That Billy Joe Saunders was the enfant terrible of British boxing has been known ever since a suppressed YouTube clip resulted in Saunders being hastily moved on from the amateur ranks to the professional when he was just nineteen. What was not immediately well known was either how enfant or how terrible Saunders could be. That clip, in which Saunders was purported to have behaved in an “obscene and lewd” manner towards a French cleaning woman while traveling with the British amateur team, could easily be put down to some pugilistic equivalent of student hijinks (Saunders always professed his innocence in any case). More recent conduct by the British middleweight—which has ranged from lewd misogyny to crass opportunism—is less plausibly overlooked.
Saunders first made the news in August when he fled a Nando’s in Belfast after flinging a chicken at WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder. Then a tape emerged in September showing Saunders bluffly cajoling a female junkie from the driver’s side of his car to perform a sex act in exchange for the equivalent of £150 in crack. That nasty episode of contempt and mockery—grimly chalked up later as “banter gone wrong”—culminated in Saunders telling his interlocutor to punch a passer-by, after which he drove off to internet notoriety and a £100,000 BBBC fine. Since then the revelation of a failed drug test in August, after Saunders showed up positive for the performance-enhancing stimulant oxilofrine, and the subsequent cancellation of his fight with Demetrius Andrade have threatened to leave him permanently out in the cold.
Andrade outpointed Walter Kautondokwa on DAZN instead, while Saunders is left to his personal lamentations. A sequence of famous British fighters—including Kell Brook and Tony Bellew—have since leapt to his defense, insisting that Saunders is not a drug cheat. Likewise, promoter Frank Warren has announced legal proceedings against the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission, under whose auspices Saunders was due to fight, for “a multimillion-dollar compensation figure” after Saunders’s suspension. Warren’s defense appears to amount largely to matters of procedural basis—the MSAC adheres not to VADA’s but to WADA’s anti-doping code, under which athletes are banned from using oxilofrine, which Saunders claims to have consumed via a nasal spray, only on the day of competition. But Warren and Saunders signed up voluntarily to VADA’s testing program—only now are they unhappy with the results. As Eddie Hearn said in a recent interview, “How can you allow a fighter for his entire camp to take a drug like that—which can help you cut weight, make you stronger and make you faster and make you more dangerous in the ring? . . . This isn’t swimming.”
Since all of this, Saunders has resigned his WBO championship, according to Warren, writing in the Metro, under significant mental duress. That brings to an end, at least temporarily, one of the most bemusing title reigns in recent years. Saunders won the belt in somewhat tedious fashion against Andy Lee in December 2015, when a double-knockdown in the third round was enough to eke out an unconvincing majority decision from the judges. A year in which Saunders claimed to be chasing a fight with Gennady Golovkin came to an uneventful end when he put in a dispiritingly sluggish performance against the meager Artur Akarov in late 2016. His September 2017 fight against Willie Monroe, Jr. was most notable for the surrealist events of the weigh-in, when Saunders’s young son bizarrely punched an unsuspecting Monroe, Jr. between his legs. Saunders finally gave a glimpse of the virtuosic depth of his talents in December 2017, when he dominantly won against David Lemieux at Place Bell in Laval, in a fight televised by HBO. Then he returned to the mean.
Whether Saunders is as good a fighter as he looked against Lemieux is hard to tell. His professional career started nearly a decade ago, during which time he has fought a mere twenty-six times. Such a paltry number owes at least as much to complacency as to injury: Saunders’s maltreatment of his own body through poor dieting and bad habits has been well documented. Lemieux fought, moreover, in a style whose excrescences were tailor-made for the desultory Saunders to look good. Still, he remains the only unbeaten fighter from a famed class of 2008 Olympians whose careers have all been middling at best. Unmanning a gunslinger like Lemieux with such smoothness and control is no mean feat. There remains a sense that Saunders has more potential to fulfill. Chasing then reneging on a fight with Gennady Golovkin may be something he lives to regret.
For all Warren’s recent apocalypticism, it is hard to see Saunders’s career being laid to waste by the threadbare institutions that are meant to enforce boxing’s rules. Too many vested interests, too little care in treating seriously either performance-enhancing drugs or acts of violence outside the ring, mean that Saunders will be given ample opportunity to come again. Then he will be dressed up as a reformed character by the same tabloid newspapers that presently berate him. “I would probably have ended up in prison,” Saunders told Donald McRae on the eve of his professional debut in 2009, when asked what he would have done without boxing. “I’ve had mates stabbed and shot and ending up on a life-support machine. I’ve had two close friends in prison—one for eight years and one for five—and both tell me to keep my head down and not make the same mistakes as them.” Saunders is in the infernal machine and there is no way out.