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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  • Champions League final: Only Klopp stands between Ancelotti and immortality on night of destiny in Paris Champions League final: Only Klopp stands between Ancelotti and immortality on night of destiny in Paris

    There is a debate to be had that, even if Real Madrid lose Saturday's Champions League final at Stade de France and Carlo Ancelotti never lifts another trophy again, the Italian will still be able to stake a claim as being remembered as the greatest coach of all time.

    After all, he has already won 22 trophies across a managerial career spanning 27 years that has seen him coach 10 different clubs in five different countries. Indeed, he this month became the first coach to win each of the Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and LaLiga.

    There is no questioning Carlo's credentials, then, but victory against Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool in Paris really would take the 62-year-old into 'GOAT' territory as the outright most successful coach in terms of major European honours.

    Ancelotti is currently level with Alex Ferguson and Giovanni Trapattoni in that regard with seven UEFA club competition triumphs – three Champions Leagues, three Super Cups and one Intertoto Cup, a much-derided competition that is now defunct.

    Many would suggest a better barometer of determining the true Greatest of All Time would be to simply look at how many Champions Leagues or European Cups, as it was formerly known, a manager has won. In that case, Ancelotti is level with Bob Paisley and Zinedine Zidane with three apiece.

    Triumphing for a fourth time in UEFA's showpiece competition, having previously done so with Milan in 2003 and 2007, and Madrid in 2014, would therefore set Ancelotti apart from the rest.

    The hugely experienced coach has a great record when it comes to Champions League finals, too, with victories in three of his previous four such matches. The only exception to that? In 2004-05 when Liverpool famously beat Milan on penalties in a game they trailed 3-0 at half-time.

    CARLO'S CUP PEDIGREE

    The glitz and glamour of a Champions League final was far from Klopp's mind in that campaign when in his fourth season in charge of Mainz. The 2004-05 season was just as memorable for the German club's supporters as Liverpool's, though, as they finished 11th in what was their first top-flight campaign.

    Seventeen years on, Klopp now has a shot at becoming one of 17 multiple-time winners of the European Cup/Champions League, level with the likes of Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and even Manchester United great Ferguson.

    He went all the way with Liverpool in 2019, triumphing over domestic rivals Tottenham, but his previous two finals in the competition ended in disappointment, with defeat against Bayern Munich as Dortmund boss in 2013 and against Zidane's Madrid as Liverpool manager in 2018.

    Zidane may have been replaced by Ancelotti in the Madrid dugout, but this weekend presents Klopp – and indeed Liverpool – with a shot at redemption. Having won two trophies already with the Reds this season, Klopp's cup final record looks a lot better than it did just a few months ago.

    He has now won eight of his 18 finals, which compares to 16 victories from 22 finals for Ancelotti across all competitions. In percentage terms, Klopp has won 44 per cent of finals he has contested, while Ancelotti has won 73 per cent.

    A FAMILIAR FOE AWAITS

    Ancelotti and Klopp are no strangers to one another, of course, with Saturday's showdown set to be their 11th meeting in all competitions. Ancelotti edges the overall record from the previous 10 encounters with four wins to Klopp's three.

    Despite managing an Everton side far inferior to Klopp's Liverpool, Ancelotti lost just one of his three Merseyside derbies during his season-and-a-half in charge of the Toffees.

    That includes three successive games without defeat, culminating in a 2-0 win in February 2021 – Everton's first Anfield victory since 1999 and their first win either home or away over Liverpool since 2010.

    Ancelotti certainly had Klopp's number in the most recent of their battles, although the results of his two finals against English clubs in European competition have been mixed – the aforementioned shoot-out loss in 2005 and a 2-1 win two years later, both during his time with Milan and both against Liverpool.

    The Italian has certainly stood the test of time, with his 70 per cent win rate in his second stint with Madrid bettered only by the 75 per cent enjoyed the first time around in the Spanish capital, and now a shot at history – a fourth Champions League and an eighth European trophy – awaits.

    Against a familiar opponent in both Liverpool and Klopp, and in a city where he helped grow Paris Saint-Germain into a force to be reckoned with just over a decade ago, the stage is set for Ancelotti to further strengthen his claim as being the greatest of them all.

