Billy Joe Saunders (right) extends a long right to Matthew Hall during their British and Commonwealth middleweight title fight at York Hall on March 21 in London, England. Saunders won a lopsided unanimous decision.
When Billy Joe Saunders initially signed pro forms with Frank Warren after representing Britain at the 2008 Olympics, he did so along with gold medallist James DeGale and 2007 world amateur champion Frankie Gavin. Though highly respected, Saunders was slightly in the other two’s shade.
However, like a real pro he did his talking in the ring and though he’s had to endure a few problems with his hands he’s matured into one of Britain’s best young fighters. The 23-year-old middleweight prospect who hails from Hatfield, Hertfordshire (just north of London City centre) is part of the travelling community and currently boasts an impressive 17-0 slate with 10 inside-the-distance wins.
A skilled southpaw, who is nicknamed “Superb,” Saunders won the Commonwealth middleweight crown last April with a first-round demolition of Tony Hill at the historic Albert Hall, which hadn’t housed boxing for 13 years.
Since then he’s continued to improve, posting a boxing clinic over tough veteran Bradley Pryce. He scored his career best win stopping then unbeaten Jarrod Fletcher in two rounds, before closing out 2012 with a hard-fought decision win over Nick Blackwell that saw him add the vacant British title to his growing array of regional belts.
Saunders kicked off his 2013 campaign with a wide points win over tough guy Matthew Hall and he meets unbeaten Gary O’Sullivan as part of a bumper bill from Wembley Arena in London, live on BoxNation in the UK this Saturday.
Anson Wainwright: In your last fight back in March, you impressively outboxed Matthew Hall. Could you tell us about that fight?
Billy Joe Saunders: Yeah, I mean he was a durable opponent. The game plan was to go in there and box my way to victory and that’s what I did, really.
AW: You meet unbeaten, Gary O’Sullivan, on Saturday at the Wembley Arena in London. What are your thoughts on that fight and what O’Sullivan brings to the table?
BJS: He’s a good fighter, he brings strength, fitness and he’s going to come forward and try to break me down but I’m too clever for that. He won’t be doing that. I mean, there’s levels (in boxing), and I’m just a level above him at the minute. I think he knows that, that’s why he’s got to try for the knockout. He knows he’s got a punchers chance but I don’t think anyone’s going to be beating me.
AW: You’ve been fairly busy over the last year or so, winning the British and Commonwealth titles. How do you assess your progress?
BJS: I think how I’ve pushed on is a lot to do with (trainers) Jimmy Tibbs and Mark Tibbs. I have a good camp behind me, I’ve been working hard. You learn new things every day with them. I think when you work with someone like that it gives you confidence and brings out the best in me. That’s been enough for where I’m heading so far.
I know myself. People have only seen 60 percent of me. There’s still another 40 percent to come out of me yet and I’m working on showing a little bit more when I box O’Sullivan and a little bit more again when I box Joe Ryder (already scheduled for Sept. 21 as per BBBofC stipulations after a purse bid).
At the minute I can’t really look past either of the lads. I’m lining up people like O’Sullivan who’s 16-0 with 10 knockouts, John Ryder won 14 out of 14, knocked out 10. I’m not just lining people up. I’m fighting good, world-class prospects. I’m not one of these (prospects who say) “I’ve got the British title, I’ll pick him, I’ll pick him and I’ll keep it.” Nah, I’ll fight whoever.
AW: Without getting ahead of ourselves and I’m sure you’re not looking past O’Sullivan but you are also lined up to box a grudge match with John Ryder in September.
BJS: Yeah listen, I take each fight as it comes. With me it’s all about the win and I do what it takes to get the win and the contest I have coming up. I train to get the win and I train the same as I do for every other fight and I haven’t done any different this time. You don’t change something that’s not broken. I’ve had 17 straight wins. Yeah, there’s things I need to learn and to add to my armoury but that’s about it, if anything I’m doing a little bit more for the fight.
AW: Tell us about Team Saunders, who are the key members?
BJS: I’ve got Frank Warren he’s my manager and promoter. I’ve got Jimmy and Mark Tibbs as my trainers. Robert Davis as my sports lawyer, he does my contracts. I’ve got a good little team. I’ve got some good sponsors like Rainham Steel, my good sponsor Ray who owns Lantern Recovery. I’ve got a good, good team around me. I’m surrounding myself with the best so I’m only going to bring the best out in myself. I train at TKO, Johnny Eames’ gym, in Canning Town.
AW: Could you tell us about your youth growing up?
BJS: When I was 5 I went to the gym following my older brother. There was a bit of trouble with the travelling boys where we were living. My dad took my brother to the gym and I followed, we both had good amateur careers. He had 53 fights, lost three and had four pro fights, won them all. I ended up having 86 amateur fights with only six loses so we took to boxing like a ducks to water and we needed to in our culture because there was too many kids getting punched up and fighting. Where we were brought up if you got hit it was no good running to your mum and dad crying, you got stuck in and fight back or your mum and dad would give you a smack when you went in. It was one of them – I’m not saying we had a rough, rough upbringing – but we had a hard upbringing. I knew myself, the gypsy way of life. Now seeing all of it on TV, some of it’s bulls__t , some of it’s right and everything is coming to an end now. I know my straight living is coming through boxing in that ring.
I still live on the gypsy site where I was brought up on in Hertfordshire. We’ve got a big council site and me and my family are on it. I’m looking to getting a property but who knows whether I’ll move. I don’t know yet.
AW: You were a member of the 2008 British Olympic boxing team. Could you talk to us about that experience?
