AT the end of 2017, Billy Joe Saunders produced a dazzling performance in unanimously outpointing the dangerous David Lemieux to retain his WBO middleweight crown. This impressive victory capped off a productive year for the skilful southpaw, during which he also made a successful title defence against the tricky Willie Monroe Jnr – once again via unanimous decision. Unfortunately for Saunders, 2018 was to turn out to be his annus horribilis.
Just over three weeks before a lucrative scheduled October clash with fellow unbeaten Demetrius Andrade in Boston, it emerged that Saunders had failed a voluntary drug test, with the stimulant oxilofrine being detected in his system. Though the substance – which Saunders’ team said came from a “common decongestant nasal spray” – is permitted for use outside of competition by the British Boxing Board of Control, the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission – the body that was governing the Andrade fight – refused to license Saunders due to the “adverse analytical finding”. This led to the cancellation of the bout, as well as Saunders relinquishing his WBO belt.
Additionally, just days before news of the positive test surfaced, Saunders was fined £100,000 by the BBBofC for “bringing the sport into disrepute”. This was in response to an unsavoury video involving Saunders that appeared online – something which he later described as “banter [that] went wrong”.
Saunders is adamant that he has learned valuable lessons from these costly errors of judgement. Speaking exclusively to Boxing News, he said: “It’s no secret that last year was a very bad year for me, both inside and outside of the ring. I’m just pleased that it’s over. I’m going to put it behind me and move forward. I’m 29 years old now, so I can’t afford to make any more mistakes. I certainly won’t be putting a foot wrong from now on – in or out of the ring. I’m just going to get my head down and train hard.”
To aid his efforts in turning over a new leaf, Saunders has decided to make a fresh start in two significant aspects – his training set-up and weight division. Instead of working under Dominic Ingle and campaigning at middleweight, he is now being coached by Ben Davison – who also trains Tyson Fury – and operating at super-middle. He believes these changes will reinvigorate him following a fruitless 2018, during which he only made one appearance – a low-key fourth-round retirement win over veteran Charles Adamu in late December.
“I felt that I needed a change-up, as I was going a bit stale,” Saunders explained. “I’ve known Ben for a long time and worked with him regularly in the past, so I know how good he is. I was the one who put Ben and Tyson in touch with each other. I didn’t want to keep jumping in and out of bed with new trainers. I just wanted to find one and get on with my career. Dom did a good job, but it was my preference to have a change. Ben knows me better than anyone, so he was the obvious choice.
“As for the weight, I can get down to 160 [pounds] comfortably, but I just felt like it was time for a new chapter. I want new challenges, and I think that by moving up to 168, it’ll help me to get the big fights that I need. I was an avoided man at middleweight, so I want to see whether the boys at super-middleweight will step up and fight me instead. And I know that if a big fight does ever come up for me at middleweight again, I can always go back down there – that’s always an option for me. But there are big fights to be made at 168. I think the fights up there are more favourable than at 160, at the current time.” The next act of Saunders’ career begins on May 18, when he meets unheralded former cruiserweight Shefat Isufi for the now vacant WBO super-middleweight strap. The contest takes place at the Lamex Stadium in Stevenage, just a few miles up the road from Saunders’ hometown of Hatfield. That he is headlining an outdoor event in his local area has provided Saunders with an added incentive to shine on the night.
“I’m where I want to be now, boxing in a stadium fight at Stevenage football ground. The fact that I’m fighting there is a dream come true. It’s right on my doorstep – I’ve driven past it a million and one times in the past – so I’m really relishing it. I just can’t wait to go out there and get the job done. There’s going to be around 10-12,000 people there,
so I’ve got to make sure that I perform,” he said.
“Isufi was in great shape when I saw him at the press conference to announce the fight. He looked big and strong. He’s got 20 knockouts on his record, so I’ve got to be on top of my game. As I’m moving up in weight, I realise that my opponents are probably going to be hitting harder than what I’ve experienced in the past. But I think my speed, agility and ring craft will keep me in good stead. Also, I’ll be carrying extra muscle, so that can only be a good thing for my power.”