Billy Joe Saunders says no place in Traveller world for losers
Middleweight isn't interested in changing public perception of his community
Billy Joe Saunders training ahead of his middleweight title fight with champion Andy Lee. Photograph: Dave Thompson/Getty Images
It may be becoming wearisome and Billy Joe Saunders this week stuck to the script after radioactive remarks during the summer. It was less than five months ago during the build-up to the cancelled September meeting with Andy Lee in Thomond Park that the middleweight challenger had a pop at Katie Taylor.
Gratuitous and vulgar but with Tyson Fury following in a similar vein some months later, woman-bashing in the sport had become something of a trend.
“I think women are there for sex every night; hard sex . . . They’re not there to put on head gear and get punched,” said Saunders in July.
Well behaved this week, Saunders’s toxic remarks will rightly follow him. There is no free pass for coming from a Traveller culture. Saunders, apart from that serious lapse, is affable and has natural ability.
Since July he’s been engaged in a bizarrely long and animated pre-fight sales pitch for the WBO middleweight title fight; Lee has been a less outspoken, more respectful presence.
But Saunders, a southpaw like his opponent, knows Saturday’s fight in Manchester is evenly matched, with Lee hoping to go one better than Bernard Dunne, who in 2009 lost the first defence of his super bantamweight title to Poonsawat Kratingdaenggym in Dublin’s O2 Arena.
Unbeaten Saunders (22-0, 12 KOs) is a smaller and more compact fighter than the 6ft 2in Lee and also five years younger than the Irishman. Something of an upstart, he is regarded as a talent with some rough edges, politically incorrect and unafraid to talk fight talk.
“Offer me the right money and I’ve no problem about smashing him up again,” he said this week about Chris Eubank jnr, whom he outpointed just over a year ago.
Saunders lives on a Travellers site in Hatfield, England, and fighting runs deep in his family. His great grandfather, the fantastically named Absolom Beeney, was a legendary bare-knuckle fighter, while his brother Tom is also a professional.
Proud of his Traveller roots, he’s aware of the prejudices that come with that. But his beliefs and his recent defence of Fury’s sexist and homophobic views while crying foul of all the derogatory “gypo” and “pikey” remarks he’s had to endure for as long as he can remember, is a contradiction lost on him.
In an intimate interview conducted in a caravan owned by Saunders’s sister in their Hatfield site and published this week in the Bleacher Report, Saunders was under no illusion about where he stood among his English neighbours.
The difference between him and Fury is that he reacts differently.
“Even if I win the world title, I’m still going to be an uneducated, dirty, f**king, gypsy bastard until the day I die,” said Fury
“That’s him, that’s the way he feels,” said Saunders. “Some people can block it out like its nothing – like me, I take no notice.”
But speaking to the sports channel ESPN, Saunders was less inhibited. The boxing and the outcome will count for everything but he has gone past the point where he can play a role in softening prejudice. In that, life had beaten him down. But he has come out the other side with greater clarity.
“It’s two Travellers against each other and it’s a very serious thing. There’s no place in our community for the loser, he will just be known as the loser. So it has been easy for me to get into shape because I know what’s in front of me,” said Saunders.
“The way I look at it now is that I don’t care about changing people’s perceptions of Travellers because if that win isn’t going to do it for Tyson, then nothing is going to do it for Tyson, and nothing is going to win it for me.
“So I just look at it and say. You know what, I’m going to try to win it for myself.”
Trained by Jimmy Tibbs, a born-again Christian and one of the most respected trainers in Britain, Saunders has not lost a fight since the Beijing Olympic Games more than seven years ago.
As an 18-year-old welterweight hope, he went out in the second round. Now he’s on the cusp once more.