Two long years have elapsed since Billy Joe Saunders last had a fight of substance. That was when he took a close decision over Andy Lee to win the WBO version of the world middleweight championship. Since then Saunders has had more battles with the refrigerator than in the squared circle, although a near disaster was barely averted last December in a narrow points win over game but limited Arthur Akavov. His match with Willie Monroe Jr. on Saturday night will be just his third in almost two full years. Welcome to elite-level pro boxing in the 21st century.
Clearly, it’s not a stretch to say Saunders’ motivation to compete has been lacking after he fulfilled a lifelong dream and won a world title. Since then Billy Joe has been busying frequenting the local all-you-can-eat buffets while holding the WBO belt hostage with the help of his manager and promoter Frank Warren. Rumoured contests versus Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez were mooted but never seemed likely and it appears Warren and Saunders are content to make the Eubank Jr rematch, a bout which would do very good business in the U.K., only after we all see how Eubank fares in the World Boxing Super Series.
One would think it would be in Saunders interests to pick up a win or two in mandatory defences while delivering superlative performances that can then bolster his bargaining power with either the Eubanks or the winner of Canelo vs Golovkin. But Saunders is deeply handicapped by an alarming lack of home support and a hyper-stylistic mode of boxing that does not attract casual fans. His ignorant remarks about women and life in general portray a man content never to analyse or question anything that doesn’t ally with his own tremendous sense of self-worth. It would seem mouthy arrogance without any charisma doesn’t translate into box-office clout.
But along with the less-than-charming persona is some genuine talent. Andy Lee could barely lay a glove on Saunders, whose pure boxing ability has never been questioned, and it would be a curious spectacle to see how Canelo or Golovkin could manage to land solid punches given Billy Joe’s speed and elusiveness. As he gets set for his title defense against Monroe Jr., Saunders appears to have finally attained physical conditioning suitable for a world champion. A move to Dominic Ingles’ camp has uncovered a six pack mid-riff and with it perhaps a fresh motivation to fulfil long recognised potential.
Willie Monroe Jr. comes to England with genuine belief in himself, a belief no doubt forged on the creditable battle he had with the division king, Gennady Golovkin. Monroe boxed well and gave the champion some uncomfortable moments before succumbing in round six. Since then, a points win over Gabriel Rosado has kept Monroe in title contention. Monroe brings a low KO percentage but a name of genuine value, which is why he was chosen for this assignment by Saunders and Warren.
The 160 pound division currently is in a state of mild but unyielding depression where, at least in the perception of the public and most boxing fans, absolutely none of the ranked contenders are capable of emerging from the dark shadows cast by the two giants who stand together at the top of the middleweight mountain. In order to solidify his case as a legitimate title holder and a boxer who could potentially prove a stern examination for the winner of the upcoming Canelo vs GGG showdown, Saunders needs to not just defeat Monroe, but to win in impressive fashion. A statement win and a statement performance are what’s required.
Saunders is fighting on home turf, is favoured to win, and has a chin more than sturdy enough to withstand Monroe’s power. The danger for the Briton lies in the challenger’s natural counter-punching talent and the possibility that an over-eager Saunders will push the pace and leave himself open, thus maximizing the chances of an upset win for “El Mongoose.” But the prediction here is Saunders does just enough to notch a second title defense and put himself in a solid position for a massive payday against the Canelo vs Golovkin winner. It will go 12 rounds; it won’t be particularly eventful; it might even be controversial after Saunders fades badly down the stretch. But unless Monroe exceeds all expectations, it will be a points win for the man from Hertfordshire.
— Gary Elbert