By Corey Erdman
Defining Billy Joe Saunders can be a tricky proposition. In the ring, he’s neither a thrilling brawler nor a dreadful spoiler. He’s neither a flashy showman nor a stoic operator. Outside of the ring, he can be quiet, reserved, and rudely brash all in a matter of moments.
The best all-encompassing way to define Saunders is that he’s different. Most notably, he’s different from the two other middleweight stars beside whom he now stands—Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin.
Although Saunders had held the WBO middleweight title for some time, it wasn’t until he routed David Lemieux on Saturday that we could be totally sure of his mettle. In defeating the French Canadian slugger, he matched one of GGG’s best victories, and took out a likely Canelo interim opponent all in 36 relatively easy minutes.
Saunders dominated Lemieux in a way that was unique from Golovkin. While GGG constantly punished Lemieux with a jab and took away his atomic left hook, Saunders used his feet to accomplish the same goal. The 2008 Olympian continued to circle the ring, switching directions constantly and forcing Lemieux to reset and resume his approach. At times, Saunders seemingly even allowed Lemieux to get his right foot outside of his, goading him into throwing his right hand, which he’s always appeared to be much less comfortable getting off than his patented left. Later in the fight, Lemieux injured his left hand, which ultimately left him doomed against the shifty Saunders.
"Golovkin, you kept saying you want my WBO belt when I was 14 stone, out of shape and wasn't in love with boxing. Then you wanted to fight me. Fight me now. Now fight me, cos we'll be seeing a different story. You'll be punching fresh air,” Saunders told BT Sport following the fight.
While GGG and Canelo are always of the belief that they can and will end a fight with their power, Saunders is unwaveringly confident that he can box his way to a decision victory.
Saunders’ belief in his boxing ability was on display throughout his training camp in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. A Gypsy traveler at heart, Saunders made the call to move his camp away from the United Kingdom, and nowhere near the boxing frenzy of Quebec to the Hard Knocks Boxing Club in the west end of Toronto. He didn’t go to Riverside, or Oxnard or Big Bear, nor did he make the cliché camp change and go to Wild Card or Romanza—he took his small team to a boutique gym in Ontario with a pair of Ethiopian restaurants next door.
Rather than break the bank on Lemieux lookalike sparring partners, Saunders mostly spent his time training with his stablemates, fellow Dominic Ingle-trained fighters Kell Brook and Kid Galahad. Unlike his close friend Tyson Fury, who is notorious for paying handsomely for a stacked roster of sparring partners, Saunders seemingly didn’t feel it was even necessary this time—not only would the former welterweight champ Brook and a speedy contender like Galahad be mostly enough, but his reactive, mobile style would be more than enough on its own to figure out whatever slightly altered version of the Lemieux puzzle was presented to him on fight night.
Throughout camp, Saunders seemed unusually relaxed. While he was noticeably in excellent condition, he never let on any of the rigors of getting to that point. At the final media workout in Toronto, Saunders mostly worked the room in his down-filled parka, shaking hands and posing for photos while other fighters, amateur and pro, shook out in the gym. If you didn’t know any better, you would have thought he wasn’t taking the fight seriously at all.
Turns out, he had every reason to be as relaxed as he was, and he carried that improvisational nonchalance into the ring in Laval.
“I look easy to whip, I look easy to put down, I look like I can run out of gas. But you can’t hit me,” Saunders told the live audience in his post-fight television interview.
Saunders now finds himself as the fighter in waiting in the big money middleweight picture. While Golovkin and Canelo prepare to square off for a second time on May 5 in Las Vegas, Saunders ostensibly awaits the winner. His emergence, in some ways, makes the Canelo-GGG rematch even more interesting. For so long, the narrative has been that Canelo and GGG have been leaps and bounds ahead of the pack at 160 pounds. With that being presumed, the outcome of their second fight (since the first was inconclusive) would have been the end of a chapter completely, with no massive fights or stern tests immediately in sight for the winner—similar to the feel fans had when Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao finally fought.
Instead, Saunders (alongside Danny Jacobs, whom at least some people felt deserved the nod in his bout with Golovkin) has created a bigger, more interesting championship picture, one worth keeping your eyes on for some time.
“He used a lot of the same tactics that I used against Wladimir (Klitschko). But by no means was this the best Billy Joe Saunders. He’s got all the levels, and we’re going to see them, I think. The better opponent he faces, the better you’ll see of Billy Joe Saunders,” Tyson Fury told reporters following the fight.
Just how different is the level Saunders is on? It’s a question many people never expected to want to know the answer to.