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Andy Lee aiming high if he deals with Billy Joe Saunders

Andy Lee - Photo by Chris Farina
Fighters Network
Lee vs. Korobov (Photo by David Becker - Getty)

Andy Lee stops Matt Korobov in December 2014 to claim the vacant WBO middleweight title. Photo: David Becker, Getty Images

The action has been coming thick and fast in the middleweight division of late and fight fans could be in for another quality encounter when WBO 160-pound titleholder Andy Lee defends his belt against fellow southpaw Billy Joe Saunders in Manchester, England, on Saturday.

Lee, who fights out of Limerick, Ireland, won the biggest fight of his career a year ago when he sensationally stopped the heavily favored Matt Korobov in six rounds to claim the vacant WBO title. Invigorated after fulfilling his dreams, Lee was determined to stay busy but fate had other ideas.

“This year has been a bit stop-start,” said Lee with a sigh. “My first defense ended up being a non-title bout (because Peter Quillin failed to make the middleweight limit prior to their 12-round split-decision draw in April) and then we’ve had two cancellations in the lead-up to this one with Billy Joe.

“That’s just boxing, things don’t always go smoothly, but the important thing is that I’m still champion and I aim to be champion after this fight.”

Saunders (22-0, 12 knockouts) has done everything asked of him in his professional career to date. The Englishman has annexed British, Commonwealth and European belts and handed Gary O’Sullivan, John Ryder and Chris Eubank Jr. their first professional losses in high-profile domestic matchups.

Lee, who is rated No. 3 by THE RING at 160 pounds, assessed his opponent in detail: “Billy Joe Saunders is a slick boxer; he’s very quick and he likes to set a high tempo. I need to be careful because he’ll be hungry and I definitely can’t afford to have an off-night.

“I’m taking this challenge very seriously and I’ve been training extremely hard. I have to deal with everything Billy Joe presents and match him in terms of work rate in the early rounds. As long as I stop him from picking up an early lead, this fight will go my way.”

Those who favor the champion point to his experience. The battle-hardened Irishman has been through adversity and regrouped following stoppage losses to Brian Vera and Julio Cesar Chavez, in 2008 and 2012 respectively, and also turned the tables, mid-fight, to produce sensational stoppage victories over John Jackson (in June 2014) and Korobov.

Billy Joe Saunders (L) in action with John Ryder during their British and Commonwealth middleweight title bout on Sept. 21, 2013 in London, England. Saunders won a close unanimous decision. Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Billy Joe Saunders (L) in action with John Ryder during their British and Commonwealth middleweight title bout on Sept. 21, 2013, in London, England. Saunders won a close unanimous decision. Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Saunders, despite being rated No. 4 by THE RING, is unproven in these areas and many experts predict that the 26-year-old will be a fish out of water should the bigger hitter land flush.

“Billy Joe has been brought along the right way,” said Lee, who is 34-2-1 (24 KOs). “He was matched favorably early on and, as the A-side, was always the favorite coming in. He’s never been tested, or answered the questions that I’ve had to answer in my career.

“He will be asked those questions for the first time, in the biggest fight of his life, whereas I’ve proved myself on numerous occasions. In that sense, there is a real difference in terms of experience but we’ll see what happens. I have nothing but respect for him as an opponent.”

The jury is out on what type of fight the fans can expect. Both Lee and Saunders had exceptional amateur careers and are highly skilled. With that said, neither is known for being a one-trick pony and with so much on the line, one can hopefully expect some serious ebb and flow.

“I think it will be a technical battle but there will be plenty of exchanges,” Lee said. “We’re both boxers, even though I’ve been involved in a few brawls, and Billy Joe is well-known for letting his hands go, so I foresee an intense boxing match with plenty of action.

“We’re both positive southpaws so stylistically this is a very good matchup. I’ll be fighting one round at a time and putting them in the bank, but if there is an opportunity for a stoppage then hopefully I can take advantage of it.”

Lee was pegged as a future world champion by the late great Emanuel Steward and after stopping Korobov, he dedicated the achievement to his former trainer as well as his current coach, Adam Booth, whom he credits for making him a “complete fighter.”

Should he come through against Saunders on Saturday, however, Lee will have a new mission as he enters the twilight of his career.

“I’m not looking past Billy Joe Saunders and I don’t want anyone thinking that I am,” said the defending champion when asked what could come next. “I could give you a better answer after December 19, but if I take a step back then I acknowledge that Gennady Golovkin is the man at middleweight, so it would be between him and Daniel Jacobs if he’s available.

“If and when I beat Billy Joe Saunders, I will only go for the big fights. I’m 31 years old and I don’t have much left to do in the game. In all honesty, I feel as though I’m at my peak and with the training I’m getting from Adam, it’s time to test myself against the very best. That starts with Billy Joe Saunders, who is my number one challenger.”

Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and has contributed to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing