By Jake Donovan
It turns out there will be an April 13 boxing event on Wembley grounds after all.
The headlining act, however, isn’t remotely close to what anyone expected up until the time of the surprise announcement.
Now occupying the date is unbeaten former middleweight titlist Billy Joe Saunders, who will move up in weight to challenge Germany’s Shefat Isufi for the vacant World Boxing Organization (WBO) 168-pound title. The fight, which will take place at SSE (Wembley) Arena in London, was announced at a press conference in London held by promoter Frank Warren, who was full of industry surprises on Monday.
“(Saunders) is moving up in weight and he’s moving up to challenge the mandatory challenger, Shefat Isufi for the vacant title,” Warren revealed.
The announced fight will be for the title which was vacated—without any fanfare or even a formal announcement—by Mexico’s Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez, who will now compete at light heavyweight. The unbeaten boxer was inserted as the WBO number-one contender in exchange for vacating his title, and will now pursue a title shot versus Sergey Kovalev, who recently reclaimed his title in a 12-round win over prior conqueror Eleider Alvarez.
News of the fight was a surprise to just about everyone not directly involved in such talks, especially considering that Saunders (27-0, 13KOs) was in negotiations for a WBO-ordered showdown versus unbeaten titlist Demetrius Andrade. The two were due to collide last October, until Saunders tested positive for banned substance Oxilofrine as discovered during a pre-fight random drug test conducted by Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (VADA).
Because of the timing of the test—coming last August, well ahead of the scheduled October 20 fight date—England’s Saunders was cleared by the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBoC), who follows the World Anti-Doping Agency code which allows for certain substances discovered during “out of competition” period.
That sentiment wasn’t shared by the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission, who honored the VADA findings and denied Saunders a license. The ruling prevented the brash British traveler from fighting in Boston, which prompted the WBO to strip him of the middleweight title and hand down a six-month suspension.
Andrade went on to claim the vacant belt in a 12-round landslide win over previously unbeaten Walter Kautondokwa and successfully defended for the first time with a 12th round stoppage of Artur Akavov in mid-January. The feat was quickly followed by the news of the WBO shortening Saunders’ suspension and naming him as the mandatory challenger.
The two sides were in talks for such a fight, but clearly Saunders and his side decided to move in a different direction.
“It’s a brilliant opening for me,” insists Saunders, whose lone fight in 2018 was a 4th round stoppage of Charles Adamu last December, which came on short notice and the unbeaten Brit clocking in at a beefy 178.5 pounds. “You’ve got these rumors that Andrade is going for shoulder surgery, as well as the financial side of it with the split – it doesn’t add up.
“Me winning this super-middleweight title will put me in a great position for unifications with the likes of (WBA titlist) Callum Smith, while we’ve got Chris Eubank boxing James DeGale at the weekend.”
Efforts made by BoxingScene.com to reach Andrade and Matchroom Boxing for his next steps went unreturned as this goes to publish.
Meanwhile, awaiting Saunders is an obscure challenger in Isufi, a 29-year old Serbian based out of Germany who somehow surfaced to the mandatory position in the WBO 168-pound rankings. He comes in having won 10 straight, including a 12-round decision over Mohamed El Achi last July in his adopted hometown of Munich, Germany.
The bout was his second straight at super middleweight after coming down from light heavyweight and having previously fought as cruiserweight.
“We’re both fat bastards, that’s for sure,” Saunders quipped. “He’s moved down from cruiserweight to super middleweight. But he’s had some big wins.
“He is one of those who, with what he does, he does very well when the bell goes. He has boxed at light heavyweight and cruiserweight so he is going to be a big, big lump and I need to make sure I am on it and stay away from those big bombs.”
As for the location of the event, it keeps alive a date previously reserved for the much larger Wembley Stadium just across the street. Unbeaten, unified heavyweight titlist Anthony Joshua was for months due to appear at the famed stadium, but instead has opted for a U.S. debut as he prepared for a June 1 showdown versus undefeated Jarrell Miller at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Somehow, that news becomes a subplot in this title fight that nobody saw coming. At the very least, it’s a consolation prize for those who haven’t yet canceled previously booked travel plans.
“We knew all along there would be a big fight at Wembley on April 13,” Warren insists.