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Canelo Alvarez named mandatory challenger for Billy Joe Saunders

Canelo Alvarez was awarded middleweight mandatory challenger status by the WBO on Tuesday, setting him up for a possible fight with world titleholder Billy Joe Saunders this spring.

On Dec. 10, Golden Boy Promotions, Alvarez's promoter, requested the position for Alvarez.

Alvarez is the reigning WBO junior middleweight titleholder, but he intends to move up to middleweight to fight at least once more before an expected September 2017 megafight with unified middleweight world titleholder Gennady Golovkin, as long as each boxer wins an intervening fight.

The WBO awarded Alvarez the requested position over Avtandil Khurtsidze, whom the organization ranks No. 1. On Dec. 8, Khurtsidze also requested the mandatory position to fight Saunders, who was well over the time limit to make a mandatory defense, which is every nine months, per WBO rules.

In its resolution on Tuesday, the WBO wrote that the organization's championship committee had to "decide, per WBO regulations, and in the best interest of the sport, which of these fighters will be designated the mandatory challenger."

Khurtsidze (32-2-2, 21 KOs), 37, a native of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and based in New York, is coming off a 10th-round knockout victory against then-undefeated Antoine Douglas in his biggest win on March 5.

But in naming Alvarez the mandatory challenger, the WBO cited his extensive résumé against top-flight opponents, including wins against Miguel Cotto, Erislandy Lara and Austin Trout.

The WBO said Alvarez has become "a boxing fan's idol" and is a "crowd favorite, with more than 52,000 fans present in his recent bout against Liam Smith in Dallas. He is the top pay-per-view fighter on HBO, [and] his presence has given that category a renewed interest in boxing. At this moment, [he] will give boxing the maximum required exposure.

"In view of the facts presented above, in accordance with the WBO regulations, and weighing the merits to be considered, the championship committee has decided that, in the best interest of boxing, Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez should be the mandatory challenger."

The Khurtsidze camp has 10 days to appeal the ruling.

Alvarez, 26, was the former middleweight world champion -- albeit fighting those bouts at a contract weight of 155 pounds -- but he vacated his title and moved down to junior middleweight in September, before knocking out Smith in the ninth round to win a world title.

Alvarez (48-1-1, 34 KOs), of Mexico, suffered an avulsion fracture in his right thumb against Smith, forcing him to give up a Dec. 10 date for his next fight. There is a chance Alvarez could return in February, but that is unlikely, according to Golden Boy president Eric Gomez.

Instead, Alvarez likely will wait for his first 160-pound fight on May 6 -- Cinco de Mayo weekend -- and it could come against Saunders.

"We haven't decided yet what we want to do," Gomez told ESPN. "We'll make a decision after the holidays. It's looking more and more like we're going to wait for Canelo's next fight until May. We don't want to take any chances with his hand. You have to be careful. We want to make sure it's 100 percent. The doctor hasn't given him clearance yet. He'll go see the doctor after Christmas.

"If we don't pursue the mandatory with Saunders, there are a couple of other options."

One of the options is a possible all-Mexican catchweight showdown between Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (50-2-1, 32 KOs) at around 164 pounds. The camps have been talking about the fight in recent weeks.

Of course, if Alvarez faces Saunders in May and wins, it would set up the Golovkin bout as a unification fight.

Golovkin is scheduled to fight Daniel Jacobs in a match between the top two 160-pound boxers in the world on March 18 on HBO PPV at New York's Madison Square Garden. That fight was announced on Saturday.

Saunders (24-0, 12 KOs), 27, of England, outpointed Andy Lee to win the belt last December. Saunders did not fight again until making his first defense on Dec. 3 in a very shaky unanimous decision win against Artur Akavov in Paisley, Scotland.