  • Eagles to join the elite, Browns set for AFC challenge - Who is projected to contend in the NFL in 2022? Eagles to join the elite, Browns set for AFC challenge - Who is projected to contend in the NFL in 2022?

    The start of the 2022 NFL season is still over three months away.

    However, rarely is it considered too early to make predictions about what is to come in the upcoming campaign.

    And, with the draft in the books, teams having made the vast majority of their offseason moves and the scheduled, we now have all the information we need to make such prognostications.

    So after an extremely dramatic offseason defined by blockbuster trades, which teams are in the mix to excel in 2022 and which should already have half an eye on the 2023 draft?

    To answer those questions, Stats Perform has produced projected totals for every team for the forthcoming season.

    The projection projects every future game to give a predicted win percentage for each team across their games.

    Rather than being a simulator of future games, the projections are calculated by looking at each team’s quarterback and QB Efficiency versus Expected – performance in terms of yards added in expected passing situations – as well as team values for pass protection/pass rush, skill position players/coverage defenders and run blocking/run defense.

    There are several standout takeaways from this season's projection, with a new power potentially emerging in the NFC and one of last year's Super Bowl teams seemingly set for regression.

    Eagles to join NFC elite?

    The Eagles suffered a meek exit to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild-card round of last season’s playoffs.

    Their win projection following an impressive 2022 offseason suggests replicating that this year would mark a gross underperformance. Indeed, Philadelphia's projected total of 12.0 is the second best in the NFC, trailing only defending champion Los Angeles Rams (12.2).

    The Eagles' position is built on their strength in the trenches. Philadelphia finished the 2021 season ranked fifth in pass-block win rate and second in run-block win rate.

    On the defensive side, the Eagles were eighth in pass-rush win rate and 11th in run disruption rate and made moves to boost both areas, signing Haason Reddick to a one-year deal after a second successive double-digit sack season in 2021 and drafting defensive tackle Jordan Davis – the star of the NFL Combine renowned for his ability to soak up double teams and excel against the run – in the first round.

    Philadelphia also improved the back seven through both the draft and free agency, taking advantage of the slide of Davis' former Georgia teammate Nakobe Dean to boost a linebacker group seen as a weakness. Dean had six sacks, six pass breakups, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2021.

    And last week, the Eagles signed cornerback James Bradberry to a one-year deal. With Bradberry and Darius Slay, the Eagles now have the only two players to register at least 15 interceptions and 80 or more pass breakups since 2016 in a secondary that finished 11th in open-allowed percentage last season.

    Quarterback Jalen Hurts' 10 rushing touchdowns were tied for the sixth most in the NFL last season. However, the pressure on him to improve as a passer will be immense following the Eagles' acquisition of A.J. Brown in a trade with the Tennessee Titans. Brown (32.8%) and the Eagles' 2021 first-round pick DeVonta Smith (35.0%) were both in the top 12 in big-play rate last year.

    Brown registered a burn (when the receiver wins his matchup with a defender when targeted by his quarterback) 64.0 per cent of the time (league average was 59.5%) and he tied for the league lead with 4.0 burn yards per route.

    Hurts had a 77.1 well-thrown percentage in 2021, which was below the NFL average of 77.9. An improvement will be needed for the Eagles to realise their potential. If that does not happen given the wealth of talent around him, then they may use their extra first-round pick in 2023 to help them find a quarterback better equipped to help them do so.

    Can the Vikes Challenge the Pack?

    The Vikings have not come close to challenging the Packers in the NFC North in recent times, missing the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.

    But the projection indicates that could change.

    Bidding to stay competitive while undergoing a sea change in the front office and at head coach with Kwesi Adofo-Mensah taking over as general manager and Kevin O’Connell replacing Mike Zimmer on the sideline, the Vikings have a win projection within striking distance of the Pack.

    There are several reasons for the gap between the two being so marginal. Aaron Rodgers was second in QB EVE last season, but Kirk Cousins was not too far behind in seventh for the Vikings.

    Cousins also has the advantage of throwing to a receiving group that won a collective 35.3 per cent of its coverage matchups in 2021. The Vikings were fourth in the NFL in that regard. The Packers were third but have since traded Davante Adams, whose combined open percentage against man and zone coverage of 46.6 per cent was fifth among receivers with at least 100 matchups.

