It isn’t often that you get two highly touted unbeaten former Olympians colliding for the Commonwealth title so Saturday’s middleweight clash between Hatfield champion Billy Joe Saunders and Australia’s Jarrod Fletcher at the York Hall, Bethnal Green, should provide a titanic battle.
Saunders v Fletcher is live and exclusive on BoxNation (Sky Ch. 437/Virgin Ch. 546) on Friday 14th September. Join at www.boxnation.com
Don’t make the mistake of cloning mandatory challenger Fletcher with the super tough, super fit but technically bereft Aussies who routinely land on these shores for a payday and a pasting. A former captain of the national boxing squad, the 28 year old Queenslander scalped James DeGale en route to claiming gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and, like Saunders, was a Beijing Olympian.
A classy 5ft 11in stylist, ‘Left Jab’ Fletcher has already raced to 12-0 (7) and the Australian title in the paid code and he was brimming with fitness and confidence when he spoke with boxing writer Glynn Evans yesterday.
Tell us about your early years in Australia?
I was born in Moe, Victoria but moved to Hervey Bay when I was just five so I’m definitely a Queenslander. Mate, I couldn’t have had a better upbringing. We were just 500 metres from the beach, where the boats go across to Fraser Island, and we spent all our spare time camping and fishing.
What age did you become interested in boxing?
I’ve two brothers, Glenn and Robbie, and we’re just a year apart from each other. My Dad Dave never boxed but was always a fitness fanatic and we followed him to the gym. Both my brothers had over 100 amateur bouts and were both Australian national champions.
We were all roughly around the same weight and really competitive. Mate, we punched the sh** out of one another every single day. I had about 3,000 scraps in my backyard! Every day dad, who coached us, would have to send one of us home from the gym crying and bleeding. It was fighting my brothers as a kid that made me so good, so tough.
I was actually a really good soccer player and made the Queensland state team when I was about 13 but had to decide between the sports when I was 15. I stuck with the boxing cos I enjoyed it a lot more.
What do you recall of your amateur career?
Like my brothers, I had my first fight at just 10. Kostya Tszyu was my idol and, at the age of 13, I went over to a training camp in Russia.
All told, I had 180 amateur bouts and won about 152, winning four Australian junior titles and four Australian senior titles. From the age of 17, I spent seven years away on a High Performance Program boxing scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. (Current IBF and WBA Super middleweight king) Daniel Geale was also there for three years and we sparred hundreds of rounds. It was no surprise to me what he went on to achieve. Top, top fighter.
After moving to the AIS, the vast majority of my contests were overseas in the big international tournaments so coming to the UK to challenge Billy Joe for the Commonwealth crown really isn’t an issue.
When I was just a 62.5 kilo, 17 year old baby I boxed in England at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. That was my first big senior tournament. Unfortunately, after winning my first fight, I was eliminated by an African. I was a far better boxer than him but faded badly because I was really struggling with the weight. After that, I had an absolute ball in Manchester. I was just a young kid and ran amok...girls!
After boxing in the 2005 World Championships in China, I won middleweight gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne beating Craig McEwan, James DeGale and Canada’s Adonis Stevenson (now 18-1 as a pro) along the way. The home crowd was a big plus and I was boxing very well at that time. I was very fast and had that amateur point scoring style off pat.
DeGale was probably favourite for gold and he definitely gave me my hardest fight of the tournament. I got through it but it was close and you could tell he was real quality.
Unfortunately, just before the 2007 World Championships in Chicago, which doubled as the 2008 Olympic qualifier, I damaged my shoulder and required surgery. After that, it was a real rush to qualify for Beijing and, though I made it, the shoulder wasn’t really right. In my first start, I got eliminated by Emilio Correa, the Cuban who James DeGale beat in the final.
I’d actually beaten Correa at a competition two months before the Olympics so, though things didn’t quite turn out for me, I can boast that I beat both Olympic finalists. In our first fight, Correa opted to stand and trade which suited me. However, at the Olympics, he fought a much smarter fight. He was very tall, with long arms, and was very slick. That was my last amateur fight. By then, I’d achieved all I could and wasn’t going to hang around another four years.
Has that amateur pedigree helped accelerate your passage through the professional field?
Sort of. I’m very fortunate that, from the very start, I’ve had a sponsor, CNW Electrical Suppliers, that allows me to live my dream and train full time. I do some work as a personal trainer but it’s very flexible and never interferes with my training schedule.
