Lee and Saunders offer champagne finale to boxing’s vintage year

Lee and Saunders offer champagne finale to boxing’s vintage year


I have been looking forward with lick-lipping anticipation to tonight’s WBO middleweight title match-up in Manchester ever since it was first made back in July.

Lee V Saunders

Even a couple of unforeseen postponements have not dimmed the desire to see Andy Lee and Billy Joe Saunders get it on to bring down the curtain on what has been a fantastic year for British boxing.

I find this a fascinating fight, not least because of the contrasting styles and characters of the two fellow southpaw Travellers, both former Olympians.

It may have been overlooked that Lee actually beat his second cousin Tyson Fury (their Irish grandmothers are sisters) to the punch when he became the first Traveller top win a world title, with a stunning stoppage of the hitherto unblemished Russian slugger Matt Korobov a year ago this month.

In so many ways Lee is the total anthesis of Fury; quiet, modest, respectful and cultured in his conversation. He certainly doesn’t act like Fury – though actually he does act in the real sense of the word.

He is an enthusiastic thespian who last October could be seen treading the boards at a small theatre in Dublin in a production of Chekhov’s dark drama Platanov (sounds more like an IBO-ranked heavyweight) as the horse thief Ossip. His link to the arts is also enhanced by his marriage to the Irish singer and musician Maud Reardon.

Now, as Irish boxing’s leading man, Manchester offer a vastly different theatre for his unquestioned talent as a fighter in the 31-year’s first official defence. That Peter Quillin in Brooklyn, with whom he drew after twice climbing off the floor, was made a non-title affair when the American failed to make the weight.

Born in east London, Lee quit Bow and the itinerant life as a 13-year-old, moving to Limerick after building a decent career as a schoolboy boxer with the renowned Repton ABC.

Andy Lee

Fast forward to today, the fruits of his productive but largely unheralded career as an away fighter, discovered and brilliantly nurtured by the legendary but sadly lamented Emanuel Steward, whose Kronk gym in Detroit had no locker space for mugs.

Now under the tutelage of Adam Booth, Lee (34-2-1) faces a five years younger foe who bristles with self-belief.

He says of Saunders: “He has never lost, not even lost many rounds, so I have to let him know from the start, let him taste the punches, taste the jab, nullify the things he wants to do. A bit of doubt will creep in and then he will get desperate.

“The best thing he has going for him is his attitude. He believes he is better than he is. Technically he is not that great, he’s floppy and doesn’t have a punch, but he knows how to win fights because he has that never-say-die attitude. When you come from the travelling community you can’t lose face. Reputation is a big thing. I know what’s coming. He doesn’t. For the first time in his life he is going to find out that attitude alone won’t be enough.”

Brash Billy Joe has only had one bout – a fourth round stoppage of journeyman Yoann Bloyer in July – since his impressive points win over Chris Eubank jnr over a year ago. The 26-year-old admitted the prolonged wait for this fight, caused initially by Lee’s indisposition when scheduled for home town Limerick, then his own eyebrow sliced open by a stray elbow while sparring, has not diminished his appetite for the clash.

Or his concern that there is prejudice among some elements of the public against the Travelling community.

“Whatever anybody says, Travellers don’t get the recognition for the things they do. There’s plenty of publicity about the bad things, but never the good things. I feel targeted myself and I feel for Tyson Fury.

“Listen, mine and Andy’s is a big, big fight, but are we going to get the publicity we deserve? Win, lose or draw, no. And I reckon it’s because of our background.

“The way I look at it now is that I don’t care about changing people’s perceptions of Travellers, because if that win isn’t going to do it for Tyson, then nothing is going to do it for Andy and me.

“So I just say, ‘You know what, I’m going to try to win it for myself’.”

While he partially concurs Lee believes that in future many more Travellers are going to be champions “Our fight provides the perfect platform to inspire future generations and showcase Travelling culture in a positive fashion.

“It is important that we represent our people, who have had such a spotlight and bad image. Both of us are good representatives, positive role models for younger kids, not just Travellers, all kids. It’s nice to do that.”

And once the bell clangs at the Manchester Arena Saunders, who has collected European, British and Commonwealth titles, insists he won’t be fazed by Lee’s punching power, which has seen him stop four of his last six opponents.

Billy Joe Saunders

“We respect each other,” says Saunders. “Andy Lee has shown he can pull it out of the bag when things ain’t going right for him, he is very dangerous. I know what he brings to the table.”

Lee adds: “Neither of us is going to want to lose this fight.  It’s only 36 minutes long but when you’re in there it’s a lifetime. What happens in those 36 minutes will live with us for the rest of our lives.

“Billy Joe fights at a fast pace and throws a lot of punches, whereas I’m more of a one, two-punch power puncher. He might try and outwork me but in doing that he is going to take a lot of chances and leave himself exposed. So if I’m honest, without being arrogant, he is going to have to box better than he’s ever boxed before to beat me.

“I’m just going to have to box my regular, regular fight, but the way he fights might knock me out of my stride so it’s going to be an excellent fight. Like I said, be prepared for everything.”

No doubt guru Booth will advise Lee to play a waiting game believing the Hatfield hustler man flags towards the end in end in championship situations. But Saunders has worked assiduously on his stamina in Marbella, and looks in peak condition.

The one certainty is that there will be no rabid verbalising or religious ranting from him or his Romany rival. Just a good, old fashioned war laced with skill and will.

Saunders acknowledges: “This is the biggest fight of my life. Two Travellers from different countries, but with the same background – it is a serious thing for our community. I’ve always realised the importance of this. One of us can win this fight by one point, but if you lose in our community you’ll be known only as the loser – and that’s it. “

“I’m bang on and ready to go to war. May the best man win. I hope and believe that’s me.”

The bookies can’t split them, and it may well be that at the conclusion of 12 pulsating rounds the judges won’t be able to, either.

But I’ll go for Saunders to make it a round dozen British world champions – on a split decision of course.

Tickets are available from www.frankwarren.com. Or watch exclusively live on BoxNation, go to www.boxnation.com

Tomorrow: Catch up with Alan Hubbard’s Punchlines

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