THE super-middleweight division, one of the most appealing in the sport, has been largely dormant in 2020. Caleb Plant, the IBF champion, made a low key defence in February and the WBC title has been left vacant. But the big fight in the division sees Canelo Alvarez box Callum Smith for the WBA championship on December 19. Before that comes Billy Joe Saunders’ WBO title defence against Martin Murray on Friday (December 4). The winner will be watching Canelo-Smith closely, eyeing a unification clash for next year. Saunders came close to securing a fight with Canelo himself in May of this year, until the coronavirus pandemic saw that fall through.
“If Martin wins, then he’s sitting in the driving seat. If Martin wins then he’s got the golden ticket,” said Saunders. “It’s stacked in my favour on paper but as we know paper can burn and paper can be thrown in the bin. The script can be torn up and thrown away.
“In my own head I need to bring a performance out where people go, ‘Well, no matter who’s in front of him, he’s still going to look sensational.’”
For Martin Murray this will be a final shot at the thing he’s fought so hard for, and come so close to winning – a world title. Murray has challenged four times before for world honours, coming desperately close to victory. Nine years ago he drew with Felix Sturm for the WBA title in Germany. Two years later he was fighting Argentine superstar Sergio Martinez, even putting him down but losing a unanimous decision in Buenos Aires. In 2015 he lasted a gallant 11 rounds with the then dominant middleweight Gennady Golovkin. At super-middleweight later that same year, on another away trip to Germany, he fought the WBO champion Arthur Abraham and lost a split decision.
He is now 38 years old and in his 13 year professional career he has fought the toughest competition available. His 12 rounds with hard punching, elite level super-middleweight George Groves wasn’t even for a world title. A tough, brave career, but he has so far fallen short of where he wanted to be. This fight, his fifth shot at a world title, is Murray’s last chance at the dream. An opportunity like this against Saunders won’t come round again. The question is whether it has already come too late. “I know it’s my final chance,” Murray told Boxing News. “No one’s ever done it in five I believe. I’ve said it before, if you get one world title fight it’s big, but five. And no one’s ever done it in five. But I truly believe it’s my calling. I’ve been going for so long and there’s a reason and this is it. To do what no one’s ever done before. So I know it’s going to be a hard fight but I’m confident. All I’ve ever wanted is a fair crack at the whip, a world title fight in my own country and I’ve got it. Training’s gone well and I can’t wait.
“I have got everything to win.”
The two had been scheduled to fight in 2018 but Saunders had to withdraw twice due to injury. In that interim Billy Joe moved up from middleweight, relinquishing the world title he’d won against Andy Lee and defended impressively from David Lemieux. At super-middleweight he won the vacant WBO world title and has been a class above his two 168lb opponents Shefat Isufi and Marcelo Esteban Coceres. Martin Murray may be a veteran now but is a level beyond Isufi and Coceres.
“I gave him my word that he would fight me and it’s a bit later than expected but here we are. It’s on,” Billy Joe said. “He’s coming to win. He never comes to lay down.”
Saunders at his best is sharp, slick and impressively quick. Not a big super-middle, he has though given every appearance of getting himself in superb condition for this contest. He did change trainers. After stints with Dominic Ingle and Ben Davison, Saunders has been working with Mark Tibbs. But Tibbs is another good trainer and also a man who knows Billy Joe well. The two worked together previously in Saunders’ career, when Mark’s father Jimmy was Billy Joe’s head trainer. This development won’t unsettle Saunders.
But he will want to dazzle against Murray. With an eye on the Canelo-Smith victor for 2021, Saunders will want to showcase himself not only as a possible opponent but as a potential threat. Murray however is a tough man. He’s hard to grind down, hard to push back. His defence is solid, his fundamentals sound. Those are the recipe for success but in this instance, Saunders speed and his edge in skill should make the difference for him. The champion is expected to retain by decision after 12 rounds.
On the undercard exciting Northern Irish fighter James Tennyson boxes 16-0 Canadian Josh O’Reilly in an eliminator for the WBA lightweight title.
Super-middleweight Zach Parker is working his way up to get a mandatory shot at Saunders’ WBO title. Parker must beat Spain’s Cesar Nunez to stay in the running.
The Verdict Expect Murray to give his all, but Saunders might still have the edge.