BJS: They’re all good mates of mine. We all lived together for two years in Sheffield. We got to know one another well. When eight of us qualified, I was only 18, I was only a baby. I didn’t have the right people – not mate wise but advising me. I was 18 years of age and to be honest I was a little tear away. I was running here, running there and if I had put my mind to it and performed my best there was a chance of me getting gold. I beat the Cuban six weeks before he won silver.
You won’t get any better experience than at the Olympics. The pinnacle of an amateur boxer’s career is the Olympics, regardless if you get a medal because it’s the highest thing you can reach in amateur boxing.
When you’ve done that and people are throwing large sums of cash at you and you have a little baby and one on the way, it’s hard to say no (to turning pro). Don’t get me wrong, the GB funding is good. It works well and it helps young people get on their feet and do something with their life but there’s a time in your life when you need to make a decision and go with it whether it’s right or wrong. When it comes to your family, you have to do what’s right for them, not what’s best for you and what was best for them was me turning pro.
AW: As well as that you had a very good amateur career. Could you tell us about the honours and achievements from those days?
BJS: I won four nation golds, three school boy championships – I only went for them three times – three NABC, two Junior ABAs, I won four multi-nations, I won the EU championships, European championships. Every tournament I went to in England I won gold bar the qualifier. I won about 25 golds. I went through a record of 49 fights unbeaten at top level as well. That was a good achievement. Then I got beaten in Italy by a Ukrainian who I fought again and beat.
AW: Would you agree it’s fair to say that when you turned pro signing with Frank Warren along with James DeGale and Frankie Gavin that you were in their shadow first of all?
BJS: Yeah, 100 percent. I mean, rightly so as well one’s an amateur world champion and the other’s an Olympic gold medallist. I turned pro at 18; my claim to fame was reaching the Olympics at 18 years of age. The cream rises to the top at the end. People make their own decisions on who’s the best. They’re both good friends of mine. I think they’re class fighters.
AW: The middleweight division is thriving at the moment in Britain as well as the world. What are your thoughts on your domestic rivals, Matthew Macklin, Darren Barker, Martin Murray, Andy Lee, etc.
BJS: I sparred Darren Barker a couple of times, when I had seven or eight pro fights and when I got out of the ring with him the words he said to me was “You’re going to be the next British Champion.” So that was a good compliment to me. I think they’re all good fighters, but they’ve got to step up to the plate and fight each other to see who’s the best. This is why I’m lining up unbeaten prospects now. People (are) going on about big prospects, they got John Ryder, they got Gary O’Sullivan as a big prospect; they’ve got Chris Eubank Jr. as a big prospect. After I beat these two I’m going straight to Chris Eubank Jr. I know he has less experience than me but we’re all prospects, we’re all the same age, every single one of us is the same age, but I’m British and Commonwealth champion, so that tells its own tale. I’m a class above them. Yeah, they’re challenging me for it but they definitely won’t beat me for it. I’ve worked too hard to get where I’m at. My ‘0’ is of big importance to me and I train hard. I’ve run seven miles in this heat (Tuesday, July 9). I push myself to the max in everything.
So getting back to the others, Darren Barker, Matthew Macklin and Martin Murray: ‘See who the best is, fight each other.’ Do a British Super Six. I’m sure people would buy it. I’d go in it. See who’s the best at middleweight fight and whoever wins has the number one spot.
AW: How far do you think you are from fighting those guys?
BJS: I’ve got a busy 2013. I’m booked into two major fights and you know once I own my British title outright I’m ready for any of them, Matthew Macklin, Darren Barker or (Martin) Murray. By the end of 2014, somewhere in 2014, I’ll be world champion.
AW: And there’s still European level to bridge where you are now to world level.
BJS: 100 percent, I wouldn’t say no to a European title fight.
I’m in no rush at all. At the end of the day Jimmy has the final say. If you ask any fighter in the world do you want to fight such and such, if someone comes to me and says do I want to fight a prime Mike Tyson I’m gonna say yeah ‘cause that‘s a fighters nature. That’s where you need someone with the experience to know when to take those sort of fights.
AW: What about on the world stage, what are your thoughts on that?
BJS: With Jimmy Tibbs this is where he comes into play. If it was up to me I’d fight all of them tomorrow. Jimmy Tibbs comes in and he says “You’re 23, Billy Joe, they’re all 30, 31 some like the world champion (Sergio Martinez) is 38, they’ve got maturity and they’ve only got that at 30,” so what am I going to be like when I’m 30 and I’m only 23. I do believe I can mix with most of them names now, I’m only 23 and had 17 fights but (I’ve also got) the experience I’m getting with Jimmy Tibbs and working with Frank Warren. If I beat Gary O’Sullivan, I’m going to be ranked number three or four by the WBO that’s a big rating to have you know. It’s not long before the crack comes.
AW: What do you enjoy doing with your time away from boxing?
BJS: I like playing football (soccer) with my boys, I love my football. I got horses. There’s my family, I’ve got two little boys so obviously when I’m in training I don’t see a lot of them but when the training over I try see them as much as I can.
AW: In closing do you have a message for the middleweight division?
BJS: Over the next 18 months they’re going to see what Billy Joe Saunders is about. I’m not going to blow my own trumpet, saying what I can do and can’t do, I’m going to let my fists do the talking and my skills show what I’m about and what I can do. I think a lot of people are going to see a lot of me in 2013 and 2014.
Photos / Scott heavy-Getty Images, Clive Rose-Getty Images, John Gichigi-Getty Images