A new WBO middleweight champion was crowned in Manchester, England on Saturday as Billy Joe Saunders earned a majority decision over Andy Lee to take the title.
The fight, which had been postponed twice due to injury and illness from both camps, was highly anticipated and the crowd let both fighters know they were excited by cheering loudly for both as they walked into the ring.
Both fighters started cautiously by pawing each other with jabs. Neither fighter wanted to be the first to make a mistake.
The action took a dramatic turn as Saunders (23-0, 12KO) landed a perfect right hook to put Lee down on his face. For a moment, it seemed Lee (34-3-1, 24KO) would not get up, but he somehow found the resolve to stand before the 10-count. However, Lee would go down from a glancing right hand for a second knockdown before surviving the round.
Saunders may have shown too much respect for Lee’s power because he fought the fourth round too cautiously and Lee managed to win the round by default as he went back to jabbing Saunders and throwing an occasional left hand.
The fight regressed back to the pattern of the first two rounds with both guys unwilling or unable to exchange. Rounds 5-8 were difficult to score because there was little to choose between the two pugilists. Only occasional overhand lefts or mini-flurries of two-three punches broke the pace of the fight.
Lee must’ve known he was behind on the scorecards, because he finally put some gas to the pedal in round 9 by largely outworking Saunders, who although wasn’t get hit cleanly, lost the round due to inactivity. Lee’s success continued in rounds 10 and 11 with largely the same formula: outwork Saunders and don’t get knocked down again.
Saunders woke up in the final round and actually exchanged with Lee, but the champion still outworked Saunders for the majority of the round.
When the final bell rang, it was clear due to the two knockdowns a Lee victory was unlikely. However, Lee could still retain his title with a draw, which is how I scored it (113-113).
One judge scored the fight a draw 113-113 while the other two scored it for the challenger, 114-112 and 115-111, making Saunders the new champion.
The fight, although fascinating, wasn’t as exciting or fulfilling as anticipated. It largely played out like a high-skills amateur bout. Although Saunders did earn the win and showed some underrated power, he didn’t convince me he could take on the likes of Gennady Golovkin or Canelo Alvarez.
A bout with WBA (Regular) champion (whatever that means) Daniel Jacobs could prove to be an interesting matchup however. Both guys have enough skills and weaknesses to make it an action-packed bout.
It’s unclear where Lee goes from here. He’s come a long way from his losses to the ultimate gatekeeper Brian Viloria and super-spoiled Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. to winning the title against Matt Korobov last year. He is 37 years-old so it’s hard to image Lee getting any better than he already is. There are plenty of contenders such as David Lemieux and Chris Eubank Jr. who could give Lee a good earning.