Yes, Canelo Alvarez has been beaten — once. And he has been in close fights, and has been in trouble more than once. But if there’s a boxer who could be considered invincible at this time, the middleweight and super middleweight world titleholder checks all the boxes.
Alvarez (55-1-2, 37 KOs), 30, of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, who faces Billy Joe Saunders (30-0, 14 KOs), 31, of Hertfordshire, England, on Saturday, hasn’t lost a fight since dropping a unanimous decision against Floyd Mayweather in 2013. That’s almost eight years ago.
Since then, he had a close fight against Erislandy Lara and battled to a split draw and a close decision victory in two fights against Gennadiy Golovkin. Even before the Mayweather fight, Alvarez got some trouble from Austin Trout.
But coming close doesn’t win you any titles in boxing. So, while some fighters have been successful here and there in moments against Alvarez, how do you beat him?
ESPN asked former fighters and trainers about a game plan — and how to execute it — that could be successful against Alvarez.
Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Timothy Bradley Jr., ESPN boxing analyst, former junior welterweight and welterweight world titlist
First of all, I think people need to understand the evolution of Alvarez before I tell you how you can beat him.
Alvarez has evolved over the years, from the moment he was 21, to when he fought the best fighter at the time in Floyd Mayweather, to what he is now. From the beginning of his career, Alvarez was a counterpuncher, but not only that, he was also an aggressive fighter. But since his matchup with Mayweather, Alvarez has copied that dominant success of Mayweather: defense. That hit-and-don’t-get-hit style is his game now. And that enables him to kill two birds with one stone. The defense helps with his offense, as far as counterpunching, and the defense helps with weakening his opponent’s stamina and taking away their game plan.
It’s difficult to follow a game plan if you cannot hit the other man, so imagine also being hit in return during the process. Alvarez is the best at this, as he will stand directly in front of his opponent, and being at close range, he will force his opponent to make mental mistakes because of his lethal presence. Then he makes his opponents pay for their misses. The formula is pressure plus defense equals offense. And this formula can be used any way. Offense plus pressure can equal defense; or defense plus offense can equal pressure.
The best way to beat Alvarez is with movement. He can be either heavy on the front foot or heavy on the back foot, meaning right in front of you, close enough to hit you, covered up in a defensive shell, or on the back foot retreating, normally headed toward the ropes, where he is extremely comfortable.
The name of the game against him is hit and turn the corner. Guys like Lara, Trout, Mayweather, these are guys that in the past have given Alvarez fits. Alvarez will cover up and look for offense. If you step around him, he will have to reset his positioning, as you have moved around him — meaning you hit him, you step around him and force Alvarez to reset. Alvarez has a tendency of standing in front, and he will block shots, he will use his defense and occasionally he’ll counter. But if you pick up your feet and you turn the corner on him, now he has to reset. He will have to do that and then try to find you, and when he resets again, that’s when you do it again — you hit him and you move, you hit him and you move, you have to go around him.
But let me be clear: There’s not just one way to beat Alvarez.
One must take into consideration that Alvarez will make adjustments, and he will focus on your body to slow you down, to slow your movement down. So, with this fight, Saunders has a good style, he can move very, very well and he’s fighting from the southpaw stance. He knows how to step around and make Alvarez reset, but at the same time he needs to be aware that Alvarez will be able to make adjustments and will attack his body to slow down his movement.
But when he does that, opportunities will be present upstairs. So in this case, it’s wise to risk standing in front of Alvarez and fight him in spots to get him to retreat. And if you are able to make Alvarez retreat, attack his body, as his head is always moving.
I’ve seen in the past that Alvarez’s conditioning is not his greatest strength, so any hope of defeating him requires you to be in the greatest possible shape ever. And I’m not referring to physical strength. What I’m saying is your midsection and your gas tank must be superior when you face this guy, because Alvarez is going to attack your body. He’s gonna bring you down by attacking your body.
People must understand that Alvarez has been beaten, and the blueprint is out on him. He can be outboxed.
What I’m saying is that it’s gonna take a fighter that not only can box, but one who has really good timing and also some pop on his shots. You gotta have some power. I don’t think Saunders has the pop needed to keep Alvarez at bay or tame Alvarez. I don’t think he’s disciplined enough to be able to keep his hands at home and make Alvarez miss and make him pay.
Back when Alvarez was 21 years old, Mayweather was able to do that. He was able to nullify the distance, he was able to make Alvarez miss, make him pay in spots, control the distance, use movement to frustrate Alvarez and just outbox him.
I think that that is still the best way to beat Alvarez, but he’s gotten better since then, so that’s the biggest issue. He’s gotten a lot smarter since he fought Mayweather, his defense has gotten a lot better, his counterpunching got a lot better. He’s so much more creative with his offense and in breaking guys down and cutting off the ring, so maybe this game plan to beat Alvarez still works, but then again, this guy is so smart. He knows how to make adjustments, so it’s gonna take a really smart fighter to beat a guy like Alvarez, too. He has to be very, very smart, technically sound, have some pop, be able to box and move well.
