Billy Joe Saunders outclassed a proud but ageing Martin Murray over 12 rounds in London on Friday night to retain his WBO super-middleweight title and will take his 30-0 record into negotiations in pursuit of the biggest prize at 12st: a fight with Canelo Álvarez.
The Mexican, who was within days of signing to fight Saunders in March before boxing shut down under the weight of the pandemic, entertains Liverpool’s undefeated Callum Smith on 19 December. If Smith were to spring the upset of the year, an all-British fight with Saunders would be a distinct possibility next summer, says Eddie Hearn, but Álvarez is the target for everyone at or around super-middleweight.
After outpointing the 38-year-old Murray, 120-109 twice and 118-110 in the third defence of his title, Saunders said: “I’ve just turned 31. I’m in my prime. I’ve been out a year and probably needed the rounds. It’s very important for me to stay in the gym now, because I’m not getting any younger.”
Hearn, his promoter, said: “The deal was done with Canelo and it was a massive blow when it was called off. We can’t waste the opportunity to find out how good Billy is, but he’s not yet mixing with the elite of the elite: [Gennady] Golovkin, Canelo, Smith.”
Murray hinted he would retire, revealing he had hurt his back two weeks before the fight, an injury which flared in the eighth round, but said: “I lost to the better man.” He will surely join the likes of Herol Graham and Kevin Mitchell as among the best British fighters never to win a world title, but he came desperately close, especially against the outstanding Sergio Martínez in Argentina in 2013.
Murray also took Golovkin 11 rounds, drew with Felix Sturm and lost a split decision to Arthur Abraham, all of them outstanding fighters. Saunders, though, had his measure in nearly every round.
“He’s a cunning old fox,” Saunders said. “He got through it and fair play to him. I hope he has a good Christmas.”
Hearn was right to point out that Saunders was hard on himself after an impressive display against one of British boxing’s best. There were no knockdowns, although Saunders reckoned he deserved one when Murray went over in the fourth; it was ruled a slip.
If a crowd had been allowed, they would have given both fighters a standing ovation at the end but, as Saunders pointed out, “it was like fighting in a cemetery”.