Billy Joe Saunders has said training with Tyson Fury has helped give him the belief that he can salvage his career.
The former WBO world middleweight champion last year lost his title after failing a drug test and has also missed out on fights against big names such as Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin.
But the English boxer hopes victory on Saturday live on ESPN+ in the US injects new life into his career, which he admits is nearing its end.
Saunders (27-0, 13 KOs), 29, takes on Germany-based Serbian Shefat Isufi (27-3-2, 20 KOs), 29, at the Lamex Stadium, Stevenage, which is for the full WBO world super-middleweight title, rather than just the interim belt. Mexican Gilberto Ramirez defended the WBO belt five times in four years but last month stepped up to light-heavyweight in a non-title bout and Saunders-Isufi had initially been set to contest the interim title.
“We will see when I box at this new weight, but I won’t have to boil myself down,” Saunders told ESPN. “I feel more strength at the weight and my weight has been good all the way through and I’ve just got to put it into a performance.
“Shefat Isufi is very strong and he’s got punch power because he’s stopped 20 out of 27 wins, but I believe my skills set will be too much for him.
“I believe Ramirez is moving up and won’t be performing at super-middleweight no more so that’s great news for me and Isufi that we get to fight for the full title.”
Saunders has changed trainers, not for the first time in his career, and left Dominic Ingle’s gym in Sheffield to base himself at former world champion Ricky Hatton’s gym on the outskirts of Manchester, where he works with trainer Ben Davison.
Former world heavyweight champion Fury also works with Davison at the same gym and Saunders, who like Fury comes from a Gypsy background, said the move has re-energised him. Fury made a successful comeback last year after troubles with depression, drink and drugs.
“Me and Tyson training at the same gym is great and we rub off on each other,” said Saunders. “I’m at Hatton’s Gym 24/7. I’ve got a caravan in the car park in Manchester there.
“I needed a complete change in everything. I was a bit stale there [in Sheffield] and it was a bit overcrowded for what I needed. Golovkin and Canelo were tied up together last year and 2018 was just a bad one for me. I needed a new start.”
The Massachusetts State Athletic Commission (MSAC) denied Saunders a boxing license to defend his WBO world middleweight title against American Demetrius Andrade in Boston on October 20 last year after the English boxer tested positive for the stimulant oxilofrine — induced via a nasal decongestant spray — on August 30.
Under World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and UK Anti-Doping (Ukad) rules, oxilofrine is only banned in competition, meaning a fighter is only in breach of rules if the substance is detected in his stem on the day of the fight. Saunders also did not breach the rules of the British Boxing Board of Control.
“Anywhere in the US that fight would have taken place, but they banned me and I lost the title,” Saunders told ESPN. “It’s behind me now but I believe I would still be [WBO] world middleweight champion if it wasn’t for that.
This will be the first time Saunders has boxed in his home county of Hertfordshire as a professional when he steps out at the home of Stevenage FC, who are in the fourth and bottom league of English professional soccer.
He added: “My goal is to keep winning, become a two-weight world champion and retire in two years at 31.
“31 and I’m out of it, so I need to get my skates on. It was going to be 30, but with everything that happened last year I’ve put it back a year.”