Saunders vs Lemieux: Middleweight Crossroads

The middleweights are a class we have deemed more than once to be an unabashed mess given the fact that for several years it has been populated at the top by talented pugilists and belt-holders who refused to fight each other. But in a year when we saw both Gennady Golovkin vs Daniel Jacobs, and Golovkin vs Canelo Alvarez, we can’t deny that, at long last, significant progress has finally happened to bring some much-needed clarity to what has traditionally been one of boxing’s so-called glamour divisions.

Saturday night should bring more clarity still when two top players at 160 lock horns at Place Bell in Laval, a city located just outside of Montreal. Billy Joe Saunders, the WBO champion, and the only 160-pound titleholder other than Golovkin and Alvarez, will defend his championship against Montreal’s own David Lemieux. It’s an intriguing stylistic clash, and one that, barring a bizarre outcome, should provide a clear answer as to who deserves a shot at the winner of the hoped-for rematch between Alvarez and Golovkin.

Saunders (right) wins the WBO title from Lee in 2015.

And considering that Canelo and Gennady are among the highest-paid prizefighters in the business, both capable of selling out arenas in North America just by placing their name on the marquee, the stakes are high indeed for Saunders vs Lemieux. The winner is in line for a huge fight and a massive payday. The loser will be in middleweight limbo. Saunders, who hasn’t had a truly significant match or eye-catching performance since outpointing Andy Lee two years ago for the vacant WBO strap, is aching to get a shot at the big names in the division. For his part, Lemieux already faced Golovkin in a unification bout in 2015—albeit with painful results—but he’s convinced his game has greatly improved since then and he yearns for a chance to redeem himself.

The flipside to the enticing rewards at stake are the substantial risks each fighter is taking. For the match with Lemieux to come to fruition, Saunders had to agree to travel to Canada, and Saturday represents the first time ever that he has boxed as a pro outside of the United Kingdom. While Saunders will be generously compensated for his troubles–it’s rumored he’s taking home significantly more than Lemieux–his opponent represents one of the division’s most dangerous fighters, a powerful slugger who combines a hell-or-high-water attitude with the concussive potency of his fists to produce spectacular knockouts.

Lemieux defeating Hassan N’Dam in the Bell Centre.

However, it’s also true that, on paper, the stylistic match-up favors the Brit. While Lemieux’s thunderous power makes him a threat to any middleweight, Saunders is one of those ring cuties whose southpaw stance and nuanced offense can, on a good night, zap the hustle of even the most determined of punchers. Should this scenario unfold this weekend, and should Lemieux find himself without a plan B, the Quebecker will suddenly be all the way back at the end of the middleweight queue.

Saunders has tried to diminish the disadvantage of fighting outside his country by traveling to Montreal three weeks in advance of the match, hoping to make the foreignness, and the jet lag, fade into the background by the time he steps through the ropes. But once in the ring, if he is to overcome the danger Lemieux’s punches pose, he’ll have to make full use of his polished skills and mobility, as he did in his outing against the equally dangerous Andy Lee. Moreover, he will have to do so for what could turn out to be the most intense 12 rounds he has yet fought. The champion himself is clearly aware of this, given his declarations to the press.

“People see me and think I’m nothing but a technician,” stated Saunders when the match was announced. “But I was born to fight … David showed lots of heart against Golovkin, but the truth is I’m too agile and too good for him. If David doesn’t knock me out, he has no chance to outbox me. No middleweight in the world has my level of technique.”

These are revealing words, as they show that no matter how highly Saunders ranks his boxing capabilities, he knows it’s within the realm of possibility that Lemieux derails him with a single shot. Not for nothing do fight fans recognize punching power as the great equalizer. Odds-makers seem to be in agreement as well: they have made the champion a slight favorite to retain the belt while setting narrower odds than the supposed skill gap between the Briton and the Canadian would suggest.

Adding an extra layer of intrigue is the fact that while both fighters are 28-years old, their boxing careers have been on entirely different tracks in recent years. Lemieux is the better known of the two among North American fans because of his multiple violent outings. After leaving Gabriel Rosado a gory mess at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in 2014, he acquired the IBF strap by outpointing Hassan N’Dam in Montreal, dropping him four times in the process. Lemieux lost that title to Golovkin when his corner threw in the towel after the Laval native took a bloody beating for eight rounds, but in March of this year Lemieux scored a devastating one-punch KO over fellow power hitter Curtis Stevens. No wonder then that Lemieux’s name is synonymous with drama and bloodshed in the minds of fight fans.

Meanwhile, Billy Joe’s career looked like that of a promising talent until it didn’t. His first big bout came when he faced fellow Brit Chris Eubank Jr. in late 2014 in a grudge match. It was a bout that Saunders thoroughly dominated in the first half, only to resist a late surge from Eubank and escape with a split decision. A year later Saunders became a titlist by outpointing Lee, in a bout where he showcased his talents to an international audience that now took him seriously as a force at 160-pounds.

Unfortunately, the immediate aftermath of the Lee bout saw Saunders proclaim that fans shouldn’t expect him to take on the biggest challenges right away, as he considered himself a green titleholder who needed further development. In boxing, few things will make the buzz surrounding a worthy performance fizzle out more quickly than that sort of declaration. The karma police took note of it too, as they mired Saunders with a series of cancelled or postponed bouts and stretches of inactivity for the next two years.

Lemieux batters Rosado.

So instead of arriving at the third defense of his title—against the most dangerous puncher he’s seen yet—as a seasoned titleholder, Saunders will arrive having fought only twice in two years and having turned in lackluster performances against opponents he should have dominated. Thus it’s encouraging to finally see Saunders take a big fight, and a big risk, by traveling to North American soil for the first time. A defeat this weekend will leave him sourly questioning the series of decisions he made following his title-winning effort. But should he prevail, Saunders’ talents will at long last be truly vindicated, and his name will be more appealing than ever to the other top middleweights.

Saunders outpoints Monroe Jr.: just two fights in two years.

But in his path stands David Lemieux, who will enjoy the backing of his fellow Quebeckers this Saturday night, and who has shown that whatever he may lack in refinement and technique, he more than makes up for in power, to say nothing of his grit and will to win. And if nothing else, Lemieux sounds supremely confident heading into a crossroads battle that is a must-win for the hometown hero.

“I’m extremely well prepared for this fight,” Lemieux told reporters last week. “So, it’s not going to be easy for [Saunders]. It’s actually going to be hell for him. I’m here to knock him out. I’m here to destroy him every round. It’s 12 rounds. It’s unfortunate for him, but I’m ready for 12 big rounds.”

Lemieux: ready to destroy.

Victory will grant Lemieux yet another shot at the big time; a loss would surely represent a stern setback, and perhaps a career-defining one. Thus, Saunders vs Lemieux promises to be a highly intriguing clash, and the winner should emerge as a more than worthy challenger to Alvarez, Golovkin and Jacobs, thus bringing us one major step closer to determining who truly is the best fighter at 160 pounds. The middleweight mess is, at long last, reconciling itself right before our eyes.            –Rafael Garcia

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