Generally the titleholder in a given fight is the favourite. There are exceptions, but typically he is expected to win. He will have, in winning the title, demonstrated that he is better than most of the other fighters around and is expected to demonstrate that. Billy Joe Saunders is the exception to this.
In beating David Lemieux, spectacularly let it not be forgotten, Saunders earned some more credibility. That is to say, Saunders now has a shred of credibility at 160 pounds. Going into that fight, you’d be pressed to find anyone without the surname Saunders to enthusiastically place him among the best middleweights in the world. In taking apart a fighter we felt was a top ten contender, Saunders has some legitimate claim in the top tier middleweights.
Daniel Jacobs’ status as a top five middleweight is not in question. His deficiencies are clear, and they are made basically irrelevant by the things he does well. Few fighters could lose a championship fight and come out with a better career trajectory than they went in with, but that’s exactly what happened in the aftermath of his fight with Gennady Golovkin. Jacobs acquitted himself so well that a notoriously pro-Golovkin media landscape was calling the decision everything short of controversial. He lost fair and square, but showed a fortitude that no Golovkin opponent had yet displayed in getting off the canvas to end Gennady’s knockout streak.
Now ESPN is saying that Jacobs wants to fight Billy Joe Saunders on April 28th of next year. It’s worth exploring how this fight breaks down, because I have nothing better to do.
Daniel Jacobs is what you’d call a classic boxer-puncher. Ultimately, he’s trying to hurt you, but will be satisfied with simply out-boxing you. He is also a tremendously big guy for a middleweight. He is nearly six feet tall, and regularly comes into fights in excess of 175 pounds. That explains some of his success but Jacobs is much more than just a big man.
Jacobs’ footwork is brilliant. A fighter who can switch stances as the situation calls for it, he does an excellent job of staying outside of his opponents lead foot. When lazy analysts throw out the vague and spooky term ring generalship, they are trying describe what direction a guy is moving, either forward or backward. This is wrong, because going backward can be a legitimate strategy and is a poor way to decide who is winning a fight. What they should be describing, is who is making the other man move in a direction they don’t want to.
Defensive guys want to back up to draw fire, then shoot counters. To do this, they need to move toward in the direction of their power and way from yours. So when you watch a guy like Vasyl Lomachenko demoralize his opponents, the key ingredient is keeping his lead foot outside of his opponent’s, making him move in the wrong direction. This is what Lemieux failed to do against Saunders, because Lemieux is a sloth footed banger and Saunders is a fleet footed boxer.
The footwork becomes more pronounced when fighting a southpaw, as he will always be trying to circle to his right. Jacobs is so difficult to deal with because he has two options against southpaws. He can use his footwork in the orthodox stance to cut the ring, and if that isn’t working he can flip southpaw and negate the awkwardness. We saw him do this to some (limited) effect against Golovkin who has perhaps the best footwork in the division, if not the sport.
Saunders’ footwork is no joke, either. In watching the Lemieux fight, you could see how he truly fights off the back foot while staying just out of range. Saunders isn’t a big puncher, so there’s no point in him digging in and maintaining a perfect center of gravity. Instead, he transfers his weight onto his back leg and pivots to his right, allowing him to fire jabs and straight left hands from peculiar angles. As Lemieux learned, Saunders may not be a big puncher, but he can get himself into position to hit you clean. The difficulty he may have with Jacobs is that Danny does not try to swarm the way Lemieux does. Jacobs is more apt to cut the ring and maintain distance.
The other thing going against Saunders in this fight is timing. A pure boxer like him can only be negated if you punch with him, instead of trying to initiate. To do this you need an effective, or at very least something approximating effective jab. Jacobs has that, and he’s also got very good timing. I’m unsure at this point how good Saunders is at negating timing, but he’ll need to be able to do it against Jacobs.
In the Mikey Garcia vs Adrien Broner fight, I found myself annoyed by the broadcast and subsequent post-fight analysis. “He needs to get off off first!” Was the refrain, as though it was that simple for Broner to time Garcia. Yes, beating your man to the punch is an effective tool, but you need to first disrupt the patterns of a boxing match before you can start firing off combinations. Saunders seems smart enough to vary his timing, which he would need to do against a different but equally gifted boxer like Jacobs.
I’m pretty firmly on Jacobs’ side with this fight. I think he’s every bit as talented as Saunders is, and he negates any advantages Saunders may have. Saunders is a big boy, but so is Jacobs. Saunders is fast, but so is Jacobs. You get the idea. The difference is going to come down to temperament, I believe. Jacobs has been in wars, and he can bang with anyone at 160. Saunders struggles when the fight is successfully brought to him, which is exactly what Jacobs can do.