Not long ago middleweight titlist Billy Joe Saunders must have thought he was snakebitten. He had been inactive, failed in bids to land marquee fights, and made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Then, last summer, in the strangest twist of all, his scheduled championship defense against Avtandil “Mini Mike Tyson” Khurtsidze was cancelled when Khurtsidze was swept up in an FBI dragnet of Russian mob operatives in New York City. Now, Saunders takes his first step into the international spotlight when he faces crackerjack puncher David Lemieux at the Place Bell in Laval, Quebec, Canada, on Saturday night in the intriguing main event of HBO World Championship Boxing at 9:40 PM ET/PT.
For a while, Saunders (25-0, 12 KOs) seemed hell-bent on embodying some of the worst excesses of the modern prizefighter: specifically the social media blowhard who turns the ring into a waltz session whenever he actually steps into one. But Saunders deserves credit for hitting the road to face a dangerous foe. No matter what his limitations are, Lemieux, who atomized Curtis Stevens last March in one of the most frightening knockouts of the year, is potential dynamite for anyone who shares the ring with him. With only a handful of outings over the last few years, however, Saunders is now looking to become an X-factor in a compelling middleweight division, which includes Canelo Alvarez, Gennady Golovkin, and Daniel Jacobs. A potential jackpot matchup with any of these money men is why Saunders is rolling the dice against Lemieux.
In his last fight, Saunders scored an uneventful decision over Willie Monroe, Jr. at the Copper Box Arena in London. Saunders hardly lived up to his nickname, “Superb.” In fact, Monroe probably took more punishment prior to the fight, when Stevie Saunders, all of eight years old, punched him in the groin at the weigh-in. It was a poor contrast for Billy Joe: his own son seemed more inspired by the prospect of swapping blows with Monroe than he did. Saunders is a southpaw cutie who sets a glacial pace, minimizes exchanges, frequently grapples, and relies on an accurate jab to go along with an old boxing standby: the one-two. Andrew Harrison, who covers the U.K. scene for Boxing Monthly sums up his troublesome style. “Saunders is a quick and crafty southpaw. He's very difficult to hit cleanly and has extensive amateur experience. His chin has proven dependable to date and he's all fighter—there's no quit in him. On the flip side, he can be a tad over-reliant on his right hand, he doesn't possess world-class power and he's shown a tendency to fade late in fights.”
Saunders also has the unique ability, like the old pulp character The Shadow, to cloud the minds of men. Andy Lee and Monroe, both of whom Saunders defeated by points, seemed mesmerized by Saunders. In 2014, Chris Eubank, Jr. looked positively desultory when he dropped a split decision to Saunders. If Saunders, 28, seems to lack zeal, it may be because zeal would undercut a nightmare style whose appeal is limited, certainly, but whose difficulties between the ropes are undeniable.
This combination of spoiling tactics in the ring—despite an Olympic pedigree—and odd behavior out of it has made Saunders a genuine enigma. Since winning his middleweight title from Andy Lee nearly two years ago, Saunders, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom, has fought only twice and each time failed to impress. A nighthawk lifestyle, inactivity, and a revolving door of trainers have all contributed to Saunders looking less than scintillating in the ring recently.
Like his fellow Traveller Tyson Fury, Saunders has cultivated a zany aura that has intrigued some and baffled others. There is a Monty Pythonesque air about him. His Twitter feed is raucous and profane, his behavior at public events is outlandish, and his reputation as a snooker fiend precedes him. Even more bizarre, video footage of Saunders razing his caravan with a bulldozer popped up on in The Daily Star a few months ago. If Saunders can get by Lemieux, the middleweight division will have no choice but to take him seriously.
After a few years in limbo—when the blue-chip prospect afterglow faded following consecutive losses to Marco Antonio Rubio and Joachim Alcine in 2011, David Lemieux (38-3, 33 KOs) regrouped to become that contemporary rarity: a fighting contender. No sooner did he win a title by outpointing footloose Hassan N'Dam N'Jikam, than Lemieux accepted terms for a partial unification bout against middleweight terror Gennady Golovkin. Instead of cashing in on a few easy defenses—the raison d'être of so many titleholders—Lemieux immediately challenged the top dog in his division. He was mauled for his temerity, of course, but showed bona fide moxie in scrapping with a fighter so many have found convenient reasons to avoid. A more cautious-than-usual “GGG” worked behind his jab en route to stopping Lemieux in the 8th round in 2015.
Although Lemieux, 28, has been stopped twice, Saunders is not Golovkin and seemingly lacks the firepower to render the judges irrelevant on fight night. That means carefully navigating his way across 12 potentially hazardous rounds while employing his special brand of strategic dawdling. It will be up to Lemieux to force a pace that will keep Saunders on his back foot and on the defensive.
Letting a cunning spoiler such as Saunders set up in relative comfort is a mistake that could cost the Montreal-native precious points. The bell-to-bell hellion style he employed against N’Dam seems to be his best option against Saunders. “Lemieux's best hope is to place stock in a concerted body assault,” says Harrison. “Saunders is so slippery and jabs so frequently, the Canadian has more chance of immobilizing him with left hooks to the body than he does to the chin. If Lemieux can resist the urge to erase the Brit's sneer with blockbusters up top and doggedly pound Saunders’ ribs instead—even if he has to give up some rounds in the process—it could pay dividends for him down the home stretch.”
To beat Lemieux, who boasts a KO percentage of 80%, Saunders will have to be at his sharpest, and, although Saunders has shown few signs of verve recently he remains undefeated and has beaten some credible opposition. Saunders is hoping for an uneventful night at the Place Bell; Lemieux is hoping for some sort of bruising jubilee. Look for Lemieux to start fast, struggle during the mid-rounds, and hold on for a split decision win.