 games in the Premier League.

    Most would already consider Norwich to be doomed for relegation, though perhaps there is some reason for optimism.

    There have only been nine teams to start a top-flight season (prior to 2021-22) with six or more successive losses, but four of them – including Palace – have avoided relegation.

    Vardy joins exclusive club

    Jamie Vardy ended up having a peculiar day when Leicester City drew 2-2 with Burnley on Saturday, the former England striker scoring three of the four goals.

    It was his own goal that gave Burnley an early lead, while he also got both Leicester equalisers, including one late in the day.

    That was his first own goal ever in 360 appearances for Leicester, while he became the first player to net at both ends for the club in a single Premier League game.

    It's happened to some of the best, though. He joins an illustrious list containing 11 others who have scored at least 100 goals but also put past their own goalkeeper, with Harry Kane, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney among them.

    On top of that, Vardy is now only one of five players in Premier League history to score at least twice at the right end and an own goal in the same game after John Barnes (Liverpool v Spurs 1995), Niall Quinn (Sunderland v Charlton Athletic 2001), Rooney (Man Utd v Stoke City 2012) and Tammy Abraham (Chelsea v Wolves 2019).

    But he is still doing more than his fair share at the other end, his brace in this game taking him to eight goal involvements in his past seven league games, which is 89 per cent (8/9) of Leicester's goals in that time.

    Bad omens stacking up for Nuno

    After three wins from his first three Premier League games in charge, everything was looking rather rosy for Tottenham boss Nuno.

    Three matches and three defeats later, some will doubt whether he'll still be in charge this time next month, let alone this time next season.

    Sunday's north London derby was his 10th in charge of Spurs and the 3-1 loss made him the first manager to lose as many as four of his first 10 matches at the helm of the club since Glenn Hoddle in 2001.

    Hoddle was also the last Spurs boss to conceded at least three goals in three consecutive league games in September 2003, and he was sacked after that run.

    Nuno will probably make it to the next match but the last team to begin a season with three wins and then lost the next three (Everton, 1993-94) finish as low down as 17th.

    His future arguably rests on getting something out of Kane, who's failed to score in five straight league games for the first time since August 2016, but things aren't looking great given Spurs' 35 open-play shots is the second fewest in the division and their expected goals (xG) total is just 3.2, only higher than three teams.

    While a lack of quality chances might usually be masked by Kane's excellence, he's not bailing them out any longer – if that continues, it's difficult to see Nuno keeping his job for the long term.

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