Hatfield traveller Billy Joe Saunders is chomping at the bit to add his name to Britain’s list of world class middleweight talents.
And the 2008 Beijing Olympian knows that impressive victories over unbeaten rivals Gary ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan at Wembley on Saturday, then Islington’s John Ryder at the Copper Box in September will place him firmly into the mix, alongside Martin Murray, Matt Macklin and Darren Barker.
Still only 23, the reigning British and Commonwealth champion was oozing confidence when he spoke with boxing writer Glynn Evans yesterday.
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After seven stoppages in your previous nine fights, you were forced to go the full 12 round trip in successive British and Commonwealth title fights against Nick Blackwell and Matthew Hall. Do you perceive that as a positive or a negative?
A good thing, I think. I got the rounds in against good young rivals who both came to win. I believe the experiences of doing those two hard 12 rounders gives me an edge over my next two opponents, Gary O’Sullivan and John Ryder. I’ve done the 12 round distance three times now. They’ve only done it once between them.
I’m making no excuses because I trained hard but, mentally, I possibly overlooked Blackwell a little bit. That won’t happen again but you need to go through these experiences to learn. People said Nick was very strong but he weren’t as strong as me. I was flowing and going!
Both my dad and Jimmy Tibbs wanted me to pull out of the fight with Matthew Hall because I’d had a chest infection but I knew I still had enough to beat him so went through with it.
In both fights I rushed my work a bit but that’s something I can work on; knowing when to take breathers when not to. Long term, it’ll make me a better fighter, having gone through those experiences and identified those mistakes.
It wasn’t a case of your maligned hands preventing you from punching at full power then?
No. People have to realise that I’m facing tougher, more experienced opponents now, top contenders. You can’t stop everybody.
After both of my last two fights my hands really swelled up when I took the gloves off but they certainly didn’t affect me during the fights. You just get on with it. Come fight night, everything is sorted out and the hands are good to go.
The key British rivals that are rated above you - namely Martin Murray, Matt Macklin and Darren Barker - have all fallen short at world level recently. How far do you think you are from facing fighters of that calibre?
Within 12 months I’ll be ready to beat all three. In fact, within 12 months I believe I can be a world champion.
But in boxing, you can’t afford to be impatient. I’m still only 23 and I’m still learning all the time.
I’m also really maturing physically. I’ve not been able to spar a middleweight for over a year now. I only spar light-heavyweights or bigger and I handle’em all well.
Tell us, in turn, how you’d go about beating each of them?
I think Martin has definitely proved himself the best of the three after the way he performed in his world title fights with Felix Sturm and, especially, Sergio Martinez over in Argentina. I’d outthink him, outsmart him and, by this time next year, I believe I’ll also have developed the power to outfight him.
The way to beat Macklin? Body shots! Did you not see the Golovkin fight? Golovkin is on a different level to all of them. Again I’d need to use my boxing brain and mix things up to beat Matthew.
I’ve done a fair bit of sparring with Darren. He’s a real gentleman and a quality boxer with underrated power. I’m taking him to beat Daniel Geale for the (IBF) world title over in America next month. Geale’s strong but not especially quick. I can see Darren using his jab, skill and movement to outbox him.
Darren against myself would be a real chess match.
What do you know of Cork’s Gary ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan, your opponent on Saturday night?
I’ve only watched him against Matthew Hall. He seems strong, tough and game but, I’m not going to lie to you, I actually thought Matthew won that fight by a round.
Look, boxing’s about levels and I don’t think that Spike is on mine. He says he’ll knock me out inside five rounds. Well, we’ll find out on Saturday night but I seriously don’t see that happening.
You always seem pretty astute tactically. How do you go about preparing a gameplan for specific opponents?
I tend not to watch tapes of my opponents because they’ll fight differently against me than they’ll fight against the opponent on the tape.
For instance, there’s no point me spending hours analysing O’Sullivan’s win over Matthew Hall because Matthew’s a pressure fighter whereas I’m a counter puncher. Spike won’t be able to fight me like he fought Hall. I’ll present him with different challenges than Matthew did.
I leave Mark and Jimmy (Tibbs, his trainers) to study the tapes. They’re very good at identifying what shots the opponent is wide open for and we’ll work on exposing that at the gym. I always take on board what they preach and they say I’m a quick learner.
Personally, I prefer watching tapes of the legends – the Mayweathers and Pacquiaos - then try to add something new from what they do, to improve my own game. I aim to be as good as I possibly can, then let the opponent worry about me.
You’ve always seemed to thrive on confrontation in the build up to a fight, revelling in the psychological warfare at press conferences, weigh-ins and during the referee’s instructions? Spike seems cut from the same cloth. Could get interesting when you finally come face-to-face this week!
Yeh, the way I look at you can tell a lot about a fighter from their demeanour at pressers and their body shape at a weigh-in. I know I’ve put the graft in, that’s why I always arrive so confident.
I see the presser and he weigh-in as a chance to get an edge and I’ll have a ‘stare-up’ with anybody. It can have an affect. That said, once the bell goes, it’s just him and me.
How long have you prepared for this fight? With your eagerly anticipated British title defence with John Ryder just nine weeks away, is there a danger that you could become stale?
For this fight I’ll have been in the gym for 12 weeks. I’ve had some cracking sparring with Joel McIntyre a strong, game light-heavyweight from Portsmouth way. He’s unbeaten in seven pro fights, very reliable and punches like a heavyweight.
Everything has gone ‘bang on’ and my weight is good. This last week is just about shedding the last few pounds and resting up.
As for being stale for John Ryder....no chance. I’ll be flying to Spain with Jimmy and Mark to prepare for Ryder over there; a change of scenery. If I’m not ready for these guys now, I’m in the wrong game, I’ll give the boxing up.
Finally, what type of fight are you anticipating on Saturday night and what gives you confidence that your hand will be raised at the end?
I genuinely think that Spike is going to give me a harder fight than John Ryder will but he’ll be in for a surprise if he thinks I’ll be backing up and running away. I’ll be holding my ground and there’ll be plenty of toe-to-toe action for the fans.
Clearly O’Sullivan can’t fight going backwards so I’ll be looking to put him on the back foot. I win because I’m younger, fresher, more skilful, have better pedigree and greater ringcraft.
I’m not saying I’ll stop him and it wont bother me at all if I go 12 rounds again but I do predict a very comfortable win.