    Thanks in part to an impressive 2021 season from Rashan Gary, the Packers were fourth in pass-rush win rate, but the Vikings were 10th and will hope to get Danielle Hunter healthy this year to aid their cause. And while Minnesota struggled on the offensive side of the trenches last season, their pass-block win rate standing of 26th was still only three spots below that of a Packers line that still has issues on the right side.

    The Packers remain the better football team in most areas, but the loss of Adams has levelled the playing field somewhat for Cousins, whose efficiency numbers reflect his ability to produce on a similar level to Rodgers in the passing game.

    Further narrowing the gap is the difference in schedules. The Packers face the 15th-toughest slate, but only eight teams have it easier than Minnesota on paper. The game is not played on paper, yet the numbers and the apparent quality of respective opponents point to the Packers looking over their shoulder in the division with more concern in 2022.

    The Trey Lance question

    It's difficult to make a judgment on how Trey Lance will perform as the San Francisco 49ers' starting quarterback after just two starts as a rookie last year.

    Lance produced some encouraging flashes when he did play, blending aggressiveness with accuracy. But the volatility in range of outcomes for a player of his inexperience is higher than that of the man he will likely replace as the starter – Jimmy Garoppolo.

    With the projection assuming Lance plays 75 per cent of the snaps and Garoppolo 25, the Niners – who went 10-7 last year before surging to the NFC championship game – are projected to win 8.4 games. That puts them second in the NFC West behind the Rams, with the Cardinals in third with 8.1 in part due to DeAndre Hopkins' six-game suspension.

    The takeaway from this is clear. The Niners, who were first in pass-rush win rate, eighth in run disruption rate, 10th in pass-block win rate, sixth in run-block win rate and 10th in collective open percentage among their pass catchers last season, have the support system to elevate Lance and ensure he keeps them in the mix.

    But playing the eighth-toughest schedule in the NFL, it's impossible to predict how a move from a player in Garoppolo, who was 10th in QB EVE in 2021, to a high-upside relative unknown will go.

    That's why one of the better rosters in the NFL finds itself closer to the middle of the pack. If Lance is who the Niners hope he is, they will quickly be back among the league's upper echelon. 

    The Deshaun Watson question

    While the Browns' trade for Deshaun Watson was the most controversial move of the offseason, there is no doubt his arrival in Cleveland has the potential to catapult them to the top of the AFC.

    The projection certainly expects his acquisition to have that impact, with the Browns predicted to win 10.8 games. That’s behind only the Kansas City Chiefs (11.2) and Buffalo Bills (10.9) in the AFC.

    Cleveland's schedule, which is the second-easiest in the NFL, plays a substantial role in the projection, which accounts for potential league discipline against Watson.

    The Browns' predicted win total is also illustrative of the gap between Watson and the man he will displace as the starting quarterback – Baker Mayfield. Watson was seventh in QB EVE in 2020, whereas only eight quarterbacks with at least 100 pass plays in expected passing situations had a worse EVE than Mayfield last year.

    Possessing a defensive line that was ranked in the top five in pass-rush win rate last year and an offensive line that was in the top 10 in run-block win rate along with two premier backs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, the Browns have the personnel in place to dictate games in the trenches. After landing Watson, they now boast a quarterback who can help them properly capitalise on their advantage in those areas.

    A Browns ascension could come at the expense of the AFC's representative in the Super Bowl last season – the Cincinnati Bengals. With a prediction of 8.1 wins, the projection does not anticipate the Bengals competing for the Lombardi Trophy in 2022. Instead, it expects a drastic bump back down to earth.

    So, with the Bengals playing the 21st-toughest schedule in the NFL, why is their projection so low? Though the Bengals have made moves to improve an offensive line that was 25th in pass-block win rate last year (acquiring Alex Cappa and La'El Collins), their roster is not in a position to survive a Joe Burrow injury.

    And with the Bengals' pass catchers 23rd in open percentage in 2021 and their defensive front 29th in pass-rush win rate, Cincinnati's projection serves as a clear indicator that the magic of last year’s playoff run may be very difficult to replicate.

