Fist in the air, Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez’s crescendo was as poignant as it was violent, a moment to remember how a vociferous crowd can influence a fight.
Canelo was a matador in that eighth round after delivering the uppercut that would ultimately decide Saunders’ fate. His smile was sadistic – he knew Saunders was on his last legs and wanted boxing’s biggest post-pandemic crowd to rejoice in the savage ending.
The finale was one of those slow, excruciating finishes when the message is transmitted from the beaten fighter’s corner, through the referee, to the victor, and then to the baying mob. It can be a particularly cruel way to lose, the exact opposite to a split-second knockout.
The white towel that Saunders draped over his head was a reaction to the searing pain of his eye injury but really it was to shield him from the outside world and the intrusive questions that would come. Did he quit?
We now know he suffered multiple fractures to his orbital bone. Until then, he had boxed skilfully in flashes although Canelo was landing harder and more often. Defeat was Saunders’ first in 30 fights.
The stoppage decision by his trainer Mark Tibbs was justified by what we now know of the injury. But it was an ironic twist after some of what Saunders has said.
He criticised Daniel Dubois for being unable to battle through a broken orbital against Joe Joyce. That now seems like tempting fate – Dubois is only 23, and set to come again.
The fines incurred over the years from the British Boxing Board of Control mean Saunders was running thin of defenders – Chris Eubank Jr, his old rival, was the first to laugh at his expense.
But it is worth revisiting what Paulie Malignaggi, who went the distance with Miguel Cotto despite suffering a broken orbital bone, told Sky Sports after Kell Brook sustained the injury for a second time in 2017.
“When you’re young and you haven’t accomplished anything, there’s more fire there,” Malignaggi said. “When you’re older, you think about these things more and more. You think about family, your life, and it puts things in perspective.”
What fire remains within Saunders, a two-weight world champion, is something to consider another time as he recovers from surgery in a Texas hospital.
What matters now is that his conqueror Canelo, now the WBA, WBC and WBO super-middleweight champion, looks as close to unbeatable as exists in the sport.
The Mexican is a champion in four divisions and is targeting Caleb Plant’s IBF belt next to become undisputed. If he manages it, it will be one of the great 10-month runs in modern history – beating a trio of unbeaten champions in Callum Smith, Saunders, and Plant to take over a division.
This fight with Saunders showed a nasty side to Canelo, something rarely drawn out of his poise, and also new insight to his personality as he spoke English. It became a fascinating examination of how he is as brutal as he is brilliant.
You don’t make it out of Guadalajara as a success story without major fortitude.
He reacted angrily to Saunders’ prodding in the days prior – but years earlier, he was stony silent in the build-up to a fight with Rocky Fielding as he negotiated the ransom of his kidnapped brother from a gang in Mexico. He isn’t easily fazed.
His reaction to Saunders’ mind games of demanding a ring with specific dimensions was to shrug, allow it, and not accept it as a disadvantage.
Then his put-down of Demetrius Andrade, who invaded his victory speech on Saturday night, was cold and withering. Canelo also has a great sense of humour. Who knew?
This is the finest fighter alive at his absolute peak in the middle of an historic run. His two fights with Gennadiy Golovkin, once perceived as defining, now feel like a previous chapter to a career destined for more greatness. His sole loss, to Floyd Mayweather in 2013, feels like it belongs to a totally different boxer altogether.
What comes next for the youngest of seven brothers who became professional fighters seems certain – a fight with Plant for undisputed supremacy followed by further bids for history in front of more record-breaking crowds (the 73,126 inside the home of the Dallas Cowboys for Saturday’s fight was an all-time indoors high in the US).
For Saunders, it is bleaker but that is the barbaric reality about losing on such a stage. He will have major accusations thrown at him, as he once threw at others. But there is always a way back if he wants one – Britain’s most controversial boxer won’t disappear quietly.