The best thing that Saunders has going for himself right now is the fact that he has really good footwork. But the problem with Saunders is that he’s not disciplined with his hands, at all. He has a lot of defensive flaws, even though he looks like he’s very slippery and slick in the ring. Alvarez will be able to pinpoint not only his body but also pinpoint his head and cut him off, and that’s the biggest issue that I see with Saunders. And I don’t think Saunders has enough pop to get the respect from Alvarez. I think in the long run, Alvarez will feel that Saunders can’t hurt him and I think he’ll be willing to take more risks to break him down, to cut him off and to try to knock him out.
The strangest thing is that Alvarez has gotten so good that he literally walked down Golovkin. GGG is one of the most powerful middleweights that we’ve seen in recent years, and Alvarez was able to walk him down and take his best punch, which was dangerous. That shows you how crafty Alvarez is. He knows where he can hide in the ring, he understands where he’s safe at all times, he understands his distance and where he needs to be and he knows how to set up his counters.
Matthew Hatton, lost to Alvarez by unanimous decision in 2011
When I boxed Alvarez, he was only 20, but even then he was so experienced. I didn’t realize quite how good he was until I got in the ring with him. I equipped myself well and it was a good, entertaining fight, and I can look back on taking a true legend of the sport 12 rounds. I knew straight away he was super fighter — he was very strong and picked his punches so well. It was a painful night for me.
I was a career welterweight and he had a huge size advantage, so I was really up against it. It was like going into battle with a peashooter, but Billy won’t have that disadvantage. I showed a lot of grit and stubbornness — I needed those attributes.
I never like to say anyone is unbeatable, but around these weight classes, Alvarez is. You don’t see him hurt in fights. He has just developed into a complete fighter over the years. He’s fought a lot of British boxers over the years, and each time I didn’t see any of them beating him. The style that could give him trouble, though, is Saunders’ style, with the footwork, boxing skills and elusiveness. He could test him better than anyone; I don’t expect him to win, but he could cause Alvarez some problems.
Billy has great footwork. I don’t think Alvarez has any weaknesses, but he could improve his foot speed. Billy has got the skills and moves well, and those two attributes combined would cause anyone problems. Lara was a southpaw like Billy and he moved around a lot against Alvarez, and Billy could do the same. Both Golovkin fights were close, but Alvarez seems to get better and better with every fight.
Amir Khan impressed me in the early rounds and he’s so fast, but it wasn’t a great matchup stylistically and I was watching that fight between my fingers because sooner or later I knew Alvarez would catch up with him.
I think Saunders will be doing well in the fight, especially early on, I think he will have some great moments, but I see a late stoppage around the 10th round. I just don’t think there’s anybody to beat Alvarez, really.
Teddy Atlas, boxing trainer, analyst and host of ‘The Fight with Teddy Atlas’ podcast
Everyone is beatable, and Alvarez is on that list. He’s a good fighter and he’s progressed — he’s improved in time like a good wine — but he’s beatable. Part of the genius of Alvarez is that his team has been pretty smart picking his spots and picking opponents. The guys he’s beaten — it’s not that he’s beaten great fighters, they’re guys he’s supposed to beat, and he’s done it in a way where he’s looked good doing it.
When you’re breaking down the quality and level of a fighter, the level of opponents go into it. It has to be part of the assessment. The guys that he’s fought aren’t high-level guys.
You have to have a quality fighter to beat Alvarez. That’s a simple explanation, but a true explanation. Put him in with an Andre Ward or the Charlo brothers (middleweight titlist Jermall Charlo and junior middleweight unified titleholder Jermell Charlo) or even David Benavidez. Put him in with light heavyweights titlists Artur Beterbiev or Dmitry Bivol, and you’ll find out how to beat him. The guys that are mentally tough enough with good technique and skills will show you how to beat him. I’d make him an underdog against both those light heavyweights. That’s the true picture of Alvarez.
Floyd Mayweather beat him. Mayweather was smart defensively, he has quick hands. He made him miss, made him pay. He wasn’t waiting around for the receipt. He didn’t expose his body, he didn’t give Alvarez an opportunity to put water in the basement. Mayweather was quicker to close the gap. Alvarez’s feet were too slow. I know Alvarez has progressed since Mayweather.
So how do you actually beat him? You don’t need Superman to fly down from Planet Krypton to get this done. If you have a fighter who knows how to fight defensively, can counterpunch, can use his legs on the outside, control the perimeter of the ring and not expose his body by laying in front too long, that fighter can win. The worst type of opponent for Alvarez is one who can box on the outside and be a combination of a loose and large fighter who is defensively responsible. Someone who is slick in the ring, like Erislandy Lara, who showed he can counterpunch. That opponent needs to be mentally tough, too.
