Boxing fans will receive an early Christmas present this year in the form of Andy Lee’s (34-2-1, 24 KOs) first defence of his WBO middleweight title against the undefeated British, Commonwealth and European middleweight champion; Billy Joe Saunders (22-0, 12 KOs) in the Manchester Arena on Saturday night.
This is the first world title fight to be contested by two members of the Traveller community. Irishman Lee was the first member of the Irish Traveller community to win a world title. Saunders, from Hatfield and with Romany Traveller roots is confident he can relieve the champion of his title.
“I’ve got nothing against him,” Saunders told Ring magazine, “but he’s got something I want and I’m going to get it.”
This bout has been a long time in the making with the fight initially pencilled in for August, until Lee fell ill with a virus and it was rescheduled for October when Saunders was then forced to withdraw after suffering a cut in training.
With the fight almost upon us the tension has been building and boxing analysts remain undecided of a clear favourite, with many calling this one a genuine 50/50 fight. For a pair of fighters with a great deal in common this is certainly a contrast of styles.
The two fighters have a strong amateur pedigree, both are former Olympians; Andy Lee being Ireland’s sole boxing representative as a middleweight in the 2004 Olympics, Saunders represented Team GB as a welterweight in the 2008 Olympics. Both fighters are southpaws but Saunders is regarded as a more natural boxer with Lee having developed a reputation for being a power puncher.
Following two stoppage losses against Brian Vera and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr earlier in his career, Lee rebuilt with a come from behind knockout victory over the hard punching John Jackson, followed by another stunning knockout victory over Matt Korobov for the vacant WBO middleweight title.
The win came almost two months after the passing of Lee’s manager and trainer the legendary Emanuel Steward, who had a close relationship with the Irishman and was adamant in his belief that Lee would one day be a world champion. Lee dedicated his world title to Steward.
Lee’s last fight was a split draw against the former WBO middleweight champion Peter Quillin. Lee was down in the first and third rounds but battled back to drop Quillin in the seventh and earn the draw.
Following the draw with Quillian, Saunders will be quite confident about his chances against Lee. Qullian potentially could have stopped Lee within the first three rounds, but his lack of pace allowed the Irishman back into the fight and after he dropped Quillian in the seventh, Lee was the aggressor for the remainder of the fight. On previous form Saunders has shown he starts well in fights and he certainly will have a game plan that will be focused on neutralising Lee’s power.
Trained by Jimmy Tibbs, the former trainer of Michael Watson and Nigel Benn and promoted by Frank Warren, Saunders has developed a reputation as a slick, busy fighter.
His last five fights have seen him defeat four undefeated fighters in a row. He inflicted the first loss on Gary ‘Spike,’ O’Sullivan’s record in July 2013. Then he won a close points decision against John Ryder for the British title. He stopped the light punching Italian Emanuele Blandamura in eight rounds and he won a split decision against Chris Eubank Jr in November 2011.
In both the Ryder and Eubank fights, Saunders used his jab to outwork his opponents in the early rounds, but down the stretch both Ryder and Eubank were able to mount an attack that brought them back into proceedings. Eubank even managed to rock Saunders with his left hooks in the final two rounds. The close nature of both these fight raise a question mark over Saunders stamina and ability to close out a fight.
In his last fight, a fourth round stoppage of Frenchman Yoann Bloyer, in July this year, Saunders weighed three pounds over the Super-middleweight limit. If Saunders has a habit of blowing up in weight between fights then this could be a possible explanation for the stamina issues in the closing stages of fights.
Lee also has questionable stamina in championship level fights. He was up on points against both Vera and Chavez Jr before an increase in tempo led to the stoppages in both fights. Despite these results, current trainer Adam Booth has impoved Lee’s fitness and introduced more variety into his punching.
It becomes clear why so many analysts are undecided it is very hard to split both fighters, but that is also the sign of a a good fight.
In the build up to the fight Lee told Steve Bunce of BoxNation that he believes he will stop Saunders sometime after the fifth round. Both fighters are southpaws, which can lead to unspectacular or sometimes ugly fights as left handed fighters are often calibrated for fighting against orthodox opponents.
The opening rounds may be a cagey affair and this will probably favour Saunders who will be expected to start well in this fight. He has not necessarily been expected to beat the opponents he has beaten to date, he has the ability to beat Lee so one cannot rule out Saunders continuing his winning streak.
That said, the last thing to leave any fighter is their punch. Saunders was rocked by a crisp left hook from Eubank Jr and Lee has made a habit of obliterating fighters with his right hook.
It truly is a 50/50 fight but in my opinion you cannot count Lee out at any stage of a fight, he is one of the most exciting and perhaps underrated fighters in boxing and he has ground out results through sheer grit, determination and dynamite punching.
In summary, this should be an entertaining fight and a fitting end to a fantastic year of boxing.
Lee v Saunders is live on BoxNation, Sky Channel 490 from 5pm