Middleweight world titleholder Billy Joe Saunders and former titleholder David Lemieux, who have had nothing good to say about each other, have two goals in mind when they meet — to knock the other guy out, and to set up a much bigger fight.
Each of them wants a big-money showdown against unified champion Gennady Golovkin or former champion Canelo Alvarez, who will likely meet first in a rematch on May 5, but the winner will need a dance partner for later in 2018.
England’s Saunders, a southpaw, will make his third title defense when he faces mandatory challenger Lemieux, one of boxing’s most devastating punchers, on Saturday (HBO, 9: 40 p.m. ET/PT) at Place Bell in Laval, Quebec, right outside of Lemieux’s hometown of Montreal in the main event of the final major boxing telecast of the year.
There are also two scheduled 10-round bouts on the telecast: middleweight Antoine Douglas (22-1-1, 16 KOs), 25, of Burke, Virginia, against Gary “Spike” O’Sullivan (26-2, 18 KOs), 33, of Ireland, in the co-feature, and junior welterweight “The Hebrew Hammer” Cletus Seldin (21-0, 17 KOs), 31, of New York, returning to the network for his second fight in five weeks, to face Yves Ulysse Jr. (14-1, 9 KOs), 29, of Montreal.
This is your ESPN.com Ringside Seat for the fight:
Billy Joe Saunders (25-0, 12 KOs) vs. David Lemieux (38-3, 33 KOs)
Bad blood, trash talk
Lemieux and Saunders, both 28, have gone at it on social media, on a conference call with boxing media to discuss the fight and at their press conferences.
They have made it clear that, for whatever reason, they don’t like each other. Both have never been ones to hold their tongues, so if they fight like they’ve talked it could be a good fight. Stylistically, it matches Saunders’ boxing skills against Lemieux’s penchant for wanting to brawl and his massive punching power.
“I’m really excited for this fight. I’m more excited, actually, just to lay my hands on Billy Joe Saunders more than anything else. He’s got a big mouth,” Lemieux said. “It’s rare I see fighters with such a big mouth. I just hope his fighting is going to come as close as his mouth on Saturday. I’m extremely prepared for this fight. So, it’s not going to be easy for him. It’s actually going to be hell for him.
“I’m here to knock him out. I’m here to destroy him every round,” Lemieux continued. “I’m going to make him pay in the ring. All this animosity is going to come out in the ring. If he thinks he can run away for 12 rounds, he’s in a lot of trouble.”
Asked why he dislikes Saunders so much, Lemieux responded, “Well, he said a whole bunch of things. Just his character. He is who he is, and I don’t like him. I’ve never said that I doubted his chin. Regardless, he will hit the floor. And whether I win by knock out or go 12 rounds, it’s no matter. But I will drop him and I will hurt him. There are a lot of fans in England who’ve written to me because they don’t like Saunders, and they want me to get rid of him. I’ll do everyone a favor. I’ll take care of him.”
Since Golovkin stopped Lemieux in the eighth round of a one-sided title unification fight in October 2015, Lemieux has won four fights in a row, including a scary third-round knockout of longtime contender Curtis Stevens in March that is a KO of the year candidate.
Saunders has mocked Lemieux for the loss to GGG.
“I think David is a good fighter, but at the minute, he’s just the last bit of dog meat for me because Golovkin told me I am the dog himself,” Saunders said. “And I know he’s given David a bit of a beating.”
Saunders also said Lemieux’s power is overrated and that he’ll be able to outbox him.
“[He’s used it] against bums, yeah, knocking out old men,” Saunders said. “He [lost] against [Marco Antonio] Rubio. He’s a tough man with power. He lost his next [fight against Joachim Alcine] and then fought bums all the way up until Golovkin. Curtis Stevens, he’s not an A-level fighter. He’s just a step up. He’s really nothing special. He dealt with him, fair play. But he got spanked by Golovkin previous to that. He didn’t win a round against Golovkin.
“After I beat him, I’ll give him a kiss on the cheek, no problem. Lemieux shows a lot of heart when he comes to fight but the real truth is I’m too slick and too good for him. People bang on about him being this monster puncher but you can’t hit what you can’t see. We’re going to play a game of eat the jab and then I’m going to put him out like a candle.”
On the road
Lemieux has fought all of his fights in Quebec, except for five in the United States. He has yet to travel to an opponent’s hometown. Saunders will be fighting outside of the United Kingdom for the first time as a professional.
Saunders won his 160-pound belt by majority decision against Andy Lee in December 2015 and welcomed challengers from other countries for his first two defenses — unanimous decisions over Russia’s Artur Akavov last December and American Willie Monroe Jr. in September.
Now he’s heading to Lemieux’s home turf, but he said he’s not concerned by the challenge that poses.
“I’m a fighting man, a gypsy warrior, and I’ll travel anywhere on the planet to defend my world title,” Saunders said. “I’m heading into the lion’s den. Lemieux will have the whole arena behind him but that won’t make one ounce of a difference. I’ll thrive off their hate for me. Once that bell goes it’s just me and him standing in that ring. He’s in for one hell of a tough night.
“I know I will have 13,000 or 14,000 people against me on Saturday night but I can perform under that kind of pressure. I’ve boxed since I was 16, all over the world as an amateur but you still get that same fear factor, winning or losing, and travelling away to fights.”
Saunders, who will probably have to rely on the judges to win, said he is not concerned about any hometown cooking.
“Listen, I’m not concerned at all,” he said. “We’ve got one Canadian [judge], one English, and one other nationality. So it’s going to be a fair playing field. Listen, David’s already said that he’s going to knock me out. So we don’t need judges, do we? He’s already put that pressure on himself. He has to come and knock me out, and if he doesn’t knock me out, there’s no way in God’s name that he’s going to win this fight because, to me, he will be a walking punch bag.”
Aiming for the big names
While Saunders-Lemieux is for a major title and matches two of the top fighters in the middleweight division, Golovkin and Alvarez are the class of the 160-pounders. They are the two best and also bring the biggest money.
The winner of Saturday’s fight will be in position to challenge the winner of the expected Canelo-GGG rematch later in 2018 in a fight for all four major belts.
“When I win this fight, the one I want is Canelo. He’s a global superstar,” Saunders said. “He’s the one you have to beat to get recognized. [This fight is] a big step towards Golovkin and Canelo for me — the last step towards them in my eyes, so I’m ready to rock ‘n roll.”
Lemieux echoed those sentiments, stating, “These are all names that will come up sooner or later, so I will be prepared when their time comes.”
Rafael’s prediction: Lemieux by knockout.