Saturday’s big shebang in Las Vegas has diverted the spotlight from two important boxing shows in England. At the Copper Box Arena in London, Billy Joe Saunders defends his version of the middleweight title against Willie Monroe Jr. in a battle of southpaws. At the Echo Arena in Liverpool, hometown hero Callum Smith meets Sweden’s Erik Skoglund in a battle of unbeatens. The winner advances to the semifinals of the World Boxing Super Series super middleweight tournament.
Saunders (pictured) owns the WBO 160-pound belt. It is the only significant piece of middleweight hardware that will not reside with Gennady “GGG” Golovkin or with Canelo Alvarez when the smoke clears on Saturday night.
Representatives of Saunders and Golovkin were deep in negotiations for a match this summer that would have been held in Kazakhstan. Negotiations ceased when Team Canelo stepped forward with a more lucrative offer, pushing Billy Joe aside.
By all indications, Golovkin and Saunders will now meet in December in London — assuming, of course, that both prevail on Saturday, and that’s a very big “if.”
The grandson of a prominent bare-knuckle fighter, Saunders (24-0, 12 KOs) is a member of the colorful Traveler community, a group that includes the Fury cousins, Andy Lee, and rising heavyweight contender Nathan Gorman, among others. At age 18, he represented England in the Beijing Olympiad, advancing to the second round.
Billy Joe won the WBO title from the aforementioned Lee in a close and entertaining fight. Prior to that, he claimed a Lonsdale Belt outright with a split decision over Chris Eubank Jr. in a match that was highly anticipated in England. Eubank came on strong, but it was too little, too late. The loss to Saunders remains the only blemish on his record.
Saunders was on the shelf for almost all of 2016 with a hand injury. In his last fight, in December of 2016, he successfully defended his title with a unanimous decision over unheralded Artur Akavov in Glasgow, but his performance left much to be desired. Indeed, after the match he grabbed the microphone and apologized to his fans for his poor showing.
A boxer lacking a big punch is at a big disadvantage when he goes on the road as he will seldom get the benefit of the doubt from the judges. That’s the problem facing feather-fisted Willie Monroe Jr. (21-2) who has stopped only six opponents in 23 chances.
Akin to Saunders, Monroe has a boxing pedigree. His great uncle Willie “The Worm” Monroe was one of only three men to defeat Marvin Hagler. This is his second crack at a title. He was out of his league when he fought Triple-G in May of 2015, absorbing a bad beating in a fight that was halted in the sixth round. But Monroe is a slicker boxer than Saunders and by all indications more dedicated to his craft and several years have elapsed since Billy Joe defeated a decent opponent in a dominating fashion.
Callum Smith (22-0, 17 KOs) spurned a match with Anthony Dirrell for the vacant WBC 168-pound world title to compete in this tournament. (The WBC then appointed David Benavidez and Ronald Gavril to fight for this belt.)
The biggest and most talented of the four fighting Smith brothers, Callum was named the second seed. If all goes according to plan, he will meet countryman George Groves, the top seed, in the championship match.
Erik Skoglund (26-0, 12 KOs) hopes to spoil those well-laid plans, but the 26-year-old Swede will be up against it in Liverpool where Smith has an avid following.
Although Skoglund is undefeated, he is very much a mystery fighter, having fought his last 20 pro fights at venues in Scandinavia against questionable opposition. One thing that may be in his favor is that he is more experienced.
Owing to the fact that Callum Smith has dispatched 10 opponents in the opening frame, Skoglund has answered the bell for almost twice as many rounds.
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