The 73,126 paid spectators who watched the supermiddleweight champion Saul Álvarez pound Billy Joe Saunders into submission over eight rounds on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, set an attendance record at an indoor boxing match in the United States. Their presence proved that boxing, a sport often declared dead, or at least passé, can still draw a robust audience.
Circumstances mattered, and Saturday’s bout, in which Álvarez — already the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council champion — won Saunders’s World Boxing Organization title, most likely tapped into pent-up demand. It was the first major boxing card, and one of a few pro sports events in the United States, to take place without attendance restrictions since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
It also happened on the weekend after Cinco de Mayo and featured Álvarez, a 30-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, who is nicknamed Canelo, as the protagonist. Álvarez, one of the biggest draws in boxing, made a reported $15 million guarantee for the win, along with bonuses that could potentially more than double his payout.
All those numbers helped solidify Álvarez’s status as a one-man stimulus package, generating money for promoters and broadcasters, and for fighters jockeying for a shot to challenge him despite their long odds against winning.
The undefeated middleweight Demetrius Andrade crashed the postfight news conference to challenge Álvarez, even though his résumé doesn’t suggest he would threaten Álvarez, the four-division world champion. Álvarez, who usually answers reporters’ questions in Spanish, dismissed Andrade in English, with terse words as well placed as his punches were Saturday night.
“Payday. Payday. You want a payday. I know,” Álvarez said before firing a few English swear words at Andrade.
Even before he dispatched Saunders, Álvarez had targeted the International Boxing Federation champion Caleb Plant for a title fight later in 2021. Plant is signed with Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions, and his fights usually appear on Fox. Álvarez’s win on Saturday was the second in a two-fight deal with Matchroom Boxing, which has an eight-year, $1 billion deal to place fights on the streaming service DAZN.
Matchroom Sport’s chairman, Eddie Hearn, is now tasked with persuading Álvarez to work with him for future fights, but thinks the fighter’s current status as a broadcast free agent should simplify making a deal with Plant’s camp. The fight will land with the outfit that makes the best bid.
“The numbers on DAZN tonight were astronomical,” Hearn said at the postfight news conference. “They’re going to have to, and they will, make a huge offer for that fight. Fox will also make a huge offer, but he’s free to make the fights he wants to make.”
In the ring Saturday night, Álvarez’s composure and precise punching produced an unambiguous result in front of a massive crowd. The attendance record for an indoor boxing match in the United States had been 63,352, when Muhammad Ali defeated Leon Spinks at the Superdome in New Orleans in 1978.
Last week, Saunders, 31, of Hatfield, England, threatened not to fight unless Álvarez agreed to expand the ring to 22 feet by 22 feet. The fighters had previously agreed to dimensions of 20 feet, but Saunders, an elusive southpaw who entered Saturday’s match undefeated, figured the extra space would benefit him.
Álvarez granted Saunders the bigger ring, then stalked him, landing heavy body shots. Saunders used the big ring to move about and box from a distance. In the fourth round, he speared the advancing Álvarez with two jabs and later landed a roundhouse left to the temple.
But Álvarez, whose record is 56-1-2, kept pounding Saunders’s midsection and trying to bait him into a mistake. In the eighth round, Saunders sprung forward to throw a right hook. As Álvarez leaned back to dodge the punch, he cocked his right fist. When Saunders leaned into punching range, Álvarez unleashed a right uppercut that hit Saunders in the eye, which immediately swelled and turned purple.
Saunders survived the round, but retired on his stool instead of continuing to fight.
Spectators booed Saunders, who is 30-1, and boxing fans on Twitter engaged in familiar debates about whether quitting a fight signals a lack of courage. But Álvarez said he felt a bone break in Saunders’s face when he landed that uppercut, and said fighting with one functioning eye would have endangered Saunders’s life.
“I know what I did with that punch,” said Álvarez, who was winning on all three official scorecards when Saunders opted out. “I knew he wasn’t going to come out of the corner. I broke his cheekbone.”
The reported diagnosis was a broken orbital bone, and the broadcast showed medics loading Saunders, still in his boxing trunks and boots, into an ambulance.
Álvarez headed to the news conference, where he batted back Andrade’s challenge and where reporters asked about other potential opponents. DAZN’s leadership has been explicit about wanting a third fight between Álvarez and the middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, who is signed with Matchroom Boxing.
“They can wait their turn,” said Eddy Reynoso, Álvarez’s manager. “We’re beating champions.”
The fighter and the manager restated their desire to fight Plant. A win in that bout would make Álvarez the first Mexican fighter to hold every major sanctioning body’s supermiddleweight title simultaneously.
After Saturday turned to Sunday, the PBConFox Instagram account posted a photo illustration of Álvarez and Plant in the ring together, suggesting a mutual desire to make that fight happen. For his part, Hearn thinks an Álvarez-Plant deal is possible without the interpromotional squabbling that often stops major fights from happening.
“It’s a very straightforward process, and that process should start immediately,” Hearn said.