John ‘The Gorilla’ Ryder enters the lion’s den on Saturday night, hoping to tame the king of the boxing beasts, Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez.
The Briton will challenge for champion Alvarez’s super-middleweight crown in a bid to become England’s first undisputed male champion in the four-belt era.
Fighting in Mexican Alvarez’s home city of Guadalajara, a win for Ryder would go down as the greatest overseas victory for a British fighter and a colossal shock in boxing history.
The odds are stacked against the 34-year-old underdog. Alvarez is the face of boxing: a four-weight champion who is fighting on home soil for the first time in 12 years.
Add to the mix the 50,000 fans expected to fill out the Estadio Akron on Cinco de Mayo weekend, the anniversary of Mexico’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, and the task becomes a great deal harder.
But Ryder insists he will not be overawed by the occasion and is manifesting an upset.
“Every night I lay there, sit there, visualise it – speaking it into existence,” he tells BBC Sport. “It would be an amazing feeling. Especially being in his home town on such a prestigious event.
“This is perfect timing for me. I feel like I’m mature in myself. My boxing ability is probably the best it’s ever been.”
From doorman to golden-ticket Alvarez bout
On the drive from Guadalajara airport to the city centre, you see Islington-born Ryder’s face plastered across billboards promoting the fight.
It is an extraordinary journey for a fighter who just a few years ago was subsidising his income by working as a doorman at a London nightclub.
“I’ve got to be thankful to the people who did believe in me because at times I didn’t believe in myself,” Ryder says.
“Maybe that’s part of the issue. Self-belief in boxing has got to be sky high, in and out of the ring and in life in general. But it’s there now. I’m relishing the opportunity.”
Ryder is the lucky recipient of boxing’s golden ticket – a lucrative fight against the biggest pay-per-view star – and plans to spend a portion of the career-high payday on buying a new house for his partner and two young children.
Nicknamed ‘The Gorilla’ aged 16 for his strength and toughness – he is a reserved man who stays out of the headlines and doesn’t engage in trash talk.
He admits being a “Canelo fan boy” in the past and shies away from criticising his opponent.
“You end up with egg on your face if you’re like that,” he says. “We can shake hands before and after.
“It’s a hard enough sport without all that. I don’t need to hate you to want to beat you. I’d rather stick to my cool head.”
‘My record is misleading’
Ryder has lost five of his 37 professional bouts but is in the form of his career after impressive wins over American Daniel Jacobs and fellow Briton Zach Parker to become the WBO interim champion.
Two of those defeats came at middleweight, with Ryder saying he was drained at the weight. His other losses were close points decision defeats by Rocky Fielding and former champions Billy Joe Saunders and Callum Smith.
“I do think it’s misleading,” Ryder says of his boxing record. “A lot of the British fans see the work I’ve done but other fans are not looking at these and watching them, they’re just seeing the results.
“I get it but that’s why I’ve got to win their hearts and show them what I’m all about.”
It was the 2019 defeat by Liverpool’s Smith that boosted Ryder’s world-level credentials and increased his profile, with many observers feeling Ryder was unfortunate not to be awarded the decision and Smith’s WBA ‘Super’ title.
“In hindsight, it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to me,” he says.
“If I had won that night my career probably would have been over by now. For me it extended my career.
“I’m here now for all of the marbles. That was only for one belt. I’m here now for all four belts and to become undisputed.”
Can he dethrone ‘Brit Basher’ Alvarez?
There have been stellar overseas performances from British fighters: Tyson Fury’s win over Wladimir Klitschko, Alan Minter’s victory against Vito Antuofermo and Lloyd Honeyghan stopping Don Curry to name a few.
But a Ryder win over future hall-of-fame star Alvarez may well trump them all.
Former European champion Matthew Hatton was the first of seven British fighters to have been defeated by Alvarez, including Saunders, brothers Callum and Liam Smith and Amir Khan.
“They call him the Brit basher, don’t they? I bet he’s got a Union Jack in his gym,” says Ryder.
Hatton, who lost every round to Alvarez in 2011, has been impressed by Ryder’s recent resurgence. He says the challenger must block out the crowd, but feels it will be a tough ask in dethroning the champion.
“I’m a big fan of John Ryder. He’s got better and better throughout his career,” Hatton adds. “He’s suffered defeats, come back. Seems mentally very strong and I’m sure he’ll relish it.
“He’s just got to completely forget about the crowd and concentrate on the job at hand. But even when he does that, it’s still a big, big job. He’s got everything going against him.”
Ryder – a lifelong Arsenal fan – is hoping a win could lure Alvarez to the Emirates Stadium for a blockbuster rematch, but suggests defeat could lead to retirement.
“It’s time I put some time into my family,” he says. “Spend more time with my kids. Maybe get married. Let them know they are a priority.
“How many times can you go to the well? This is my golden opportunity. I was harshly judged in the Callum Smith fight when I should have become champion.
“This is time for redemption. I haven’t got years to rebuild.”