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Andy Lee Vs Billy Joe Saunders: Who Wins And Why?

Andy Lee Vs Billy Joe Saunders: Who Wins And Why?
By Gavan Casey

WBO World middleweight champion Andy Lee and undefeated mandatory challenger Billy Joe Saunders will finally trade blows tonight at the third time of asking, in front of a raucous 21,000-strong atmosphere at the Manchester Arena.

The undefeated Saunders, who has won all 22 of his fights (12 inside the distance), correctly opens as the ever-so-slight favourite to topple Limerick's Lee; on paper, the Hatfield native's speed and slick combinations are a nightmarish prospect for the typically less active champion to contend with.

It was, ultimately, his party popper-like jab which saw him over the line in his November 2014 clash with a more defensively astute fighter in Chris Eubank Junior.

Eubank too, though edged on points by his arch nemesis 13 months ago, will have had a large role to play in Andy Lee's preparation; the WBA Interim champion trains with 31-year-old Lee under 'The Dark Lord' Adam Booth in London, and considering the Brighton middleweight's observatory and articulate nature it's hardly outlandish to suggest that the weaknesses he came so close to exploiting last year will all factor into Booth and Lee's blueprint to retain the world crown later tonight.

It's the champion's own observatory nature, however, which for me swings this tantalising bout in the Limerick southpaw's favour.

Though his core skills were cultivated both at home under Zaur Antia and in the US under the legendary Manny Steward in the Kronk Gym, Andy Lee has developed a sniper-like steady hand under Booth.

As a character outside of the ring, Lee is introverted, composed, calculated. Under the tutelage of Booth, he has translated these characteristics to the ring; watching for a weakness, a twitch, a tell. Waiting for his opponent to slip up, if even slightly. Ever-observing.

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His last three opponents - John Jackson, Matt Korobov and Peter Quillin - all share one thing in common. They never saw Andy Lee's right hand coming.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tufOQP7nLY

Lee once described it to me as 'The Right Hook From Hell', and though indeed a hook by definition, his signature fight-ender tends to travel at an almost uppercut-like trajectory. See: his 2007 knockout of Carl Daniels in our Top 10 Irish Knockouts Of The Past Decade post.

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And you need look no further than Lee and Saunders' gazillion face-offs in the last six months to realise that, tonight, the decapitator won't have as far to travel if it is to land on the 5-foot-10-and-a-bit challenger.

There really isn't any doubt about the fact that Lee will fall behind early on the judges' scorecards in front of a feverish, pro-British crowd. In fact, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that Saunders will simply box the ears off the former Irish Olympian for the first five or six rounds.

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The doubt applies to whether or not Saunders - like Lee, a throwback pugilist with supreme fundamental skills - can sustain such dominance over the 12-round distance (a distance over which Lee has never won or lost on points).

In his grudge match with then-undefeated John Ryder in 2013, Saunders cruised to an early lead before gassing as the fight turned the corner; eventually being somewhat bullied around the ring before escaping with a close but deserved decision victory.

Two fights later, versus Eubank Jr in London, one would have been forgiven for thinking Saunders was boxing an ex-rugby player for charity, such was the lesson he dished out over the first six rounds of action - or lack thereof. But by round 12, many fans and scribes alike felt Eubank unlucky not to claim at least a draw in what transpired to be an entertaining, bad-blooded scrap.

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Saunders had a similar experience with Nick Blackwell as far back as his 16th fight in 2012.

In terms of optimal periods of efficiency, Lee is Saunders' polar opposite; after ponderous starts in all three fights, he minced John Jackson in the 5th round of their contest last June, battered Matt Korobov into submission in the 6th en route to the world title six months later, and in April of this year he may well have stopped Peter Quillin in the 7th were it not for the bell.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBd9NfSxiC4

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When I asked both fighters about their vastly differing fight patterns back in July, Lee remained diplomatic and suggested with a smirk that he and Saunders "might meet in the middle somewhere." Intriguingly, Saunders put his perceived stamina issues down to the quality of his opposition, adding that he had never fought anybody of Lee's class and therefore did not train to the utmost of his ability.

For a guy whose promising career has thus far been defined by two grudge matches - to which the build-ups were about as vitriolic and vociferous as could be expected of two domestic showdowns - it was a curious observation.

Make no mistake about it, in terms of skill-levels , Saunders is one of the five best middleweights on the planet. But he's eminently more hittable and scrappy as his fights progress. And when he does take one flush, he has a predilection to go to war.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FptdFBygWUE

As does Lee to an extent; perhaps the pair's proud Traveller heritage is unleashed in the ring more often than is necessary. But where Lee's power stands him in good stead during 10-second phone booth brawls, the challenger tends to wind up retreating and looking to fend off oncoming pressure with his jab.

Crucially, when Lee goes hell for leather, he knows he has more than a puncher's chance of levelling his adversary. Saunders does it regardless as he tires - fighting is in his makeup. But the 26-year-old has never gone hook-for-hook against the calibre of weapon that Lee swings from the hips.

But despite the narrative suggesting an in-fight crossroads at the turn of round 6, Lee will need to sting early and often in order to drag Saunders into the trenches at all, and also to sufficiently set traps as the fight progresses. Take his knockdown of Quillin back in April, for example.

The return to form of Lee's left hand saw the Brooklynite buzzed on a number of occasions in the opening six rounds. As a result, down on the cards in round 7, Lee floated an almost hypnotic left hand in Quillin's direction; a throwaway effort which drew Kid Chocolate out and set him up for the sumptuous right hook which decked him for the first time as a professional.

If Saunders is to dominate this fight over the distance as many punters and observers suspect he will, his conditioning, concentration and discipline will need to be better than they have been, or he could find himself hanging on by a thread as the pair approach the championship rounds.

As for Lee, if he does go behind on the cards, he won't panic. At 31, the WBO champ seems to have unearthed a new reserve of self-assurance under trainer Adam Booth. This ain't his first rodeo, and one suspects that should he and Booth feel he's trailing heavily, 'Irish' Andy won't hesitate to unleash The Kracken at will when the time is right.

In terms of a fight pattern, think Froch - Groves I minus the early knockdown, or more pertinently, Lee's own 10th round TKO of then-unbeaten Scot Craig McEwan back in 2011.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzxL3KJ7dr0

He might fall behind early, but don't look beyond Limerick's world champion pulling another rabbit out of the hat behind enemy lines later tonight. We should really know by now.

Images via Ricardo Guglielminotti

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