On the last weekend before the winter solstice, Andy Lee and Billy Joe Saunders will wrap up a terrific fall season for the middleweight division when they face off for Lee’s WBO title in Manchester, England. In October, Gennady Golovkin beat David Lemieux by TKO to unify the WBA and IBF titles. In November, Canelo Alvarez claimed the WBC and lineal titles via unanimous decision over Miguel Cotto. Earlier this month, Daniel Jacobs stunned Peter Quillin with a Round 1 KO, to protect his WBA “regular” world title.
That’s four fights in three months, featuring seven fighters ranked in the middleweight top 10 and the No. 1 fighter from junior middleweight. I can’t remember the last time a division featured that many highly relevant fights in such a short stretch of the calender.
I’d argue that Andy Lee is the No. 4 fighter in the middleweight division. He’s No. 3, if you don’t want to accept Alvarez as a true middleweight yet, since he hasn’t actually fought at the middleweight division of 160 pounds. The only true middleweights I’d rank above him are Golovkin and Jacobs. Alvarez has a legitimate claim to ranking above Lee, due to historical circumstances.
Lee captured the vacant WBO belt last December, with one of the best stoppages of 2014, over previously unbeaten Matt Korobov. In April, Lee managed to survive with his title when he climbed off from the canvas after first and third round knockdowns against Quillin to force a split-decision draw.
Saunders will be looking to put an exclamation point onto what has been a sensation year for British boxing, by forcing Lee to leave the WBO strap in England. If he wins this fight, he’ll step up into the division’s elite.
At 26, Saunders has faced very respectable competition to work his way into the top 10. In 2013 and 2014, he beat four straight undefeated fighters, capped off with a hard-earned split decision over fellow contender Chris Eubank Jr. in November 2014.
I’m inclined to pick Andy Lee for this fight, but I have to admit, I don’t have a strong feel for Saunders’ true potential. Lee is the taller and longer fighter, as well as the more experienced, so I think that favors a guy like him, with a big punch.