By Mark Whalley

  • Challenger Saunders wins WBO title via majority decision
  • Has champ down twice in the third round but made to work hard for victory
  • Ireland’s Lee now has three defeats

Manchester, UK. Travellers in boxing are all the rage right now. Tyson Fury, of course, is dominating headlines as the recent conqueror of Wladimir Klitschko. But last night capped a first for boxing when Billy Joe Saunders and Andy Lee – both from gypsy backgrounds – contested the WBO middleweight championship of the world.

But whilst Fury can be described as “an acquired taste” if you’re being generous (and far worse if you’re not), both Saunders and Lee are a credit to boxing in terms of their sportsmanship and commitment to their craft.

It was Saunders, the challenger, who emerged victorious – winning on two judges’ scorecards (the third was a draw) – stretching his record to a perfect 23 victories from 23 fights.

The pre-fight narrative was that of a 50/50 contest, with Saunders regarded as the superior boxer and Lee the bigger puncher. In truth, the fight itself failed to ignite, with eleven of the twelve rounds largely forgettable.

The exception was the third – and what a round that was.

Both boxers had spent the first six minutes keeping each other at a very respectful distance, but the fight caught fire when Billy Joe suckered Lee beautifully: drawing a right hand, then showing tremendous co-ordination to slip under it and deliver a precision counter-right that sent Lee crashing to the floor for an eight-count.

Sensing an opportunity to finish the show early, Saunders piled the pressure on. Lee actually looked dangerous with some of his responses, but Saunders evaded them all and had his man down a second time with another right – this time a clipping shot that caught Lee whilst he was retreating.

Once again Lee rose, and he weathered the storm to hear the bell for the end of the round.

At this point, Saunders and his corner had a big decision to make: should he go after Lee again straight away to avoid giving his opponent time to regain his composure, or exercise caution? After all, Lee has forged a reputation as a fighter who goes behind in fights but somehow finds a way to come back. Indeed, his three previous fights all turned in his favour with vicious knockdowns against fighters who might well have been getting complacent with their successes against him.

Saunders clearly had this in his mind as he returned to plan A: sensible boxing. Over the next six rounds, he probably edged most with a better jab and some decent left hands.

But over the championship rounds, champion Lee drew on his reserves and started to look the better man. He probably edged the eleventh, before clearly winning the twelfth, against an opponent who threw almost nothing in return.

Given the tight nature of most of the rounds, it was far from clear-cut how the decision would fall. The old cliché is that the challenger must “take” the title from the champion; but Saunders’ strategy relied on fair, impartial judging.

He was right to do so. One card had the fight a 113-113 draw, but he won 114-112 and 115-111 on the others. This writer had it 116-113 for Saunders.

British boxing is absolutely booming at the moment, and Saunders adds to the ranks of English world champions. Intriguingly, this could set up a rematch with long-time rival Chris Eubank Jnr, whom he outpointed a year ago.

Since that time, Eubank Jnr has continued to improve (though his father’s statement that he could beat Gennady Golovkin – a human from the future – is laughable) and he would no doubt be a very credible threat to Saunders’ title.

Those two don’t like each other. So all those fun and games are to come, no doubt. Eubank has already thrown his hat into the metaphorical ring. For now, though, Saunders can enjoy waking up as champion of the world.

On the undercard, Liam “Beefy” Smith defended his WBO world super welterweight crown against a game but overmatched Jimmy Kelly. Smith looked impressive enough, but the fact he was facing such an unheralded opponent does little to enhance his skills, and does nothing to disprove the notion that promoter Frank Warren seeks to protect his fighters rather than test them against dangerous opposition.

That said, future hall-of-famer Miguel Cotto has been mooted as a possible opponent. He would certainly tick the “dangerous” box.

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