One fighter who may feel a little surprised at the amount of attention he is receiving at the moment is Billy Joe Saunders. Media interest has naturally increased since he out pointed Andy Lee to win the WBO middleweight strap last month, but the degree of speculation concerning his next move (and the demands to know what that might be) is close to bordering on theatrical. He outlined his immediate plans at the post fight press conference, which were to rest over Christmas and discuss options with promoter Frank Warren in the New Year (one of which could be Miguel Cotto or Saul Alvarez according to the new champion).
Despite that, there have been incessant calls from the boxing community for him to face off with unified Kazakh terror, Gennady Golovkin. Not even a week into the aforementioned rest period and Golovkin’s representatives had made a “significant offer” to Frank Warren for a unification bout with Billy Joe receiving criticism for not being immediately forthcoming in the negotiations.
Many of the usual detractions have been leveled at the new champion. “He’s avoiding Golovkin”, “It’s the fight that boxing fans want to see”, and the increasingly popular “He’s a world champion; he should want to fight the best”. The debate has spread across the sport, taking place at such speed that the time to dissuade people from buying into Golovkin – Saunders too early may have already passed. Whatever the case, it feels as though Billy Joe is being treated a little harshly by some of the boxing media, who are largely failing en masse to put these negotiations into context. I try to provide a broader perspective below.
Firstly, a little quiz for you. What do boxers Kassim Ouma, Ismayl Sillakh, Manuel Gomez, Derrick Jefferson and Gabriel Mira have in common? Answer: they all came from relative obscurity to receive one-sided drubbings at the hands of champions making the first defense of their world title belts. There are countless more like them and, for most, it was their only moment spent in the global limelight, before once again retreating back to the fringes of world championship boxing.
Ouma was knocked out by Golovkin, Sillakh was absolutely devoured by a rampant Sergey Kovalev, Manuel Gomez put up a brave showing against Shane Mosley, but was behind on the scorecards and was flattened by a thunderous right hook in the 11th round. Heavyweight Derrick Jefferson was stopped on his feet by Wladimir Klitschko in two rounds and Gabriel Mira (who spent the majority of his career bullying mismatched opponents) was put firmly in his place by future superstar Manny Pacquiao.
Think for a moment of how highly regarded those victorious fighters named above are. All have gone on to completely re-define the sport in one way or another. Think of other hall-of-fame fighters who have followed in similar footsteps (and there are plenty to choose from); Roy Jones Jr. Evander Holyfield. Chris Eubank. Oscar de la Hoya. Bernard Hopkins. Joe Calzaghe. All, and so many more, were given the grace of at least one defense of their first world belt against opposition that offered appreciable resistance, but who were simply not of the same caliber as the defending champion.
There are exceptions of course (the ludicrously brilliant Terence Crawford being one), but there is certainly a trend when it comes to first defenses. So… back to Saunders. Why deny him the opportunity that has been afforded to so many others? Why demand that in his first defense he not only attempt to unify the division (which he seems prepared to do, judging by his interest in fighting Saul Alvarez), but that he do it immediately, against a gifted, undefeated, multiple belt-holding knockout artist? Is it simply because GGG says so? Golovkin has made his intentions to unify the division known for some time, but those ambitions aren’t the only factors to be considered.
Having been goaded into talking about Golovkin, Saunders mentioned that he would be interested in a fight if it was held in the UK. “This fight isn’t all about GGG and it needs to work for both sides… It’s a hard fight as it is and I’m going into it as a big underdog, so at least let us have some things on our terms… If I wasn’t champion, I would have taken the fight without hesitation. But I’m not [just] a challenger [as I own a world title] and I have other options to go and make money elsewhere”.
Some reasons for demanding the fight are fair. As fans, we want exciting and legitimate fights and it rarely gets more legitimate than two world champions squaring off against one another to determine who is the better. But although fighters are technically providing sporting entertainment, they are not our puppets, and they have the right to negotiate details in their contract to work in their favor. Saunders’ initial demand of £4 million ($5.8 million U.S.) was extravagant, but that wasn’t just about money; it was about the value he placed on not pursuing his own ambitions, only to be shoe-horned into fighting Golovkin on unfavorable terms; essentially, “if you want me to dismiss everything I have planned, concede control to you, and make negotiations easy by agreeing to your demands despite being a world title holder, then fine… but you better make it worth my while”.
If Saunders does defend against Golovkin, then it is an incredibly brave decision. The last time we saw the Kazakh was against hard-hitting David Lemieux, who threw caution to the wind and decided to face GGG in his first defence of the IBF belt. A commendable move, but not a smart one. He was knocked down in the fifth, knocked out in the eighth, and is now having to rebuild his career after losing considerable momentum as well as his title. Saunders is wise to avoid making the same mistake. As much as we want to see this fight (I certainly do), Billy Joe’s status as world champion shouldn’t just be sacrificed simply for the sake of propelling Golovkin forward. He firstly deserves time off, he deserves fair representation around the negotiating table, and at the very least, he deserves our patience.