Billy Joe Saunders vs. Shefat Isufi for vacant WBO 168 lb title on April 13
By Trevor McIntyre: Billy Joe Saunders (27-0, 12 KOs) will be moving up in weight to take on #1 WBO Shefat Isufi (27-3-2,20 KOs) for the vacant World Boxing Organisation World Super Middleweight title on April 13 at the Wembley Arena in London, England.
Saunders, 29, says he’s still fighting in the middleweight division, and will return to that division in the future. The immediate objective for Saunders is to win the vacant WBO middleweight title against a vulnerable 29-year-old German Isufi, and then facing the winner of this month’s February 23 fight between James DeGale and Chris Eubank Jr. at super middleweight. If Saunders can beat Isufi, which would seem highly likely given his lackluster resume as a pro, and then defeat the DeGale vs. Eubank Jr., winner, he’ll be able to make some good money. When Saunders does return back to the middleweight division to go after WBO champion, Demetrius Andrade, he wants to be in a better position to get a larger purse than he would have gotten as a mandatory challenger to him. The money could be much better for Saunders in facing the 6’1″ Andrade for his WBO belt as the WBO super middleweight champion than jut as a mandatory challenger.
This will be Saunders’ chance to try and win a second division world title. He previously held the WBO middleweight title, which he vacated that belt after he tested positive for the banned substance oxilofrine last August during a VADA administered test. When the Massachusetts commission chose not to give Saunders his boxing license to fight in their state against Andrade due to his positive test for the banned substance oxilofrine, Saunders vacated his WBO belt.
Saunders had planned on defending his WBO 160 lb title against his mandatory challenger Demetrius Andrade on October 20 at TD Garden in Boston, Mass. The American Andrade (27-0, 17 Kos) won the vacant WBO middleweight strap in beating Walter Kautondokwa by a 10 round unanimous decision on October 20. Andrade had since defended the WBO title once, knocking out former Saunders’ opponent Artur Akavov by a 12th round knockout on January 18 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“It is a brilliant opening for me,” said Saunders about the vacant WBO 168 lb title, that he’ll be facing Isufi for on April 13. “Me winning this super middleweight title will put me in a great position for unifications with the likes of Callum Smith, while we’ve got Chris Eubank boxing James DeGale at the weekend.”
It’s quite possible that Saunders has seen the last of the middleweight division. If Saunders beats the winner of the DeGale vs. Eubank Jr. fight, and then defeats WBA Super World super middleweight champion Callum Smith (25-0, 18 KOs) for his title, then he would be viewed as the best fighter in the 168 lb division by the boxing world. There would be absolutely no reason for Saunders to return back down to 160 to fight a non-popular champion in Demetrius Andrade for his old WBO middleweight title. Under those circumstances, the guys that Saunders would be targeting would be the likes of Saul Canelo Alvarez, Danny Jacobs or Gennady Golovkin, if he doesn’t retire in the near future.
It’s not all that surprising that Saunders is moving up to super middleweight to go after the vacant WBO 168 lb. title. Saunders, 5’11”, has always been huge for the middleweight division, and he’s struggled to make weight for the class. Recently, Saunders moved up to cruiserweight and fought light heavyweight journeyman Charles Adamu (32-14, 25 KOs) and stopped him in the 4th round on December 22 at the Manchester Arena in Manchester, England. The fight was supposed to be at light heavyweight, but the 29-year-old Saunders weight at cruiserweight at 178 pounds. The light heavyweight limit is 175 lbs. Even at 178 lbs Saunders looked in good shape. The light heavyweight division might be Saunders’ true weight class. Him draining down to 160 and 168 has got to have an impact on his power and stamina.
“There are a lot of big, big fights at this weight, but my real home of homes is middleweight, so I can move down at any time I want and be back as mandatory for my middleweight title,” Saunders said.
If Saunders moves back down to fight Demetrius Andrade for his old WBO middleweight title, it would have to be seen as a backwards move made after things didn’t workout well for him at 168 or him wanting to swerve a risky fight against one of the talented super middleweights. #2 WBO Jesse Hart will be a tough fight for Saunders if he wins the WBO super middleweight title, and the sanctioning body eventually orders him to defend against him. It’s unclear whether Saunders would be up for tangling with Hart. It would be a winnable fight for Saunders, but it would be one that promises to be grueling affair due to the punching power of Hart.
Saunders and Shefat Isufi are taking advantage of former WBO super middleweight champion Gilberto ‘Zurdo’ Ramirez (39-0, 25 KOs) choosing to vacate his WBO 168 lb title in order to move up to light heavyweight to go after champions in that weight class. Ramirez, 26, had held the WBO 168 lb title for three years since winning it in 2016. The young Ramirez finally outgrew the weight class, and decided to move up in weight. Had Ramirez chose to stay at super middleweight, it’s unlikely that Saunders would have targeted him for his WBO title, as he’s a very good fighter. Saunders would likely lose to Ramirez if he had gone that route. The WBO choosing to rank the little known Isufu has given Saunders an easy mark to win the WBO title. The other WBO top 15 contenders at 168 would have a very good chance of beating Isufu as well, especially #2 WBO Jesse Hart. He can’t be too happy seeing Saunders get a chance to fight for the vacant WBO belt against a flawed fighter like Isufi instead of him getting the shot.
Isufi has past defeats against these guys: Dennis Ronert, Tasos Berdesis and Dariusz Sek. Since his 8th round stoppage loss to Sek in 2015, Isufu has won his last 10 fights against obscure opposition. Isufi has been winning, but against little known fighters. You have to question what the WBO was thinking in giving Isufi a #1 ranking with their organization. However, this par for the course for the WBO, as they sometimes rank guys that looked embarrassingly out of place at #1. We saw that recently with the WBO ranking Walter Kautondokwa at number 1 at middleweight last year.
At super middleweight, the big fights for Saunders are as follows: James DeGale, Chris Eubank Jr., Callum Smith, Caleb Plant, Saul Canelo Alvarez, and David Benavidez. Some of those fights are ones where Saunders could lose, and that would obviously hurt his career and make things hard for him to get all of these guys to fight him. Benavidez, Smith and Canelo would be very tough outs for Saunders. However, just getting the fights against them would give Saunders a tremendous payday, so it’s all good even if he gets trounced by Callum and Canelo. A fight against the 22-year-old Benavidez likely wouldn’t be a huge money fight for Saunders, but it’s one that he could very well lose. Benavidez punches with major power with either hand, he’s young, big at 6’2″, and he cuts off the ring well. Saunders would have his hands full against Benavidez if that fight ever happens.