Four days earlier than Saul Álvarez and Billy Joe Saunders had been scheduled to meet in a high-stakes boxing match at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, organizers had been giddy over the ticket gross sales projections for his or her super-middleweight title combat on Saturday night time.
Eddie Hearn, the promoter and the top of Matchroom Boxing, stated the matchup — between Álvarez, a 30-year-old from Mexico nicknamed Canelo who holds the W.B.C. and W.B.A. titles at 168 kilos, and Saunders, the undefeated W.B.O. champion from England — was anticipated to yield a sellout of 70,000 tickets.
That determine, Hearn stated, can be a report for an indoor boxing match within the United States, surpassing the 63,350 spectators on the Superdome in New Orleans for a Muhammad Ali-Leon Spinks fight in 1978. The attendance would even be the newest signal of a normal opening up of enormous occasions within the nation as pandemic-related restrictions have eased, permitting substantial crowds for the N.F.L. draft and the Kentucky Derby, in addition to the enlargement of capacities at baseball and basketball video games.
“This is boxing. Saturday night, the world will be watching,” Hearn stated. “It’s so encouraging.”
But Saunders practically derailed the occasion on Wednesday when he threatened to stroll away over the dimensions of the ring. The fighters had agreed on a hoop measurement that’s pretty normal — 20 toes by 20 toes. But Saunders demanded an even bigger ring — 22 toes on either side — and issued an ultimatum to Álvarez’s camp. Saunders instructed Hearn to fly him again to England if Álvarez refused, and for a couple of tense hours, combat followers nervous the bout is perhaps off.
Álvarez agreed to the expanded ring, although it figured to favor Saunders, an elusive boxer who wants room to function. .
Only boxing might serve up that kind of last-minute plot twist. Imagine the N.F.L. letting groups negotiate the dimensions of the sphere, or the Red Sox refusing to play the Yankees until they agreed to shorten the sport to six innings. This flirtation with self-sabotage, simply days earlier than the largest combat up to now this yr, urged that the boxing business was easing again into prepandemic habits.
The sport was urgent ahead amid its typical long-term uncertainty, whereas Álvarez ready to face Saunders in a conflict of world champions with a mixed report of 85-1-2.
“I’ve been in a lot of important fights. This is another day at the office,” Álvarez stated at a prefight information convention. “I always go 100 percent. Boxing is my life. I’m here to win.”
In 2018, Golden Boy Promotions, which represented Álvarez, signed a $365 million contract with DAZN, the streaming service carrying Saturday’s combat. The deal relied on Álvarez’s drawing energy and assured 11 Álvarez bouts. Then his relationship with Golden Boy dissolved in a flurry of lawsuits, however he and his built-in viewers remained with DAZN. Outside the heavyweight division, Álvarez is the largest single attract aggressive boxing.
That distinction is necessary whereas the game rides out a wave of attention-grabbing novelty fights. A November exhibition between Roy Jones Jr. and Mike Tyson (mixed age: 105) spawned negotiations for more such bouts, together with ones pitting Jones in opposition to Joe Calzaghe and the 63-year-old Thomas Hearns and a doable rematch between Tyson and Lennox Lewis.
Then there’s Jake Paul, the YouTube personality-turned-boxer who parlayed a knockout of a retired basketball participant, Nate Robinson, on the Tyson-Jones undercard right into a pay-per-view windfall for a bout in opposition to a retired combined martial arts fighter, Ben Askren. On Thursday afternoon, Paul acquired extra consideration after he and Floyd Mayweather Jr. traded insults and shoves at an occasion hyping Mayweather’s June 6 exhibition in opposition to Paul’s brother, Logan.
Those occasions may not captivate the avid boxing followers who plan a Saturday night time round Álvarez and Saunders, however they entice the broad audiences that flip title fights into massive mainstream occasions. Hearn acknowledges that boxing’s stakeholders will want to plan countermoves.
“If the fight game doesn’t step up and make great fights, we’ll get overtaken,” he stated.
Saunders’s prefight gambit apart, Saturday’s bout is the other of a novelty. Saunders, 31, is a hard-to-hit southpaw who has received all 30 of his professional fights. He moved up to the 168-pound weight class in 2019, has defended his title twice, and has stated he won’t be happy to merely share the ring with Álvarez.
“I don’t think we’ve had anybody come to win for a very, very long time,” Saunders stated, referring to Álvarez’s current opponents. “We’ve had a lot of people turn up, fly in, collect checks and fly out. But we haven’t had the heart and soul and I.Q. that I will bring to the table.”
The final time Álvarez confronted a fighter as dedicated to motion and protection as Saunders is, he misplaced. That was in 2013, when he confronted Mayweather. Since then, Álvarez has collected 14 victories and briefly moved up to the light-heavyweight division, the place he knocked out Sergey Kovalev for a world title.
“He’s a great fighter,” Álvarez stated of Saunders at a information convention on Thursday. “But I’m not the same fighter I was six or seven years ago.”
Álvarez stays a key part of DAZN’s plan to increase its presence within the United States. In different international locations, the streaming service has rights for occasions like N.F.L. video games, Premier League soccer and worldwide rugby. But within the United States it has positioned itself as a boxing-first platform, placing it in competitors with the premium cable outlet Showtime and the streaming service FITE TV.
DAZN has offers with Álvarez and the middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, who fought Álvarez to a attract 2017 and misplaced an in depth determination to him the next yr. Joe Markowski, the corporate’s govt vice chairman, has been specific about DAZN’s need for a 3rd combat between them. But Golovkin would nearly actually have to add weight and transfer up to Álvarez’s division, and he just lately turned 39, elevating questions on how lengthy he can compete on the most elite stage. Álvarez maintains that if he beats Saunders he would fairly combat the American super-middleweight Caleb Plant than face Golovkin once more.
“What we respect about Canelo is his pursuit of greatness,” Markowski stated, referring to Álvarez’s aspiration to unify the 168-pound title. “If he beats Saunders, the last piece of that puzzle is Caleb Plant. But the Golovkin fight holds a special place in the hearts of boxing fans.”
Plant, the International Boxing Federation champion, is signed with Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions, which has partnerships with Fox and Showtime. Working out a deal between him and Álvarez would imply extra wrangling over purse splits, promotional rights and broadcast platforms, which in flip could lead on to typical boxing chaos. Last month, the heavyweight champions Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury reportedly had a $150 million deal for a combat in Saudi Arabia. Then, abruptly, they didn’t.
Saturday’s bout will occur, however nothing past Álvarez-Saunders is assured. Boxing followers acknowledge that uncertainty. For them, it’s an indication the game is again to regular.