By Jake Donovan
Billy Joe Saunders is really hoping for a year to remember after one he’d forever love to forget—even if 2019 hasn’t quite jumped off to the start he preferred.
The unbeaten former middleweight titlist is ready to put the past behind him, as he heads into his vacant super middleweight title fight versus Shefat Isufi. Their clash takes place this Saturday live on BT Sport and ESPN+ from Lamex Stadium in Stevenage, England—mere minutes from Saunders’ hometown of Hatfield.
“This is fantastic for Bill, he’s back in his home county,” noted Frank Warren during the final pre-fight press conference held Thursday on fight site. “He’s on a quest to get himself back in prime position.
“He has a terrible year last year, a real bad year. This is his chance to become a double world champion which is a rare occurrence for a British fighter. If he does it, he will be in some great company.”
Such proximity to his backyard would be the lone consolation prize in getting to this point. The fight was due to take place in April, but was postponed by more than a month for several issues. The billed title fight was downgraded to interim title clash and with that status even up in the air, with the show put on hold altogether.
“When the fight was first (offered), I jumped at the chance with Frank to sign the deal,” Saunders (27-0, 13KOs) noted. “I was a bit gutted when news came (of the title not being at stake). Frank told me to just stick with it, that something will come of it. I’m happy that it turned out that way. I’m looking forward to becoming a two-weight world champion.”
Aiding his cause is noted trainer Ben Davison, best known for his work with unbeaten top heavyweight and Saunders' longtime friend Tyson Fury. The pairing has helped the brash Brit cope with the year that wasn’t, only having one fight in 2018 where he showed up at a beefy 178.5 pounds for a knockout win over Charles Adamu last December.
The fight was his first following his being stripped of the WBO middleweight strap. A failed drug test hindered his ability to receive a boxing license in United States’ Massachusetts, where Saunders was due to defend versus unbeaten Demetrius Andrade last October.
Despite the testing anomaly being forgiven by the British Boxing Board of Control—on whose grounds the positive drug test took place—the WBO wasn’t quite as forgiving, as he was declared unfit to defend the title at which point he was stripped of the strap he earned in a 12-round win over Andy Lee in Dec. 2015.
“I had a terrible 2018,” Saunders bluntly stated. “I feel like my title was robbed off of me, not beaten off me by a better man who I could shake hands with and say he was the better person. We’re here today fighting for the super middleweight title.”
To become a two-division titlist, he will need to get past Isufi (27-3, 20KOs), a streaking contender from Munich, Germany by way of Albania who has won his last 10 starts.
Saunders is a heavy betting favorite to prevail, despite technically moving up in weight. It’s a trajectory opposite his opponent, who has fought most of his career at cruiserweight and light heavyweight before moving down in weight in recent years.
“I’m 29 now. I know I’m coming into my prime now, nobody has yet seen the best of me,” Saunders insists. “It’s up to me to show it and with BT [Sport’s] backing we can make the bigger fights and bring them over to the UK.
“He’s coming on the back of 10 straight wins, but I’m coming on the back of 27 straight wins. So, the way I look at it, there’s no other opponent I’m looking at. If I’m on my A-game, no disrespect but there’s no way he’s going to win. I’ve trained hard and I’m coming in to knock his head off.”
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox