Billy Joe Saunders becomes WBO middleweight champion
Throughout his professional career, Billy Joe Saunders has put his faith in the tried and tested.
Guided from the start by Frank Warren and prepared expertly by legendary trainer Jimmy Tibbs, Saunders has followed the traditional British, Commonwealth and European title path into world title contention. Finally in position to challenge Andy Lee, 34-3-1 (24 KO’s), for the WBO middleweight championship of the world, the 26 year old realised that in order to join the elite, he needed to reassess one crucial part of his regime. Something that only he could manage and monitor. His own dedication.
Ahead of the biggest night of his life, Saunders, now 23-0 (12 KO’s), linked up with the team at MGM Marbella and shut himself away from the fun and games and temptations that have crept into previous camps. The decision had clear physical benefits - Saunders turned up in exceptional condition - but the mental edge that the long, hard training camp gave him might have been even more crucial.
Rather than the give and take war many expected, the fight became an intriguing battle of margins and, eventually, the title swapped hands courtesy of the pair of knockdowns Billy Joe scored during a tumultuous third round. The time spent away from his friends and family made Saunders realise just how much the title meant to him and he fought every second of his twelve round majority decision victory with determination and concentration etched on his face.
Strangely, Saunders became the puncher in the fight. The short right hook that floored Lee heavily in the third round would have finished a man without the bravery and toughness off the former champion. For the first two seconds of Steve Gray’s count it seemed like the fight may be over but Lee slowly steadied himself, locked his gaze with Adam Booth in his corner and hauled himself upright. The double right hook combination which floored Lee for a second time moments later wasn’t as hurtful but added to his woes. Saunders momentarily risked everything in his eagerness to end matters but wisely tempered his aggression. A huge overhand left which brought an instant swelling to Lee’s right eye in the fifth round was the other most eye-catching punch of the fight and Saunders himself was able to navigate the entire fight without being hurt. Jimmy and Mark Tibbs designed the perfect gameplan and Saunders engineered it perfectly.
The general perception that Saunders would slow down as the fight wore on and that Lee would be at his most dangerous as the final bell loomed was right to a certain extent but those predictions were made on the assumption that the fight would have been an intense, hard fought nip and tuck battle. The fight was certainly intense but - for Saunders at least - the twelve rounds were a severe test of his mental abilities rather than his physical.
As expected, Lee came on during the final third of the fight but the slow, counter punching route the fight took meant that Saunders had enough energy to ensure that rather than having to fend off a runaway train, he just needed to keep his shape and be watchful. Lee must have known he was behind, but having been badly hurt the Irishman was unwilling to throw caution to the wind and throw everything at a relatively fresh Saunders. Saunders is an extremely difficult man to peg back once he has a lead and his rhythm. With the additional two point cushion he secured in that devastating third round, Lee faced an almost impossible task in overhauling him and the Irishman deserves endless credit for regathering himself and making the fight as close as it was.
As a reigning world champion in one of boxing’s most prestigious and fashionable divisions, Saunders finds himself in an enviable position. Unless a monumental offer lands on Frank Warren’s table, Saunders won’t attempt to unify the division by meeting the fearsome Gennady Glolovkin but with his new found dedication to his conditioning there is absolutely no reason why he should fear any of the other leading lights in the 160lb class. In the post fight press conference, Billy Joe stated that he would love WBC champion, Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez next and he would enter a fight with fighters like Daniel Jacobs, David Lemieux, Peter Quillin on better than even terms.
The WBO light middleweight title fight between champion, Liam Smith, 22-0-1 (12 KO’s) and Jimmy ‘Kilraine’ Kelly went according to script. Kelly, now 16-1 (7 KO’s), performed well in his first contest at anything approaching world class but couldn’t put a significant dent in Smith. The nasty Liverpudlian - and I mean that int he nicest possible way - seems to take any challenge as a personal affront and clear enjoys punishing his opponents for their insolence. He was just too seasoned and strong for Kelly. The man from Wythenshawe did his best work when he stood in front of Smith and put shots together in combination, ending with his excellent left hook to the body. Sadly for the challenger, that meant Smith could score with his nice short, sharp punches and own body work. The end came when a tired Kelly flagged towards the end of round seven.