There are really two paths to victory for an opponent against Alvarez: Have enough pop in your punch to gain his respect so he won’t walk you down or, if you don’t have the pop, be disciplined enough to keep a certain range and distance and have the offensive success you need from the outside.
Saunders was a good choice for Alvarez, and after him, Caleb Plant is too. I think both Saunders and Plant will give Alvarez room to work the body. Both are fights that won’t be highly contested.
Sergio Mora, DAZN boxing analyst, former junior middleweight world titlist
Alvarez is at the top of his game. He’s developed a whole lot even since the GGG fights. His head movement has improved, his jab’s improved, body shots, the selection of punches, and that’s bad for a fighter who is trying to beat him.
What those fighters — Golovkin, Mayweather, Lara — did well against Alvarez was to jab. Whatever fighter plans on beating Alvarez has to include a good jab. GGG outjabbed Alvarez in their first fight. Lara had a brilliant jab and kept Alvarez at bay, and of course Mayweather beat him with the jab. Trout had success against Alvarez with that jab, so if you have no jab you are not going to beat Alvarez. Saunders has a good jab, he puts his punches together nicely, and if he could focus on that jab, and lateral movement, and defense, and put his punches together and land body shots, and you know, fight that type of fight, Saunders can have success against Alvarez. But all these fighters who have given Alvarez difficulties had a brilliant jab, not just a good jab, but really a brilliant jab.
And you have to have a really good jab, a power jab, a fast jab, a pesky jab, a jab where you can hit the shoulders, the chest, go down to the body, use feints. It’s a different kind of jab. And then, lateral movements, moving side to side. Not backing up, because Alvarez is gonna push you back. So, lateral movement and jab is what we’ve seen have success against Alvarez so far.
Daniel Jacobs was boxing really well against Alvarez, but he forgot to fight, and that’s when he gave the fight away. The game plan, you need to do it for 12 rounds if you want to beat Alvarez.
Callum Smith was a fighter I really thought was going to give Alvarez the biggest problems of his career since Mayweather, and we saw that didn’t happen.
How do you beat Alvarez? Right now I think he is at the top of his game. He’s at the strongest and I think he’s almost that unbeatable fighter. You can have success against him, but can you do it for 36 minutes? We haven’t seen Alvarez getting hurt in the ring, so I don’t I don’t think you can knock him out because no one’s hurt him, not visibly at least. And when it comes to Saunders, he’s not a tremendous puncher. So the key is to outbox Alvarez, put some rounds in the bank and hope you get a decision — that’s the only established way that we’ve seen him get beat.
Raul Marquez, former U.S. Olympian and junior middleweight champion, Showtime boxing analyst
I believe that since he lost to Mayweather, Alvarez has drastically improved his defense. To beat him, I would think you would have to put intelligent pressure on him and make him miss, make him pay for his mistakes. Mix it up, put pressure, fight from the outside, but make him miss and make him pay, just like Mayweather did.
But now, his defense has improved a lot, so I think when you let him set, when you let him think, that’s when you get the best of Alvarez. You can’t let him get set, you can’t let him think too much. You gotta push him back, but when you push him back and you attack, it has to be at an angle, like Mayweather did, throw punches from different places. Like Manny Pacquiao — stylistically, he’s all over the place, he throws sometimes from the right, sometimes from the left, but he’s throwing three-, four-, five-punch combinations from different angles, up and down and varying his combinations. And to do that, you are gonna have to take some shots from Alvarez to be able to follow that game plan, so it’s not that easy.
You have to be consistent against Alvarez, you have to be able to follow your game plan for all 12 rounds. You gotta be in great shape and not wear yourself out. A lot of fighters had success against Alvarez for three or four rounds, but I mean, anybody who is fighting Alvarez is motivated and wants to do well and do well for a few rounds, but after that, the most successful opponents have been fighters who are able to adapt and make changes or follow through with their game plan on a consistent basis. If you’re not consistent or if you run out of gas or you lose focus, then Alvarez will take over because he’s a very talented fighter.
When he beat Golovkin in their second fight, that’s when I was convinced that he was elite. My respects to Alvarez. And I’m not saying I wasn’t convinced before, but at the time I wasn’t sure this guy was a super superstar. But the way he beat GGG, and I’ve seen his improvement and how hard he’s worked since his loss to Mayweather, Alvarez has shown he’s a very good fighter, with power. He knows how to use the ring, he’s very confident, he stays very focused and calm in there and he follows his game plan. He’s a smart guy and hard to beat, very hard to beat.
Freddie Roach, trainer, inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2012
For Saunders, he must set the pace. That means throwing a high volume of punches. He will also need to back Alvarez up and prevent him from getting set so he can throw those counterpunches. That is so important. Alvarez is a great counterpuncher. You cannot allow him to throw them with authority. Keep moving him, and keep him back. Of course, all of this will also require Saunders coming to this fight in the best condition of his life.