By Jake Donovan
It was a fight that was scheduled to happen much soon – but perhaps Andy Lee and Billy Joe Saunders were just meant to close out the year with a bang.
The third time’s a charm in terms of finally getting the middleweights in the ring as they collide Saturday evening at Manchester Arena in Manchester, England. The first-ever middleweight title fight between fighters from Traveller communities will air live on BoxNation in the United Kingdom and on SHO Extreme in a Saturday afternoon edition of Showtime Boxing International in the United States.
It also comes at the tail end of what has been an active stretch for middleweight title fight action. The bout follows Daniel Jacobs’ 1st round knockout of Peter Quillin just two weeks ago, which came two weeks after Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez unseated reigning lineal middleweight champ Miguel Cotto. Five weeks prior, Gennady Golovkin ignited the run with an 8th round stoppage of David Lemieux in their middleweight title unification bout.
Lee (34-2-1, 24KOs) makes the second defense of the belt he earned in a come-from-behind victory over Matt Korobov last December.
Rallying from behind seems to be the only way the Irish southpaw knows how to fight these days as it’s how his last three fights have played out. It was the type of luck he could have used in reversing his lone two losses, as he fared well versus both Brian Vera and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. before getting caught midway through in a pair of 7th round knockout losses.
Lee – who represented Ireland in the 2004 Athens Olympics - managed to avenge his defeat to Vera, scoring a 10-round decision in their Oct. ’11 rematch, more than 3½ years following their first fight. The feat came as part of a 13-fight win streak before he was stopped by Chavez Jr. in what was his first crack at a major title.
A seven-fight unbeaten streak has followed as he enters Saturday’s showdown with Saunders. Included among the lot was back-to-back come-from-behind knockout wins over Johns Jackson and Matt Korobov. The latter came with the reward of picking up a vacant belt, though all he has to show for it since is a 12-round draw with former champ Peter Quillin. Lee recovered from a pair of knockdowns to drop Quillin later on in fighting his way back to a three-way tie in remaining champ.
He’s since spent his time waiting on a showdown with Saunders (22-0, 12KOs) to finally materialize. The two were due to meet this past September in Ireland, only for Lee to suffer an untimely injury – the timing proving crucial as it meant having to relocate the fight to England do to a lack of venue availability in matching it up with TV dates.
A rescheduling of October 10 at Manchester Arena was targeted, only this time for Saunders to have to withdraw due to injury. Two months later, the unbeaten Brit – who represented Great Britain in the 2008 Beijing Olympics – is finally ready for his first crack at a major title.
Getting him to this point was a 12-round split decision win over Chris Eubank Jr., edging his domestic rival. The feat came on the same Nov. ’14 show that saw fellow Traveller and unbeaten heavyweight Tyson Fury earn his own title shot in his knockout of Dereck Chisora in their well-publicized rematch.
Fury went on to claim the World heavyweight championship, scoring a 12-round decision over long-reigning king Wladimir Klitschko last month in Germany and is now backing Saunders to follow suit. Lee insists that he will prevail in this, his third straight title bout versus an unbeaten middleweight.
Time will tell who will be proven correct. Until then, read on to see how the staff at BoxingScene.com believes the middleweight title fight will play out.
BOXINGSCENE.COM STAFF PREDICTIONS: ANDY LEE vs. BILLY JOE SAUNDERS
Shaun Brown (Draw): I think the way that both men start and finish fights will bring this one right down to the wire and too close to call. I look for Saunders to build an early lead before Lee hauls him back in the second half of the fight. Lee carries his power from rounds 1-12 but I don’t believe he can knockout Saunders. Stalemate in the end and look for the rematch in 2016.
Ryan Burton (Saunders SD): I go back and forth in this one but I think Saunders gets off the canvas to win a split decision.
Jake Donovan (Lee late TKO): Three fights in a row, the claim has been that Andy Lee was lucky to have avoided a loss. Not even the most Irish of Irishmen carry that much luck. At some point, we need to give Lee credit for being that resourceful. For me, it begins here - and my guess is that for a fourth straight fight, he overcomes an early deficit to slug his way back into the fight. Saunders will be up on the cards to the point where Lee is mathematically out of it but lands enough big shots to force a late stoppage.
Chris Glover (Saunders Dec.): It really is a 50/50 fight and one that could go either way. My gut feelings is Billy Joe Saunders wins on points in a similar get in get out display. If Lee relies on chinning Saunders he could be in for a long night as Billy Joe will look to use his footwork and skill set to pick Lee off all night.
Ben Jacobs (Saunders Dec.): Fight fans will be glad that this fight has finally arrived as it is not only interesting but also important for the division going into 2016. Billy Joe Saunders has demonstrated that he deserves a world title chance and he has it on Saturday night against Andy Lee who at one time was written off after suffering stoppage defeats. Both men have quality trainers in Adam Booth and Jimmy Tibbs which in itself is an intriguing clash of minds. I feel that Saunders will likely be winning the early rounds as is often the case with Lee’s opponents. There will be a point where Lee connects with one of his solid right hooks and the question will be if Saunders can take it. Thus far in his career Saunders has shown he has a good chin and I believe he will have enough, possibly digging through difficult moments to emerge victorious over 12 hard fought rounds.
Peter Lim (Lee KO7): While most championship-level fights are riddled with intangibles, there's only one looming question mark this showdown; can Lee detonate one of his out-of-the blue, fight-ending bombs over the course of 12 rounds? Given their respective styles, there is no other way the Irish Londoner can beat the younger, sprier Saunders, who fights like a left-handed, B-minues version of Sugar Ray Leonard. Experience prevails over youth in this battle of southpaws. Saunders utilizes his superior hand and foot speed to box Lee's ears off for six rounds. In the seventh, he sends Lee reeling to the ropes on spaghetti legs but as he moves in for the kill, he leaves himself open to a short, explosive hook that abruptly ends the fight for a Knockout of the Year candidate.
Takahiro Onaga (Lee KO9): I'm very unconvinced by Saunders, who look decent but not spectacular. Lee's power will be too much late, when Saunders slows down
Cliff Rold (Saunders Dec.): I keep picking against Lee recently and he keeps winning. I still don't see as much improvement as some. We get reminded he is suspect this weekend.
Victor Salazar (Lee late TKO): Lee will probably be down on the scorecards again and will land a big hook to win again.
Reynaldo Sanchez (Lee KO6): Andy comes off of his greatest wins versus Korobov and Quillin. In my opinion, Lee has the skills and power to beat Saunders in the middle rounds.
Alexey Sukachev (Saunders UD): As always, I'm not a believer - at least, in Lee. He was lucky not to be defeated before, and he still doesn't look like a real champion. Billy Joe Saunders will mix his amateur pedigree with some pro experience to score a close, yet well-earned victory.
Lee – 5
Saunders – 5
Draw – 1
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox