This Saturday in Paisley, Scotland, unbeaten WBO middleweight king Billy Joe Saunders gets to sharpen his tool kit ahead of a guaranteed global blockbuster in 2017, writes Glynn Evans.
Hall of Fame promoter Frank Warren has promised the mercurial Hatfield southpaw a ‘bang up’ against the likes of Gennady Golovkin or ‘Canelo’ Alvarez in the New Year.
‘Canelo’ doesn’t want any part of me at all. They know I’m all wrong for him,’ says the super-skilled 27 year old Romany gypsy who returns to make a maiden defence of his crown against Russian hard case Artur Akavov in Glasgow
‘But there’s also talks that I’ll get Golovkin next”
And Saunders scoffs at the naysayers and odds setters who enlist him as a prohibitive underdog against the Kazakh crusher who holds the other three relevant world belts at 160lbs and who has rubbed out his 23 most recent victims whilst compiling a perfect 36-0 slate.
‘Look, I’m ready. I’ve been boxing for 22 years. I’ve got all the skills, all the seasoning and all the confidence. I’ve been involved in big fights and I’ve come through close fights. I’m right in my prime, whereas Golovkin’s 34,’ argues bold Billy, a 2008 Beijing Olympian and former Commonwealth, British and European champion, who has won 23 straight.
‘Lately, ‘Triple G’ has got a bit smug and overconfident, fighting over his front foot. It wasn’t part of his game plan to let Kell Brook hit him, he was caught through complacency. His mindset’s a bit like Jeff Lacy’s before Joe Calzaghe schooled him.
‘I’m not stupid. I know I can’t beat Golovkin physically, in a ‘trade up’. I beat him by being smart and cute, breaking his rhythm, establishing my own. And let me tell ya, if Kell (Brook)could catch him, I can catch him, and with them small gloves any fighter can cut and bust up their opponent, if they land often enough.
‘One thing I absolutely guarantee is that I will not worry before I get in the ring like all Golovkin’s previous opponents. I’ll fight till the very last downing. Obviously it’ll take a better performance than I’ve shown yet but I know I’ve got that in me.’
Saunders’ star and stock were both set to soar when he ripped the WBO belt off Limerick’s Andy Lee with a quite masterful display of calculated counterpunching at Manchester Arena a year ago.
He explains: ‘Unfortunately I injured my left wrist in April, then rushed back before it was properly healed and you can’t do that. Stupid. After that, there was talk about a fight in the US.
‘Initially, I switched off for a few months, raced a few of my horses, etc. But people need to understand, I’ve been boxing solid since I were five year old. I’m now 27. I seriously needed some time off. Besides, being world champion – knowing you’re the best man in the world – is nice. I’ve been able to enjoy the perks.
‘I’ve spent some quality time with the family, My Stephen, who’s seven, has already had his first gym show where they had to pull his ten year old opponent out after just two rounds. He’s extremely talented and a southpaw too. I’ve bet £100 at ridiculous odds that he wins a world title before the age of 21!’
Despite the hiatus, the 5ft 11in Herts man is adamant we will witness a best ever version when he returns to duty north of Hadrian’s this weekend.
‘Though I’ve been out of the ring for a year my confidence has soared since becoming world champion. It’s not cockiness or arrogance. I’m just on Cloud Nine and genuinely believe nobody can beat me,’ insists the father of three.
‘I’ve been training really hard for four months and now, as all can see, I’m in blinding shape; really fresh, really hungry again.
‘I’ve been back and forth between the Hoddesdon amateur gym and the MGM gym in Marbella. Preparing over there, you can’t be in anything but good shape, physically and mentally. The hands are healed and I’ve had plenty of sparring with young, hungry kids who try really hard to prove themselves.
‘It’s like a huge boxing family. There’s also ideal opportunities to let your hair down and relax without going daft; we go the beach or racing car track.’
And after false starts in April, September, October and November, ‘King Billy’ finally gets his title defence up and running before one of the UK’s most passionate and knowledgeable audiences on Saturday.
‘I went up there for Kevin Mitchell’s fight (with then WBO lightweight boss Ricky Burns) so I know the Scots are a great crowd. I have to thank Frank Warren and my management team for delivering this opportunity to perform before them,’ he says.
His 30 year old Russian challenger – a bearded southpaw known as ‘Wolverine’ – has won 11 straight, bagged WBO European and WBF belts and is yet to be stopped.
‘Avakov might not be a great name but he’s a decent fighter who’s only lost one of 17. If I’d made a few defences and got given him, I might struggle to get up for it but I’ve been out for a year so this is ideal for me to ease back,’ assesses Saunders.
‘From watching videos, the Russian has improved a great deal over the last year. He’s an aggressor who doesn’t like to be pushed back. I guarantee he’ll not be coming to lie down.
‘I’ll not especially be looking for the early knockout. Ideally, I’d like the feel of a few rounds, blow away a few cobwebs, put on a classy showing for the Scottish fans. I’ll take care of Avakov in my time.
‘I’ll be looking to come out with a good win before making a big statement in ‘The Big One’ early next year.’
Recharged, refreshed and refocused, Saunders insists his best fights and best feats still lie ahead of him.
‘If money was my goal, I could give up boxing tomorrow as unbeaten world champion and be a very happy man,’ he concludes.
‘But my main objective wasn’t to win one world title, it’s to win the lot, become unified champion. Only the greats have done that.’
Watch Saunders v Akavov live on BoxNation this Saturday.