However, though I stopped seven of my first eight pro opponents, I initially found the pros to be very different to the amateur game. It took me quite a while to settle down and I’m still making changes now but that’s why I love boxing so much. You learn something new every session.
Because of my reputation from the amateurs, it was very difficult to secure fights back in Australia despite me putting out challenges. That’s why this Commonwealth contest with Billy Joe is such a great opportunity for me.
Tell us about your back up team.
Since the start of my pro career, I’ve been managed and trained by (ex pro)Steve Dellar from the Fortitude Boxing Gym in Newstead, Queensland. When I indicated I was going to turn pro I had several offers from elsewhere but I’ve known Steve since I was ten and, in addition to being a terrific coach, he’s also a very loyal fella who really looks after me. Dad still plays a big part but Steve’s the main guy. Back home, I’m promoted by Adam Wilcock of Fightcard Promotions.
In your last two contests, you won and defended the Australian title with a brace of ten round decisions over Johannes Mwetupunga and Les Piper but, unlike Billy Joe, you’re yet to travel the full 12 rounds. Are those contests sufficient to prepare you for a Commonwealth title challenge?
Mate, doing 12 rounds isn’t a worry at all. I’m fit as a fiddle and could do 20 at a hard pace if I needed to. But they were good experiences.
Johannes (who originates from Namibia) was a typically hard headed African and, in the second round, I got cut by a butt. The corner got it quickly under control and it didn’t become a concern but I needed to box smart and not get into a trade off.
Les Piper was one tough, tough bastard; strong as an ox and not afraid to butt or elbow you. But I boxed his ears off (winning by eight round margins on all three cards). I had another third rounder before that (shutting out William Hadlow on points) so I’m definitely ready for the step up.
What are your qualities as a fighter? What can British fans expect to see at the York Hall on Friday evening?
My last four contests have all gone the distance so I’m more of a boxer. My nickname’s ‘Left Jab’ which tells you a lot. I always like to look nice and slick. I look to use my speed but I’ve definitely got kayo power and, if it goes to the street, I can turn it up if I need to.
What are your interests outside of boxing?
I’ve got a young family and they mean everything to me. It’s my young fella Ryder’s first birthday today (September 11th) so it’s a huge sacrifice missing out on that but there’ll be plenty more birthdays. My missus is also 35 weeks pregnant with our second child but I’m hoping she can hold it in until I get back home! It’s very hard but I’m here to do a job that’ll help us have a better future.
Champion Billy Joe Saunders is also an unbeaten former Beijing Olympian. What do you know of him?
I’ve seen plenty on the Internet. I boxed heaps of top southpaws in the big international competitions and generally did well against them. I quite like them.
From what I’ve seen, Billy Joe can box quite well and is clearly a bit of a puncher but he’s certainly not fought anyone of a high standard yet as a professional. So far, he always gets his own way and bullies opponents, dictates easily. On Friday, we’re going to see how he copes when the shoe’s on the other foot.
Rising prospects seldom engage each other in such risky crossroads fights so you’re both to be commended for taking the plunge. Why did you accept it?
Mate, there’s no point hiding in my back yard for the rest of my career. I’m ready to step up so I see it more as a great opportunity than an unnecessary risk. Nobody back in Australia wanted to fight me. Billy Joe’s generating a lot of hype so it’s an ideal opening to advance my own career by beating him.
Lately, the Poms have been kicking Aussie ass at sport. How important is it for you to reverse the trend?
(Laughs). Mate, I won’t get into that. Both my parents were born in England so I’ve got strong roots over here. I don’t suppose that’ll prevent me from getting a few boos at the York Hall on Friday but I don’t mind that.
So what type of fight can we expect?
A helluva good one. I don’t have a clue whether it’ll be technical or a brawl - we’ll find out on Friday – but I’m fully prepared for whatever he brings. I expect us to feel each other out for the first couple of rounds. I’d be very surprised if he’s stupid enough to try to take me out early.
I’ve been over here 10 days so I’m fully acclimatized. I’ve been working out at The Peacock Gym in Canning Town plus Rooney’s over at London Bridge and I’m feeling a million bucks. All I’ll say is that my hand will be the one that goes up when the fight is finished. Believe me, I’ve not flown 12,000 miles to make up the numbers!