In one of the more left field stadium shows in recent memory, Stevenage Borough’s Lamex Stadium hosts World Championship boxing this Saturday night. Billy Joe Saunders, from nearby Hatfield, aims to become a two weight World Champion when he tops the bill in a bid for the now vacant WBO Super Middleweight Title. German based Serbian, Shefat Isufi, is the uninspiring co-challenger.
The full Title is on the line by way of the Mexican, Gilberto Ramirez deciding to vacate the belt following his move up to Light Heavyweight. Thankfully, the original idea of an interim Title fight between the two has now subsided as a result of Ramirez’s move. BT Sport is the channel to catch the card on in the UK, with ESPN+ picking up the USA rights.
Billy Joe Saunders (27-0, KO13) v Shefat Isufi (27-3-2, KO20) – 12 Rounds, Vacant WBO Super Middleweight Title. Billy Joe Saunders will look to put a nightmare eighteen months behind him in his home county of Hertfordshire, by catapulting himself back into the elite class reckoning with a win this Saturday, and he will add a second World Title in a second different weight class if successful.
Inactivity has dogged his recent years in the sport, along with serving a costly ban for taking a banned substance, just when he was involved in the most important period of his career. A former British, Commonwealth and European Champion, Saunders made the ultimate step up, and captured the WBO Middleweight Title in December 2015. He dethroned Andy Lee in Manchester, knocking the Irishman down twice, before winning a majority decision.
The win would be both a blessing and a curse, as Saunders would not defend his newly won crown until nearly a year later thanks to injury, and he returned in a drab point win against Artur Akavov in the obscure outpost of the Lagoon Leisure Centre in Paisley, Scotland. It would be another nine months wait for more action for Billy Joe, and he soundly outpointed Willie Monroe Junior in twelve largely uninspiring rounds.
In fairness to Saunders, he seems to like to rise to the occasion, just as he did when beating rival Chris Eubank Junior back in 2014, and when he travelled to Canada to defend his belt against the big punching David Lemieux in December 2017, many thought it would be a dangerous assignment for him.
They needn’t have worried, as Saunders turned in a career best display to diffuse Lemieux in a clinic, thrashing the home fighter in his own back yard in Laval, Quebec to make the wider boxing world take notice. Big things seemed to be on the horizon but fights with Gennady Golovkin and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez just couldn’t be pinned down.
Following two withdrawals through injury for a scheduled fight with Martin Murray, the next chapter in a stop start campaign was a defence against the dangerous, unbeaten and awkward Demetrius Andrade, and this was signed to take place in Boston in October 2018. In a devastating twist, Saunders was denied a licence to box, and had to vacate his belt, when testing positive for Oxilofrine, a stimulant, which Saunders claimed to have taken in a nasal spray. This was only banned in the eyes of the Massachusetts Commission, with the British Boxing Board of Control not having the item on their banned list. Saunders vacated before he was likely stripped. This also coincided with a big £100,000 fine he received for posting an online video encouraging a drug addict to punch an innocent passer-by.
All of this led to Saunders’ stock dropping considerably, and he was forced to start from scratch effectively, featuring way down the card in Manchester on the Josh Warrington v Carl Frampton bill. He shook off ring rust with a fourth-round retirement win over the 41-year-old Charles Adamu, weighing a career high 173 pounds.
He has been afforded a chance to get his career back on track, at a venue minutes away from him this weekend, and it’s a great chance to become a two weight World Champion. His promoter, Frank Warren, has used his close ties with the WBO to good effect, getting Billy Joe a shot at their vacant Super Middleweight bauble.
Out has gone the Ingles and Sheffield as his training team and base, and he is now under the guidance of Ben Davison, whose reputation grew strongly with his handling of Tyson Fury against Deontay Wilder. His opponent is a man not likely to strike fear into him. Shefat Isufi is on a ten-fight winning streak and gains a chance at a World Title due to his lofty ranking as the WBO Intercontinental Champion.
A professional since April 2010, Isufi had two draws on his slate in his first three fights. He went on an eleven-fight winning streak, before suffering back to back losses in March 2014. He lost his unbeaten record on points to the then unbeaten Dennis Ronert in a bid for the IBF Youth Title, bizarrely up at Cruiserweight, and two weeks later (according to Boxrec) he travelled to Greece where debutant Tasos Berdesis comfortably outscored him over six rounds.
The rebuild saw five straight wins over non-descript opposition, before Dariusz Sek handed Isufi his first stoppage defeat. All three judges had the fight level after seven rounds, but Isufi, suffering with a broken nose, was pulled out by the ringside doctor.
He hasn’t been beaten since, mainly due to him operating at a low level. He has faced opponents with padded or adverse records and picked up the fringe WBO Title with an eleventh-round knockout of the then 31-1 David Zegarra in Munich.
He defended the belt twice, a wide point win against Rafael Sosa Pintos in February 2018 in Hungary, was backed up in his last fight with a comfortable enough outscoring of Mohamed El Achi in July. He will be grateful of the opportunity at a major World Title, but surely much will not be expected of him at the home of the English League Two club.
Prediction: It will be interesting to see if Saunders has knuckled down and if he has tweaked his skill set at all since linking up with Ben Davison. He will be desperate to put on an eye-catching display in a bid to attract the big players at Middle and Super Middle to the table. Isufi though will possibly look to make the fight as boring as possible and may not afford “BJS” the chance to shine, by spoiling and fiddling his way through the twelve-round distance. I can see Saunders having to endure several periods of frustration and having to settle for a dominant point win. His natural weight is at Middleweight, and a clash with Demetrius Andrade could still be a possibility. Saunders will hope that his niggles and out of the ring issues are firmly behind him, and he can look forward to bigger and better things for the rest of the year and beyond.
What are your predictions? Let us know in the comment section below.