By John J. Raspanti
Unbeaten WBO middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders danced circles around David Lemieux last Saturday night. He used footwork, angles, and speed to leave the pride of Canada bamboozled and beaten.
It’s funny how quickly we forget. Leading up to this fight, Saunders seemed to be existing in the past tense. In boxing, as in all sports, it’s “What have done for me lately?’"
Saunders? Not much. His most impressive victories occurred a few years ago. In 2014, he bested rival Chris Eubank Jr. in an intense 12-round affair. Saunders boxed, while Eubank chased. His movement and defensive abilities made the durable Eubank miss. He stung his taller opponent with jabs and right hands. Saunders’ stronger boxing pedigree was obvious.
Eubank upped the ante in round six. He applied more pressure. The more experienced Saunders made Eubank pay whenever he over-committed. Eubank searched for a knockout in the last round. Saunders used his legs and boxing brain to stay away. The victory was Saunders’ by majority decision.
A year later he met Andy Lee with championship honors on the line. Saunders floored Lee with a check hook in round three. Lee got up with a surprised look on his face. Saunders made every attempt to take him out. A big right hand caught Lee. Another hook put Lee on his derriere. He got up again and fought back hard. Saunders ran into a left hand that stopped his onslaught.
Though Lee rallied in the later rounds, Saunders was in control. He pecked at Lee’s face with sharp jabs. The knockdowns had won him the fight.
Saunders was now a world champion with many options on the table. His world was an oyster, but instead he decided to eat everything in sight. He gained sixty pounds—resembling “The Pillsbury Dough Boy” with a goatee. Gaining weight is easy---losing it, even at 25, can be difficult.
He didn’t fight for a year, finally returning against one Artur Akavov of Russia. Saunders won the fight, but was hardly impressive. He looked sluggish and bored. Saunders, who has been openly criticized for his unnecessary trash talking, was remarkably honest in assessing how he did.
“I’m embarrassed by that performance,” Saunders told Nick Parkinson of www.espn.com after the fight. “It was nothing there. I was flat. That was terrible.”
He laid off for another eight months, and returned to his old eating habits. He finally returned to the ring last September against Willie Monroe Jr. in London. Saunders managed to remain undefeated, but the event became infamous for the pre-fight weigh- in when Saunders’ eight-year-old son kicked Monroe in the family jewels.
Saunders hadn’t impressed in his most recent fights, while Lemieux, after being beaten to a pulp by Gennady Golovkin, returned with a vengeance—winning four bouts in succession, one of which included a highlight reel knockout.
Here’s where the "What have you done for me lately" thinking sneaks in. Many picked Lemieux to defeat Saunders based on their last few fights. The match would also be going down in Montreal, CAN, Lemieux’s backyard.
Saunders had other ideas. He flipped the script. He changed his eating habits and stayed in training. He was in shape on fight night, and it showed. He won nearly every round on the judges’ scorecards, staying out of danger and clipping Lemieux with blows that he (Lemieux) never saw coming.
It was a masterful performance. But does it put him in the same class with champions Golovkin, Canelo Alvarez, and Danny Jacobs?
Yes and no.
Golovkin appears to have lost a step and doesn’t cut off the ring like he used to. Alvarez is more of a counterpuncher. He can be outjabbed. Jacobs is tall and rangy, and can box. It must be noted that all three fighters are much more talented than Lemieux.
Billy Joe Saunders has proven he can hang with the big boys, but beating all three seems unlikely. Staying in the present, his most recent performances have definitely put him in the mix.