WBO middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders looked so good beating David Lemieux in Canada on Saturday night (December 16) that, for the first time, the previously farfetched notion of him sharing a boxing ring with the likes of Gennady Golovkin and Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez seemed not only a plausible but the right thing to do. Now. Next. Immediately.
He looked so good, in fact, it almost became easy to imagine a scenario whereby he does to Golovkin and Alvarez, two swarming types with heavy hands, exactly what he did to Lemieux. Confuse, outbox and dominate them.
No sooner had I started to entertain those thoughts than I began to recall Golovkin’s ungodly power and suffocating pressure, as well as Canelo’s explosiveness and athleticism. It was then I realised it was five o’clock in the morning and that Saunders had quite possibly mesmerised me to the point of delirium, so brilliant was his performance, so beguiling were his tricks (so perplexing was Lemieux’s impotence).
Clearer perspective arrived the next morning (more accurately, the next afternoon). With the benefit of sleep, I knew David Lemieux wasn’t necessarily the destroyer knockouts of Curtis Stevens and Hector Camacho’s son made him out to be. Nor was Laval’s Place Bell the lion’s den we expected it to be. Instead, what I now understood was that Saunders was able to silence the crowd and shut down Lemieux because Lemieux deals with a moving target about as well as he deals with accepting defeats against moving targets. Which is to say, not very well.
So it proved again on Saturday, as Lemieux, master of the sitting duck demolition, struggled getting to grips with Saunders for any one of the 36 minutes they spent together and then, like any self-respecting slugger unable to comprehend the intricacies of the sweet science, blamed his non-performance on an injury and his opponent being too damn slick. (I think he mentioned “running”, but we’ll pretend to have misheard.)
Saunders was slick. Slicker than ever, in fact. But he was also superb. Superb in a way that nobody really saw coming; not after the year he has had, a year in which he switched camps not once but twice, and delivered a couple of subpar performances, one of which, against Artur Akavov, suggested Saunders was a man in crisis. (He even mentioned retiring afterwards.) The Billy Joe Saunders on show against Lemieux, all crafty moves and clever counter-punching, was the Billy Joe Saunders we’d been promised since he was a teenager. (If the kid knuckles down and focuses, they said, he can be something special; if he feels tested and motivated, you watch him go.)
Motivation restored thanks to Dominic Ingle and Sheffield’s Wincobank gym, Saunders came of age on Saturday. And how. Aware of the danger Lemieux possessed, Billy Joe fought with all the sharpness of someone slightly fearful, yet combined this with the composure of a 28-year-old for whom fighting in Quebec against a Canadian is no different from tussling with a brother or cousin on a field somewhere back in England.
Indeed, it was this sense of Saunders being comfortable in surroundings supposedly hostile that had minds around Great Britain imagining ways the WBO champion might one day conquer Golovkin and Alvarez. The theory goes: if Saunders can hold it together in Canada against Lemieux, and look so impressive, he clearly possesses something. This something might count for nothing against the real monsters of the division, but it might also be everything. It could be the thing that separates Saunders from all who have entered fights with the aforementioned and been reduced, mentally, to the size of a pygmy before they have even been hit.
Saunders, if nothing else, will be a safe bet on that front. He will be wary of Golovkin and Alvarez, but in a good way, just as he was right to be wary of Lemieux. It will keep him alert and focused. Switched on. What it won’t do is prevent him doing what comes so naturally: boxing, fighting, moving, toying, teasing. And if allowed to do what comes naturally, it might really get interesting.
HBO certainly see value in Saunders as an opponent for the division’s big guns. They were noticeably full of admiration for Saunders on Saturday night. Jim Lampley called him a better version of Tyson Fury. Max Kellerman compared him to Terence Crawford. Roy Jones said every one of his elaborate moves should be accompanied by the matador’s shout of “olé!”
Frankly, it’s hard to remember a British boxer ever being as well-received by an American commentary team, especially one as hard to please as HBO’s three amigos. Well-informed judges, Messrs Lampley, Kellerman and Jones decided early on it wasn’t so much Lemieux’s limitations making him look bad as it was Saunders’ slickness and skill. They bought into it straight away. They loved what they saw. They then allowed themselves to picture it: Golovkin vs. Saunders; Canelo vs. Saunders. They didn’t mock the scenario, either. Conversely, they sounded eager to see it.
