4 days earlier than Saul Álvarez and Billy Joe Saunders had been scheduled to fulfill 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 struggle on Saturday night time.
Eddie Hearn, the promoter and the pinnacle of Matchroom Boxing, mentioned 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 mentioned, can be a file for an indoor boxing match in america, 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 basic 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 growth of capacities at baseball and basketball video games.
“That is boxing. Saturday night time, the world can be watching,” Hearn mentioned. “It’s so encouraging.”
However Saunders almost derailed the occasion on Wednesday when he threatened to stroll away over the scale of the ring. The fighters had agreed on a hoop dimension that’s pretty normal — 20 ft by 20 ft. However Saunders demanded a much bigger ring — 22 ft on both sides — 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, struggle followers anxious the bout is likely to be off.
Álvarez agreed to the expanded ring, although it figured to favor Saunders, an elusive boxer who wants room to function. .
Solely boxing might serve up that kind of last-minute plot twist. Think about the N.F.L. letting groups negotiate the scale of the sector, or the Pink Sox refusing to play the Yankees until they agreed to shorten the sport to 6 innings. This flirtation with self-sabotage, simply days earlier than the largest struggle up to now this yr, instructed that the boxing business was easing again into prepandemic habits.
The game was urgent ahead amid its common long-term uncertainty, whereas Álvarez ready to face Saunders in a conflict of world champions with a mixed file of 85-1-2.
“I’ve been in loads of necessary fights. That is one other day on the workplace,” Álvarez mentioned at a prefight information convention. “I all the time go 100%. Boxing is my life. I’m right here to win.”
In 2018, Golden Boy Promotions, which represented Álvarez, signed a $365 million contract with DAZN, the streaming service carrying Saturday’s struggle. 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. Outdoors 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 attainable 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 blended martial arts fighter, Ben Askren. On Thursday afternoon, Paul obtained 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.
These occasions won’t 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 huge mainstream occasions. Hearn acknowledges that boxing’s stakeholders might want to plan countermoves.
“If the struggle sport doesn’t step up and make nice fights, we’ll get overtaken,” he mentioned.
Saunders’s prefight gambit apart, Saturday’s bout is the alternative of a novelty. Saunders, 31, is a hard-to-hit southpaw who has gained all 30 of his professional fights. He moved as much as the 168-pound weight class in 2019, has defended his title twice, and has mentioned he is not going to be glad to easily share the ring with Álvarez.
“I don’t suppose we’ve had anyone come to win for a really, very very long time,” Saunders mentioned, referring to Álvarez’s current opponents. “We’ve had lots of people flip up, fly in, gather checks and fly out. However we haven’t had the center and soul and I.Q. that I’ll carry to the desk.”
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 as much as the light-heavyweight division, the place he knocked out Sergey Kovalev for a world title.
“He’s an important fighter,” Álvarez mentioned of Saunders at a information convention on Thursday. “However I’m not the identical fighter I used to be six or seven years in the past.”
Álvarez stays a key element of DAZN’s plan to develop its presence in america. In different nations, the streaming service has rights for occasions like N.F.L. video games, Premier League soccer and worldwide rugby. However in america 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 a detailed choice to him the next yr. Joe Markowski, the corporate’s govt vice chairman, has been specific about DAZN’s want for a 3rd struggle between them. However Golovkin would virtually actually have so as to add weight and transfer as much as Álvarez’s division, and he 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 struggle the American super-middleweight Caleb Plant than face Golovkin once more.
“What we respect about Canelo is his pursuit of greatness,” Markowski mentioned, referring to Álvarez’s aspiration to unify the 168-pound title. “If he beats Saunders, the final piece of that puzzle is Caleb Plant. However the Golovkin struggle holds a particular place within the hearts of boxing followers.”
Plant, the Worldwide Boxing Federation champion, is signed with Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions, which has partnerships with Fox and Showtime. Understanding a deal between him and Álvarez would imply extra wrangling over purse splits, promotional rights and broadcast platforms, which in flip might result in typical boxing chaos. Final month, the heavyweight champions Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury reportedly had a $150 million deal for a struggle 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.