Smith, 27, would dearly love to take on modern great Miguel Cotto in his next fight but whether the Puerto Rican star would be interested in taking on the Liverpudlian in what could be his final fight is another matter. There are no shortage of attractive options for Smith, though. Either of the Charlo twins - Jermall and Jarmell - would provide him with a high profile and beatable opponent. Jack Culcay, James Kirkland, Austin Trout………the list goes on. The world 154lb scene is ready for somebody to take charge of it and Smith should find himself in the thick of the action in 2016.
George Jupp recorded the sweetest victory of his career as he handed Mitchell Smith a first defeat and a serious reality check. Jupp was given a thoroughly deserved unanimous decision after ten disciplined rounds during which he pinned Smith on the end of his punches and easily avoided his telegraphed hayemakers.
Jupp’s mental and physical preparation seemed to be on a whole different scale to Smith’s. Whereas Smith, now 13-1 (7 KO’s), spent the weeks - and in particular the days - leading up to the fight getting more and more irate about having to face a fighter he deemed as unworthy, Jupp and his team simply concentrated on nailing down their gameplan. 25 year old Jupp, now 13-2 (4 KO’s), is riding a nine fight winning streak since losing to Mongolian warrior, Choi, in a Prizefighter semi final four years ago and can feel confident about mixing it with the likes of Maxi Hughes, Martin J.Ward and Anthony Cacace for the domestic titles.
Smith needs to tear his career apart and start again. The 23 year old has been given an enviable platform to perform on since a stunning debut back in 2012 but - save for a couple of highlight reel worthy knockouts of overmatched opponents - he has flattered to deceive. Smith is clearly too small to seriously compete above the featherweight division but seems to have been talking about losing the extra four pounds for the entire year. If last week’s events don’t hammer home the fact that Mitchell urgently needs to begin living, training, eating and concentrating like a professional fighter and justifying the faith that Frank Warren has shown in him, then nothing will.
At his best, Smith carries the air of menace that elevates the very good fighters above the crowd. It would be a terrible waste of talent should Smith fail to fulfil his potential. The ball is firmly in his own court.
It was good to see a fighter try to beat Chorley light welterweight, Jack Catterall, 14-0 (9 KO’s). Since thumping Liverpool’s Thomas Stalker to defeat in October 2014, Catterall has faced opponents who either didn’t want to fight him and resorted to spoiling or fighters who didn’t believe they could win and ran. Noe Nunez arrived from Mexico with a decent C.V and a tonne of ambition.
Catterall seems to be the type of fighter that thrives on a challenge. Nunez held advantages in height and reach and gave the 22 year old southpaw plenty to think about. Catterall had a bloody mouth when he bulled Nunez back to the ropes, planted his feet and winged in a series of hard, accurate hooks. It was a brutal but exciting finish.
It will be extremely interesting to see whether Catterall moves on to fringe world title level - a clash with Mauricio Herrera has been mooted - or aims for Tyrone Nurse’s British title.
Liam Williams returned from a thirteen month lay off to destroy Kris Carslaw inside two rounds. The Commonwealth light middleweight champion added the British title to his collection with an excellent display of punch picking and control of distance. Having initially been told that his career was over due to a finger injury, Williams and his trainer, Gary Lockett, maintained their belief and stayed in the gym until a second opinion gave him a route back into the sport. Rather than ease their way back with a routine eight rounder, Lockett trusted Williams’ ability and pitched him straight into the fight with Carslaw. His faith was justified as Williams turned in a sensational performance. After hurting the Scot along the ropes in the first, Williams walked him onto a ramrod jab within seconds of the second round. in one fell swoop, Carslaw was pitched face first to the canvas and Williams reminded everybody of the immense potential he displayed before his prolonged lay-off.
23 year old Williams, 13-0-1 (8 KO’s) and from Clydach Vale in Wales, has fought less then five rounds in 17 months and would benefit from some time in the ring before pushing on towards European and world level. If he continues to impress, a natural progression of opponent should lead him into world title contention within eighteen months. Williams could be a special talent, there is no rush.