For us at home, those watching Saunders undress Lemieux in full view of his public, the immediate – and perhaps laziest – comparison to make is with the 2006 fight between Joe Calzaghe and Jeff Lacy, a fight in which Calzaghe, the busy southpaw, led Lacy, the lethargic puncher, a merry dance for twelve rounds and peppered his head and body with pretty much every shot deemed legal.
There were definite similarities. Through rounds one to twelve, Saunders carried a Calzaghe-esque swagger. He made a purportedly hazardous task appear easy. He didn’t come close to losing an exchange, let alone a round. He dazzled. He grew in self-belief and stature as the clinic progressed and he realised Lemieux, as with Lacy, was hanging in there because it was his job to hang in there, rather than because he felt hopeful of winning. By the midway point, Saunders, to use British parlance, was taking the p*ss.
There were shades, too, of Tyson Fury’s 2015 victory over Wladimir Klitschko. Unmoved by the crowd, nonplussed by the occasion, Saunders, ever the troublemaker, seemed to place emphasis on stoking the whole thing further. He wanted Lemieux to get frustrated and mad and for that, in turn, to make the crowd, his people, frustrated and mad. It was why he showboated and entertained and made his dominance abundantly clear. It was why he made a point of not only winning rounds but making these small victories clear in the minds of everyone – the judges, the audience, his opponent.
It was a traveller’s performance in every sense of the word. Hostile environment, against the odds, Saunders ventured to Quebec, derailed the supposed natural order of events, and did so in a way that owed everything to his upbringing as a proud fighting man. He was composed. He was confident. He was mature. He was mischievous. He was, in going to Canada and taunting a devastating puncher, ignorant and oblivious in the best way possible. To him, Saunders, this was no different to any other fight. He was born to do it.
Does a fight against Gennady Golovkin, however, count as just any other fight? Will one with Canelo Alvarez be considered just any other fight?
If they are, and if Saunders is able to relax and perform with the same equanimity he showed against Lemieux, things could get very interesting. That kind of mindset, after all, would facilitate his style and allow him to be smooth and fluid and awkward. For them, annoyingly so. And though we’ve seen Golovkin and Canelo extinguish plenty of movers in the past, few slip and slide quite like Saunders. Not with the same assuredness; not with the same confidence. Nor, it should be pointed out, have Golovkin or Canelo ever seemed entirely comfortable handling that sort of style. Daniel Jacobs, some believe, got the better of Golovkin with hit-and-move tactics, while many more feel Erislandy Lara, the Cuban southpaw, was unlucky not to get rewarded for his efforts against Alvarez.
Granted, though, it’s one thing Saunders doing it against Lemieux, a solid fringe contender, and another thing doing it against Golovkin and Alvarez, bonafide superheroes of the sport. Take a hook, cross or uppercut from either of those two and the veneer of carefree leisure is liable to turn into a look of terror. One punch. That’s all it takes. Lemieux, for all his pre-fight talk and 33 knockouts, wasn’t afforded even that. Not a single decent punch.
While that says everything about Saunders’ defence, and the overall quality of his performance (the best a Brit has produced this year), it also leaves dreamers susceptible to forgetting just how efficient the likes of Golovkin and Canelo are when it comes to throwing and landing punches in big fights on the biggest of stages. It’s what they do, remember. It’s why they are the best.
Saunders, 26-0 (12 KOs), is getting there. He’s better than many thought. He may even be the best boxer his country currently has to offer. We also now know this much: he wouldn’t be overwhelmed, much less disgraced, versus anyone at 160 pounds. Not Golovkin, not Alvarez, not Jacobs, not Demetrious Andrade, not Jermall Charlo. He’d be a match for them all.
But until he beats the best, until he’s able to bamboozle the best the way he can seemingly bamboozle the rest, the true pedigree of Billy Joe Saunders remains to be seen. (And that’s said with excitement rather than scepticism.)