    While the Bengals' win total is closely tied to an over-reliance on Burrow, the Miami Dolphins' projected number is a product of a lack of faith in the man he beat to the honour of the number one pick in 2020.

    Betting on Tua

    The Dolphins had a busy offseason making aggressive moves to help set Tua Tagovailoa up for success under first-year head coach Mike McDaniel. However, those big swings will not be enough for Miami to make the leap, at least according to the projection.

    A prediction of 7.8 wins and a third-place finish in the AFC East would represent a huge disappointment and likely push a franchise that has two first-round picks in 2023 to move on from Tagovailoa. Tua was 24th in QB EVE last season and, among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts, he averaged the seventh-fewest air yards in the NFL (7.35).

    While the Dolphins may look to use Tyreek Hill to stretch the field horizontally following his arrival in a blockbuster trade with the Chiefs, at this point it's tough to envision Tagovailoa making the most of having one of the best downfield weapons in the league at his disposal.

    The Dolphins do not look likely to challenge Buffalo in the AFC East, but it may be a familiar tale for the Bills in which they play second fiddle to the Chiefs. Though Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes went blow for blow in one of the finest playoff games in NFL history last season, there was a decent gap between the two in 2021 EVE with Mahomes third and Allen 11th.

    The Chiefs may have lost Hill this offseason, but – to make an obvious statement – as long as they have Mahomes under center, they will remain near the top of the conference.

    Playing behind an offensive line that was masterfully reconstructed in 2021 and ended the year third in pass-block win rate and first in run-block win rate, Mahomes still has the ecosystem around him to make the most of his remarkable gifts.

    The one thing that could hold him back is the strength of the division in which he plays.

    A tale of two divisions

    The Chiefs have seen the rest of the AFC West load up in an effort to end their reign in the division.

    Yet none of the high-profile moves made this offseason – Russell Wilson's switch from the Seattle Seahawks to the Denver Broncos, the Las Vegas Raiders trading for Davante Adams and the Los Angeles Chargers acquiring Khalil Mack and J.C. Jackson – will tilt the balance of power away from Kansas City, according to our model.

    But the AFC West looks set to take the title of the best division in football with all four teams projected to win over nine games.

    That is in marked contrast to the AFC South, where the Indianapolis Colts (8.6) have the highest total in the division.

    The Titans, meanwhile, are predicted to slump out of contention after earning the number one seed in the conference last season. The Titans have the seventh-toughest schedule in the NFL and are projected to win only 7.5 games after winning at least nine in each of their four seasons under Mike Vrabel.

    Despite traditionally remaining competitive under Vrabel, there are several red flags for Tennessee. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was 17th in EVE last year playing behind an offensive line that was 28th in pass-block win rate. 

    Tennessee's pass catchers ranked 18th in collective open percentage and on draft day traded Brown, who was third in combined open percentage (48.96) against man and zone coverage among receivers with at least 100 matchups in 2021. In other words, the deck is stacked against Tannehill preventing a poor division from being handed to the Colts.

    If their season goes as the projection expects, the Titans may start focusing on 2023 and building a contender around Malik Willis.

    And in the NFC South, it's probably not surprising that our model expects the Buccaneers to stay on top with Tom Brady back for another season.

  • Canelo set for September trilogy fight with Golovkin before Bivol rematch Canelo set for September trilogy fight with Golovkin before Bivol rematch

    Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez is set to announce a September trilogy fight against Gennadiy Golovkin, meaning his rematch with Dmitry Bivol must wait.

    Alvarez suffered only the second defeat of his professional career against Bivol this month after stepping up to light heavyweight.

    The Mexican has a rematch option, which he intends to activate, but first will face Golovkin for a third time at super middleweight, he told ESPN.

    "We already had that contract [with Golovkin], that agreement, so we have to continue what we started," he said.

    "I think those are the two biggest fights in boxing, the fight with Golovkin and the rematch with Bivol.

    "Unfortunately, we lost [to Bivol], but that doesn't mean I'm not going to try again. The important thing here is perseverance and we're going to do it again.

    "What is certain is that we are going to return in September. And in the coming days, we are going to announce the fight."

    A controversial split draw between Alvarez and Golovkin in September 2017 was followed by a Canelo win a year later. That remains the sole defeat of Golovkin's career.

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