Billy Joe Saunders had things pretty much his own way against a brave but past-his-best Martin Murray and will next hope for a marquee showdown
On talent alone, Billy Joe Saunders may be the best fighter, pound-for-pound, in Britain. On his resume, he would struggle to make the top five. A combination of self-sabotage, misfortune and circumstance has prevented the Hatfield traveller, an unbeaten two-weight world champion, from securing the type of fight that secures or enhances a legacy. Now 31 and the current WBO ruler at super-middleweight, Saunders must make up for lost time if he wants to leave the sport with more than his name in the record books and a large chunk of change in the bank.
Saunders hopes the likes of Canelo and GGG still lie in his future, but the opponent tonight at Wembley Arena on a Matchroom Boxing show was veteran Martin Murray, an unsuccessful world title challenger four times previously. The man from St Helens looked unfortunate not to get the verdict in at least two of those shots but appeared to be just past his prime at 38, having recently contemplated retirement and with few outside his inner circle picking the upset here. For once, the general consensus got it bang on, as Saunders took a unanimous decision over 12 rounds, following a comfortable and dominant display, explosive only in patches.
Slick southpaw Saunders surprisingly boxed from centre ring early on, probing with his jab and feinting as Murray circled behind a tight guard and took a look. It was even more curious from Murray’s perspective, as he was not about to win a long-range boxing match with the more skilful, fresher champion. Saunders doubled his sharp jab, employing deft head movement and fast feet to stay, literally, a step ahead. Saunders pivoted and landed a lovely left uppercut through the arms in round three. Murray, never a volume puncher, threw notably little leather. Murray, brave and mentally very strong, looked to have lost each of the first four rounds. He tasted the canvas in the fourth but it was ruled no knockdown.
From the fifth Saunders, growing in confidence, began to plant his feet more and unload in combination. Murray was sporadically effective with snappy single counters but was outlanded and outmanoeuvred. Saunders boxed fluidly and accurately, did little wrong, but this fight proved once again that Billy Joe requires a perceived threat to approach the supreme form he showed against Chris Eubank Jr, Andy Lee and, most memorably, David Lemieux. He put his foot back on the gas in round eight, but landed a low left hand which disrupted his momentum. The infraction did inspire Murray to close the gap quicker, although it got rough and messy with heads banging and more holding.
Saunders enjoyed a dominant ninth, Murray able only in flashes to fire back with the venom of his peak. Trainer Jamie Moore, in the corner of the fighter he inherited from their shared mentor, the much-missed Oliver Harrison, implored his charge to push on but, as a former high-level operator himself, probably recognised this was easier said than done. Saunders’ coach, Mark Tibbs, also demanded activity, keen to prevent his man, in control, falling victim to laziness. The champion responded, keeping his productivity levels up in the final two sessions.
He took the deserved wide verdict, 120-109 (twice) and 118-110, and now must grasp the nettle and face a real threat, ideally a big name. As for Murray, he deserves credit for sticking this out but it may be time for him to hang up the gloves.
The chief support, a WBA lightweight eliminator, saw Belfast’s powerful former world title contender (at 130lbs) James Tennyson destroy the previously unbeaten but untested Canadian Josh O’Reilly in the opening round, having dropped his rival twice and hammered him with heavy blows.