Billy Joe Saunders vs. Shefat Isufi for FULL WBO 168 lb. title
By Scott Gilfoid: It’s official that the full WBO super middleweight title will be on the line for the May 18th fight between former WBO 160-pound champion Billy Joe Saunders (27-0, 13 KOs) and #1 WBO Shefat Isufi (27-3-2, 20 KOs) when they battle it out at the Lamex Stadium, in Stevenage, UK.
Saunders and the 29-year-old Isufi were previously going to be fighting for the interim WBO super middleweight title. Gilberto ‘Zurdo’ Ramirez has reportedly vacated his WBO 168 lb title as of Saturday, so the strap will be available for the Saunders vs. Isufi fight this month on the 18th of May when they fight.
As for Ramirez, he plans on making a go of it at light heavyweight. He wants to challenge WBO 175-pound champion Sergey Kovalev for his strap. Top Rank Boxing promotions has a mini-monopoly at light heavyweight with three of the four champions in the weight class being signed with them. Gilberto can take his pick of which champion at 175 that he wants to face. If not Kovalev, then he can face IBF champ Artur Beterbiev or WBC belt holder Oleksandr Gvozdyk. All three of those fighters are signed with Top Rank. The young 27-year-old Ramirez has his eyes on the arguably most vulnerable of the belt holders at light heavyweight in 35-year-old Kovalev. But he’s going to need to wait for Kovalev to finish defending his belt against his mandatory challenger Anthony Yarde, who he’ll be facing next in the summer.
With Ramirez vacating his WBO super middleweight title, it puts Saunders, 29, in an excellent position to capture the vacant WBO title against the German based fighter Isufi this month. You hate to rule out a victory for Isufi, but it’s very hard to see him winning this match. Isufi’s resume is shockingly poor for a #1 ranked contender. The World Boxing Organization made themselves look bad with their choice of Isufi as their #1 ranked contender at 168. There’s only one reasonably talented fighter on Isufi’s entire nine-year pro resume, and that’s Dariusz Sek, who stopped him in the eighth round in July 2015. Isufi has won his last 10 fights since that loss, but he’s done it against dreadfully poor opposition. This is a race to the bottom for WBO to allow fighters with records as horrible as Isufi to be ranked #1 with their organization. The way Isufi has been matched, he should be ranked at the 200 spot, and nowhere near #1. The number one ranking the WBO has given Isufi just kind of shows you how far the sport of boxing has to go. Saunders’ last opponent Charles Adamu would likely beat Isufi.
Saunders has been able to quickly right the course of his career after he tested positive for the banned substance oxilofrine on September 27 last year. The test was conducted by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) last summer on August 30. Saunders was scheduled to defend his WBO middleweight title against his mandatory Demetrius Andrade last October at TD Garden in Boston, Mass. However, the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission denies Saunders a boxing license in their state, which ruled out him being able to defend his WBO middleweight title against Andrade on October 27. Saunders then vacated the WBO belt before the sanctioning body could strip him. Andrade subsequently defeated little known fighter Walter Kautondokwa (17-0, 16 KOs) by a 12 round unanimous decision to capture the vacant WBO title last October to become the new champion. Kautondokwa was another fighter that the WBO ranked high, but not quality wins on his resume. Just some unknown fighter that the sanctioning body had rated high for some reason. A puffy looking Saunders returned to the ring on December 22, weighing 178 ½ pounds in stopping light heavyweight journeyman Charles Adamu in the fourth round on the undercard of Josh Warrington vs. Carl Frampton at the Manchester Arena in Manchester, England. Saunders’ six month suspension with the WBO expired on January 22, and they installed him at #2 with their organization at super middleweight. That was a questionable move by the WBO, given the fact that Billy Joe had never fought at 168 before, and that he was coming off of a suspension for a positive test for the banned substance oxilofrine. Nevertheless, the WBO gave Saunders a #2 ranking at super middleweight after he announced that he was moving up to 168. Initially, Saunders assumed that he was fighting Isufi for the vacant WBO super middleweight title. Ramirez later said that he wasn’t sure if he would stay at light heavyweight or not, and that he might return to super middleweight to resume defending his WBO title. However, as of today, it’s now official that Ramirez is vacating his WBO super middleweight title, and Saunders’ fight with Isufi will be for the full WBO 168 lb strap on May 18th.
Obviously, it would look better on the WBO’s part to have waited until Saunders at least had one fight under his belt before they sanctioned a match between him and Isufi for their vacant WBO super middleweight title. It looks kind of odd that Saunders is being allowed to fight for the vacant WBO 168-pound title without having fought anyone in the division. By the very least, the WBO should have required that Saunders face someone like Juergen Braehmer before they gave the green light to a fight between him and Isufi for their title. Of course, it’s pure craziness that Isufi is ranked #1 with the WBO based on the quality of the opposition that he’s faced. When you look at it as a whole, it makes somehow that Saunders is now ranked #2 with the WBO and fighting for their WBO super middleweight title against Isufi.
Saunders vs. Isufi will be shown on BT Sport in the UK, and streamed on ESPN+ in the U.S. It’s unclear why ESPN is bothering to show this fight in the United States, as neither of them are well known fighters, and it’s not likely to bring in many subscribers if any. Saunders-Isufi is a terrible fight either way you want to look at it. If Saunders wins the WBO strap, he’ll at least be able to extend his title as a champion longer, because the WBO has mostly mediocre fighters ranked in their top 15 at super middleweight. That’s why Gilberto Ramirez was able to remain the WBO’s 168 lb. champion for three years after capturing the strap in 2016. There was no one in the WBO’s top 15 for him to fight.