By Cliff Rold
A flurry of top ten activity in the middleweight division in 2015 comes to a head on Saturday (Showtime Extreme, 5 PM EST/PST) in the last major title fight of the year. Defending the title is one of the better reclamation stories of recent years. One of the last notable mentees of the great Emanuel Steward, former Irish Olympian Andy Lee looked like he’d missed his shot until he started landing the right ones.
Consecutive knockouts of fellow former Olympians John Jackson and Matt Korobov saw Lee surge in 2014, the latter landing him the vacant WBO belt. A draw with Peter Quillin earlier this year had Lee coming off the floor twice early, an exhibition of the seasoning he’s picked up in a roller coaster career. Now Lee heads to the UK to face yet another former Olympian, undefeated Billy Joe Saunders.
Saunders earned his crack with four wins over undefeated battlers culminating in a defeat of Chris Eubank Jr. in late 2014. Saunders kept active with a single fight this year against modest opposition and makes the biggest step of his professional career.
Is the younger man ready to ascend? Or is the seasoned veteran set to continue his roll?
Let’s go the report card.
Title: WBO Middleweight (2014-Present, 1st Defense)
Previous Titles: None
Weight: 159 ¾ lbs.
â€¨Hails from: London, United Kingdom
Record: 34-2-1, 24 KO, 2 KOBY
Rankings: #3 (BoxingScene, TBRB, Ring), #4 (BoxRec), #5 (ESPN)
Record in Major Title Fights: 1-1, 1 KO, 1 KOBY
Current/Former World Champions Faced: 3 (Carl Daniels KO3; Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. TKO by 7; Peter Quillin D12)
Billy Joe Saunders
â€¨Title/Previous Titles: None
Weight: 160 lbs.
â€¨Hails from: Hatfield, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom
Record: 22-0, 12 KO
Rankings: #4 (Ring), #6 (ESPN), #8 (BoxingScene), #9 (TBRB)
Record in Major Title Fights: 1st Title Opportunity
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: 0
Pre-Fight: Speed – Lee B; Saunders B
Pre-Fight: Power – Lee A; Saunders C+
Pre-Fight: Defense – Lee B-; Saunders B
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Lee B; Saunders B
For Lee, a better trip to the scale from Quillin earlier this year would make this his second defense. Quillin missed the limit so his reign officially begins here. Does it end here?
This is one of those fun fights between a fighter we know a lot about, for better and worse, and one who is just reaching the world level. Picking Saunders guesses that the potential he’s shown is enough. Picking Lee guesses that Saunders doesn’t have the right tools to exploit his weaknesses.
There are reasons to lean both ways.
Lee is the sort of fighter Steward always did wonders with. He’s long limbed, has amateur pedigree, and can crack. Lee’s length is always a struggle for foes. He’s not the quickest handed man, but he gets to target with some accuracy when he doesn’t give up that advantage. He has power in both hands, able to whip the right hand from the southpaw side or throw a wicked short left at close range.
Lee’s biggest struggles have been with fighters who could wear on him physically. Brian Vera, Chavez, and for stretches Quillin, all wore on Lee with greater physicality. He was more schooled than any of them but his durability meant needing two cracks at Vera and a full fight to pull even with Quillin. He was ahead on the judge’s cards when Chavez broke him down.
Saunders doesn’t have any of that going for him. He’s more the boxer than any of those men. He appears on film to be a hair quicker than Lee, something that served Jackson well until a single punch rendered it all moot. Unlike Jackson, Saunders hasn’t shown similar single punch explosiveness.
For Saunders to win, he’ll have to use what has worked for him well so far. He’s got good head movement, works at angles, and gets in and out well. Saunders can’t stay in the trenches and exchange and will have to use smart clinching in spots to keep Lee off balance.
Without a clear knockout threat (though anything can happen), Saunders will have to be disciplined from start to finish. What happens if Lee lands a bomb? It’s the great unknown here. Lee’s intangibles sit where they do because of previous struggles, though he gets credit for weathering some storms for wins and continuing to plug away through dark days. Saunders has shown gumption in victories to date. This is another level up.
Perhaps the ghosts of defeats past has Lee underrated here but he just always looks so vulnerable. He’s a tough, talented guy but, like a Jorge Linares, it always feels like a loss could come at any time. Saunders will likely be the crowd favorite and he’s got enough size and skill to keep Lee off balance. Lee may have some big moments early, maybe even a knockdown, but the guess here is Saunders can get up and has enough wrinkles in his game to steal rounds with activity and hustle. It’s going to be messy in spots but should be crowd pleasing enough. Saunders avoids the felling blow and wins enough rounds to keep his undefeated record intact and add a belt to the mantle.
Report Card and Staff Picks 2015: 90-25 (Including staff picks for Joshua-Whyte, Figueroa-DeMarco, Arreola-Kaufmann, and Barrera-Murat)
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]