By Cliff Rold
No one has ever called 28-year old UK native Billy Joe Saunders (25-0, 12 KO) the best middleweight in the world.
He’s not. Or, at least to date, there isn’t much evidence to support an argument. Maybe one day he will get to prove otherwise. This Saturday (HBO, 9:40 PM EST/6:40 PM PST) is pivotal if he ever wants the chance to do so.
Not being the best and not being pretty good are two different things.
Sometime between his win over Andy Lee in December 2015 and this weekend’s WBO title defense against 28-year old former IBF titlist David Lemieux (38-3, 33 KO), there seemed to be a lot of people that decided Saunders wasn’t even pretty good.
He was on his way up until he wasn’t. With a win this weekend, Saunders can recapture the forward momentum.
A near year off between the Lee fight and a mediocre outing against Arthur Akavov last December made Saunders a bit of a pariah in some corners of the boxing social media fan universe. Saunders, or his team, seemed to have a lot to say about fights he might be interested in while he remained on the sidelines. Nothing came to pass. It got so rough some speculated he might have his hands full with the competent but unspectacular Willie Monroe.
He didn’t. Saunders didn’t look great but he got the job done by two acceptably wide scores. He claimed, as he had after Akavov, to be working off some rust. After fighting only once during a stretch of more than eighteen months before Monroe, rust should be no factor against Lemieux. Saunders will go to scratch for the second time in less than four months this weekend.
It doesn’t take long to find picks coming in on the challenger, especially among US followers and media. Lemieux is more known, and proven. His only loss in the last six years was a unification stoppage at the hands of Gennady Golovkin. There was no shame there. Until Daniel Jacobs and Saul Alvarez this year, no one went the route with Golovkin in a title fight.
Lemieux has won four straight since the Golovkin fight but Saunders will likely be his best opponent since then. Saunders faces his greatest test since Lee.
It’s in Lee and another big night for Saunders than we find some proof of a pretty good fighter.
Lee might not have been a world-beater but Saunders’ title winning effort was a good performance over an established veteran in the class. It was at the time Saunders second big win in three starts. In 2014, Saunders faced off with another up and coming UK product in Chris Eubank Jr. Saunders won a close decision and yet today Eubank is the better regarded of the two.
Activity goes a long way.
Eubank has won eight in a row, including a move up in weight, while Saunders has fought only three times. Eubank’s wins over Dmitry Chudinov, Arthur Abraham, and Avni Yildirim in the first round of the World Boxing Super Series have Eubank slated for a title shot in that tournament’s semi-final against WBA super middleweight titlist George Groves. Groves-Eubank is an anticipated clash expected to draw a big UK crowd.
Saunders will be on the road Saturday, facing Lemieux on his home turf in Canada.
The defending titlist finds himself almost back where he was before the Eubank and Lee fights, searching for credibility and respect in the middleweight division. If he can handle the power and aggression of Lemieux, on the road, he would go a long way in that goal.
He’d also be knocking on the door of the biggest fights in the division.
The centerpiece of the middleweight division right now is the rivalry of Golovkin, holder of all the major belts but Saunders WBO strap, and lineal champion Saul Alvarez. Alvarez held Golovkin to a contentious draw and a rematch is the richest fight in the class. If they can’t make an immediate return, a Saunders win on the network that carries both men would put him in prime position to cash in.
If they can make an immediate return, Saunders would be positioned for the winner or showdowns HBO would surely be interested in with network contract players Demetrius Andrade or Daniel Jacobs.
Saunders may not get past Lemieux. If he does, a career arc that was once moving upwards can resume its ascent.
Will anyone really be home for the fights, or anything else for that matter, this weekend? Assume Last Jedi cuts into the interest of all else on Earth…No matter what one thinks of his style, or the way he exited the fight against Vasyl Lomachenko, what the WBA is doing in taking Guillermo Rigondeaux’s belt is disgusting. This is the same organization that let Denis Lebedev keep their strap after a fight with Murat Gassiev, despite entering a unified titlist. So one can lose in their class and keep the belt, but not dare to rise two weight classes? What the hell is wrong with the WBA? Sadly, that question has been a constant too often over the last few decades…Bad luck for Carson Wentz last weekend. Philadelphia Eagles fan or not, no one likes to see a kid having such a great year go down like that…Teddy Atlas and Stephen A. Smith screaming at each other was embarrassing for all involved. Do people really enjoy this nonsense? There’s too much sensational, and not enough substance, in the world of the sports talking head.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]