Former middleweight world titleholder Billy Joe Saunders’ move up to super middleweight to face Shefat Isufi for a vacant interim 168-pound title was rescheduled on Monday, promoter Frank Warren announced.
The fight will take place on May 18 at the 7,000-seat Lamex Stadium in Stevenage, England, and will stream live on ESPN+ in the United States. It will be the first fight of Saunders’ career in his home area as he is from nearby Hatfield, England.
Saunders and Isufi were initially due to fight on April 13 at the SSE Wembley Arena in London. The fight was postponed two weeks ago but no specific reason was given, although Saunders had just fired longtime trainer Dominic Ingle to begin training with Ben Davison, who is also the trainer for Saunders’ good friend Tyson Fury, the lineal heavyweight champion.
Also, when the fight was originally announced, Warren said it would be for the WBO’s vacant super middleweight world title. However, Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez, who is moving up to light heavyweight, had yet to vacate. So issues also had to be ironed out with the sanctioning body.
Ultimately, the Saunders-Isufi winner would be mandated to face Ramirez for the full title or, if Ramirez remains at light heavyweight after his April 12 debut in the division, the winner would be elevated to the full titlist.
“I am very, very happy for the fight, more or less, to be taking place in my home town,” Saunders said. “Stevenage and Hatfield is my area and I am excited to be fighting in front of my home fans and I am finally home. This is my real homecoming from the time I turned pro really.”
As for the status of the title in the fight, Saunders was OK with the change and hopes to eventually face fellow southpaw Ramirez.
“It is what it is and no problem,” he said. “I shall fight this No.1-ranked opponent and I will be taking his spot and then I will fight Ramirez after. Let’s get that fight going on.
“If he moves up I would become world champion but I don’t want to win it that way because I want to beat the champion. It is all good vibes from me, I am willing to fight anybody in the super middleweight or middleweight category and put on a masterful display.”
Said Warren: “Moving up to super middleweight opens up all sorts of doors for future fights, the massive fights he craved at middleweight where his willingness to fight the other champions was not reciprocated. Bill has operated at middleweight for a long time now and reached the top, so we both now believe the time is right to expand his horizons and move up a weight. “If he is successful against Isufi — and we are not underestimating the threat he poses — Bill will either become world champion or fight Ramirez for the title should he stick around at super middleweight.”
Isufi was confident when he spoke at their press conference.
“Billy can have a million people cheering him on; there’s only going to be two of us in that ring on fight night. I will give Billy Joe a very tough night,” Isufi said.
“Billy is very good fighter, very fast and quick and a good puncher but I am very confident I will give him a tough time. I promised my father on his death bed that I would be a world champion and this is my chance.”
Saunders (27-0, 13 KOs), 29, was due to defend his middleweight belt against Demetrius Andrade, then his mandatory challenger, on Oct. 20 in Boston but the fight was canceled when Saunders failed a Voluntary Anti-Doping Association urine test conducted on Aug. 30. He tested positive for the powerful banned stimulant oxilofrine in results that came back on Sept. 26. On Oct. 9, the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission denied Saunders’ application for a boxing license because of the positive test.
Knowing he would be stripped of the title by the WBO, Saunders, who said the positive test was the result of using “a common decongestant nasal spray,” relinquished the belt, and the fight with Andrade — for which Saunders would have earned a career-high $2.3 million — was canceled.
Andrade wound up facing late replacement Walter Kautondokwa instead, knocking him down four times and winning a near-shutout decision to win the vacant title.
Saunders returned on Dec. 22 to stop Charles Adamu in the fourth round at a career-heavy 178½ pounds before announcing he would fight in the super middleweight division.
Isufi (27-3-2, 20 KOs), 29, a Serbia native fighting out of Germany, has won 10 fights in a row since an eighth-round knockout loss in 2015, but he has never faced a notable opponent.