Billy Joe Saunders Moves Up In Weight, To Challenge For WBO Super Middleweight Title:
On February 17, the WBO rankings were updated with two very interesting changes. The first one was that super middleweight champion Gilberto Ramirez is no longer listed as the champion and instead the No. 1 contender for the light heavyweight title currently being held by Sergey Kovalev. The second change, which is the more surprising and newsworthy, is that Billy Joe Saunders, the mandatory challenger for the middleweight title, was then ranked No. 2 at super middleweight.
These two changes are related as Ramirez’s ascension to light heavyweight meant the super middleweight title is vacant and thus, the governing body’s top two super middleweights -- Shefat Isufi and Saunders, are ordered to fight for the belt. A day after the new rankings were revealed, it was announced that Isufi and Saunders will fight for the belt on April 13 at the SSE Arena in Wembley.
The 24 hours that led to this were very shocking considering that Saunders was recently named the mandatory challenger to Demetrius Andrade’s middleweight title after the WBO ended his suspension for failing a drug test back in January.
In a sense, this makes perfect sense for Saunders to move up in weight. From a business perspective, Saunders and promoter Frank Warren have never been big fans of fighting Andrade due to the fact that Warren would have had to make a deal with long-time promotional rival Eddie Hearn, Andrade’s promoter. It was already considered a major surprise that the fight was even made for last October in the first place and that Saunders, the champion, would be fighting on the broadcast platform Hearn is affiliated in (DAZN). When Saunders was suspended and not given a license to box in Boston for the fight against Andrade, it was thought to believe that the fight wasn’t going to happen.
Now even if the fight was to get made under the same circumstances and if Saunders were to reclaim his middleweight belt, he would be stuck in a rut in terms of getting big fights for later in the future.
Since Canelo Alvarez and Daniel Jacobs, who collectively hold the WBA “Super,” WBC and IBF middleweight titles, fight for DAZN for the next 10 and three fights, respectively, a unification bout would have to go through DAZN. Doing that would be asking a lot for Warren and Saunders and they would almost certainly not be willing to go through with those fights. It would cause far less headaches in the short term future for Saunders to take advantage of the super middleweight title being vacant.
At super middleweight, Saunders does have some interesting matchups, but they’re not as intriguing as a potential fight against either Alvarez or Jacobs. There’s also the fact that the 168-pound division is currently busy at the moment as the WBC title will crown a new champion on February 23, the IBF title is in PBC territory and the WBA “Super” title is being held by Callum Smith, another fighter promoted by Hearn.
Saunders did reveal that he wishes to go back to middleweight, likely to challenge the winner of Alvarez vs. Jacobs taking place on May 4. Assuming Alvarez, the favorite in that fight, were to beat Jacobs, Saunders could get his big-money fight while not dealing with Hearn as Alvarez is promoted by Golden Boy Promotions. A deal between Warren and Golden Boy Promotions on DAZN is far more likely to happen than a Warren-Hearn partnership.
While Saunders going to super middleweight is all well and good, the move up in weight might have unintentionally caused major consequences for the sport itself.
With Saunders moving up in weight, the No. 1 spot in the WBO middleweight rankings now belongs to Golovkin, the biggest free agent in the sport. Now DAZN was the frontrunner to sign Golovkin and it still is, but it may have pushed for an unintended title fight between Andrade and Golovkin.
The WBO could likely order the two boxers to fight, which would push Golovkin to finally sign with DAZN. The original plan for Golovkin to sign with DAZN was to simply have him fight once before moving on with a third fight against Alvarez. Golovkin signing with DAZN, beating Andrade for the WBO title and having Alvarez defeat Jacobs, would start the build to an undisputed middleweight title bout during Mexican Independence Day weekend this September.
A third fight, with the proper build and for the undisputed middleweight title, will almost surely be the fight that would turn DAZN into a mainstream product and not something only hardcore boxing fans currently have.
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